The perfect gin and tonic

Design a gin to your taste. Michael Edwards spends a day at Nelson’s Distillery and School, Uttoxeter.

Nelson's distillery and school

When it comes to gin we’ve all got our own tastes. “There’s a gin out there perfect for you,” said Dave, our gin guide for the day, “though sometimes you just have to design it for yourself.”

Gin has had a rollercoaster history. Taking “Dutch courage”, fighting alongside the Dutch versus the French in the 17th Century, English soldiers discovered gin and brought it back to Blighty.

As it was cheaper than beer, with lower duty, and far safer than water, mothers gave it to their kids – until the ale brewers paid for a campaign to discredit “Mother’s Ruin”. Memorable artwork of London’s gin-sizzled streets, by William Hogarth, encouraged the Government to raise duties. Today Hogarth’s “fake news” is exhibited in Art Galleries.

Until recently gin was something of an unfashionable Sunday morning tipple at the Golf Club. Once Sipsmith’s had successfully challenged the law banning small distilleries – long ago the government had imposed minimum annual production levels to make small scale smuggling illegal – the 21st Century gin explosion began.

66m bottles were sold in the U.K. in 2018 and any forecasts in excess of 80m for 2019 would be a good bet. It’s a sign of the times that The Archers, that barometer of British life, is running a gin distillery story-line.

Currently there are over 300 craft distilleries in the UK, “but nobody knows exactly how many,” advises Dave our gin guru. “Some weeks two will open and one will shut.”

These distilleries are creating a whole new range of flavours and distilling bespoke gins for pubs and restaurants. Nelson’s have great hopes for their deliciously but gently spicy Temur Gin, named after the high-altitude Nepalese village where the spice grows.

Incidentally, the Nelson’s name was prompted by Horacio Nelson who was so fond of gin that he founded a distillery on Menorca. Also, the distillery’s founder, Neal Harrison was honouring his maternal grandfather, another Nelson.

Arrive at Nelson’s Distillery and School, near Uttoxeter, around 10am and by 3pm you will have designed, distilled and tasted your very own gin. You will have waxed and sealed your bottle too, in a very Generation Game moment.

You can bring your own botanicals but Nelson’s have around 60 flavours for you to choose from.

Nelson's gin

“One visitor brought flowers and fruit all the way from Australia to create a gin that told the story of his hometown Down Under,” said Dave. That’s the charm of gin, so often it tells a story of places. There are gins where the botanicals are seaweed based, foraged from local villages. Nelson’s have Bladderwrack if you want to create a gin celebrating beach walk holidays.

Dave begins by shattering some myths. Freeze your glasses and forget the ice – it dilutes the gin. Good quality gin can be savoured without tonic. Our love of gin and tonic is a legacy of colonial rule in India. Taking anti-malarial quinine the colonials required gin in the tonic water to mask the bitter taste. Dave insists that tonic is purely an optional extra.

There’s an art to building and multi-layering the taste of your gin. Decide on that initial flavour. Perhaps something zesty like lemon or floral like elderflower. The next stage is to build in some mid-taste body, perhaps with some fruit maybe bitter orange, cassia quills or plums. Or cacao for a chocolate flavour.

Never forget the need for a lingering aftertaste, you don’t want a taste that’s too “thin”. A gram of chilli will provide a warm afterglow though pink peppercorns do the job more subtlety. Finally, there’s the legally required juniper. If it ain’t got juniper it ain’t gin. A mere 12 grams makes it a gin, a whopping 26 grams brings it into that category of London Dry Gin where juniper is the dominant taste.

Nelson's distillery and school

Once the botanical choices have been made and approved by Dave, something of a nervous Chemistry lesson moment there, it’s time to return to your own individual copper still and heat your botanicals and alcohol. For the record he merely suggested adding coconut to help blend the flavours.

It’s a working lunch at your science-lab style bench, keeping an eye on both temperature and drip-rate as your gin distillery.

As the first drips emerge Dave encourages me to taste a drop even though it is around 83% proof. My aim had been to produce a Christmas Gin. Nelson’s keep a record of your recipe and will produce bottles to order whenever required.

I can taste the Tonka Beans included to evoke Christmas Cake marzipan, cinnamon to suggest mulled wine and bitter orange to recall all those mince-pies of Christmas past. Finally, Dave adds half a bottle of reeds-filtered water to bring my distillation down to a respectable 42.3% proof.

The rest of the class sip my gin, proclaim it the very essence of Christmas, and declare it a success.


Nelson’s Distillery & School

Unit 5A
Grindley Business Village
ST18 0LR

Telephone:  07399 455436 | E-mail: enquiries

A day at Gin School for a single still costs £115 including coffee, lunch, gins and taking away your own bottle.

A shared still costs £145.

The Hilton at St. George’s Park, Burton-upon-Trent just a 30-minute drive from Nelson’s provides a very comfortable base your visit.  Double rooms, with breakfast, start from £87.

Last modified: October 11, 2021

Written by 12:35 pm Around The UK