If you follow me on my social channels you’ll know that dogs feature large in my life and so when this distillery from Auckland in New Zealand contacted me to receive a sample of their range I was delighted: gin and dogs on one label, what’s not to love?
I’ve been fortunate to have a bit to do with New Zealand spirits, in particular their gins over the years and written about them in a few publications and had the honour of being their first international judge at their national awards (pre you know what). Across the board I find them of a high standard, innovative and making good use of their native botanicals. It’s a lively scene and growing fast as well, with some major brands doing very well internationally.
In distilling they often talk about small batch production, but in this case we are talking VERY small batch. Vicar’s Son distillery is the result of life partners Lucie and Stewart producing what they claim to be the world’s smallest distillery. So small they have to move the cars out of the garage to make room and it’s measured in a few square metres.
But small scale here doesn’t limit them in their ambition to craft excellent gin and they started with a bang in 2021, winning a gold at the Australian Gin Awards where they produced the gin Ascension in one go prior to sending off to judging!
They have a detailed and carefully calibrated production process, and they’ve helpfully outlined that on their website here which I recommend you read, for it illustrates that small doesn’t mean skimping on the stages of quality, on the contrary.
Let’s have a chat with them…..
How would you describe the current New Zealand distilling scene?
What is the inspiration behind the gins and the brand generally, it seems the dogs and religion seem to be twin themes!
The dogs and religious themes developed organically, we wanted to do some good by donating 5% of revenue to assist in animal rescue causes and so the idea of having one of our Greyhounds on the bottle developed. And as Stewart is a Vicar’s Son that seemed like a gin sort of name. Naming each variety with a religious name is just having fun really. Although we are surprised it doesn’t seem to have generated any offence (Holy Spirit, Ascension, etc).
What was the genesis of your distillery?
Stewart wasn’t a big Gin drinker when we met. On our travels through Europe I Lucie introduced him to different Gins/Gin styles. Lucie always wanted to create something and came up with the idea of making Gin. Stewart being a “do-er” picked up on the idea and started learning about alcohol/Gin making. We quite liked our Gin and during the first Covid lockdown we decided to start distilling commercially
Do you have a particular philosophy in crafting your spirits?
Possibly the only philosophy is to not let commercial imperatives dictate any part of the process. We could just buy in ethanol for the base alcohol for a dollar a litre but we choose to make our own from barley which costs $17 a litre not including labour, but we are confident our base alcohol provides a better mouth feel and base taste so is worth it.
Similarly with the bottles, we don’t need to kiln fire the labels and etch engrave the Greyhound but we feel it just looks better.
For Lucie it is really important to source local ingredients wherever possible. And produce as little waste as possible. For example, we zest all our citrus ourselves, dry or freeze it, then juice the citrus and use it for cooking or give it away. Harvest our Rosemary flowers and dry them.
We also use NZ barley and the spent barley goes to a friend’s lifestyle block where it is used for feeding stock.
When did you know you nailed the recipe of a particular spirit?
Lucie is really good at putting the recipes together and knowing what will work with what. As an example our two Double Gold Winners, Double Gold & Trophy Winner and two Gold Winners were all made and commercialised at the first attempt.
There’s small batch, and there’s you, what’s the deal?
We have an ambition to produce world class gin and vodkas and that presented a dilemma – with our budget we could purchase bigger capacity stills but not have a high as quality but have greater volume or we could purchase a very small still and have high quality but small volumes. Because we are focused on quality we chose to go small.
The iStill Mini we use in production is a scaled down replica of their larger iStills and we also use iStills’ unique method of gin manufacture being the liquid infusion extraction method. This method effectively distils the gin an additional two times while it extracts the botanicals on top of the four distillations we do, making the base alcohol from barley and the final gin run.
Although we can only make seven bottles a batch we can produce eight batches a month so a hobby business that represents reasonable turnover.
How do you recommend people enjoy your gins?
With a Fevertree Refreshingly Light Tonic, low sugar and neutral taste so you can actually taste our gin. Or Soda water if you prefer. With the Holy Spirit Navy Strength just with a lump of ice.
How do you go about creating spirits that are environmentally sustainable?
Starts from the barley, once the sugar is extracted we feed the leftover to a friends sheep and chickens. All cooling water is recycled, the Antipodes Bottle Water for making the gin and cutting is Carbon Neutral and the couriers are mostly carbon neutral as well. We also hit up the neighbours for the lemons, mandarins and grapefruit we need. Finally the 700ml bottle can be returned to us and be refilled thanks to the kiln fired label.
- Ascension 46% ABV)
- Nose: more heat and spice, cinnamon and cardamom hints, attractive nose overall, a warm vibe
- Neat: quite sharp, very forward on the palette and crisp, very dry and austere finish with the nose follow through and some cloves notes.
- Holy Spirit (46% ABV)
- Nose: very aromatic, warm citrus blood, mandarin and organge notes up from musk/ spice, an attractive approach with no spirit heat on the nose. A very natural gin expression.
- Neat: has the similar “house style”: namely the nose and palette line up perfectly and offers a very crisp/ forward and dry overall.
- Holy Spirit (57% ABV)
- Nose and Neat: follows a similar flavour and on the nose, but naturally, the heat is dialled up with the extra spirit oomph. The result is a more intense gin, one you’ll need to mix – has some intense flavours up front, but lingering citrus/ sherbet vibes at the back of the palette, some heat lingering from the spirit.
- London Dry 46% ABV)
- Nose: clean with a limey citrus vibe, bright, lovely aromatics, no spirit volatility
- Neat: good follow through, subtle toasty base spirit, some nice creaminess up front on the palette, citrus sherbet up front, very dry finish.
- Revelation 46% ABV)
- Nose: soft and warm Winter with hints of cloves and spices again, aromatic in a good way, not intense
- Neat: much more forward and musky warmth, then an astringent finish but not unpleasant, it lingers after a big full palette, with hints of frankincense, cloves, lemon and Myrrh (?) – very well executed.
- Without Sin 46% ABV)
- Nose: reminds me of the Ascension I think but hotter in spirit overall.
- Neat: spicy chilli lemon/ lingers long on the palette
The Take Home
The tiny distillery shows what can be done with very little in terms of production facility but with some great smarts, natural ability and a commitment to quality, oh, and the help of a few good dogs, to produce some very fine gins indeed. The style across the range is elegant, restrained and natural with a thoughtful application of botanicals layers on an excellent base spirit. This subtle range of gins is a testament to their commitment to quality and a timely reminder of the quality that attention to detail in small batches can bring.
PS: the dog on the label is George, apparently his mate Janey is not so happy about that. Donations for each sale go to greyhound rescue too.
- Where can people purchase your spirits: On line from www.vicarsson.co.nz – free shipping Australia and New Zealand
- Ranges from NZD$72 for a six pack of miniatures to NZD$129 to NZD$139 for a 700ml bottle
- Instagram: @thevicarssonginltd
Disclaimer: this review is of unsolicited samples provided by the makers, opinions expressed regarding the product are my own.