In just five years, along with his long-standing friend Howard Davies, Angus Lugsdin has created a world-renowned gin manufacturing business, whose identity and philosophy are rooted in the Devon idyll in which it is based. A word of advice: a chat with Angus, particularly at this time of year, will leave you yearning for a top-quality Gin-T – a combo that’s come a long, long way since its birth as an antimalarial concoction in colonial-era India.
Was there a catalyst moment when you realised this was your calling/raison d’être?
Firstly, a nagging feeling that I should try my hand at something new, different and exciting and secondly a recognition of the potential opportunity within the drinks market where I saw the growing interest in quality products with real provenance and story. I’d been working in the offshore technology industry since 1998, spending a huge amount of time in the US and whilst living there I witnessed first-hand the emergence of craft distilleries. At the time in the UK, the choice of exceptional hand-crafted gins was slim. I moved back to the UK in late 2010 and continued to work in the underwater technology market, working for a company in Aberdeen whilst thinking about how I could move into the spirits industry.
How did you go about setting up?
Over the course of the next couple of years, I explored the idea of setting up a distillery in Devon, before finally committing to that idea in Easter 2014. Once I’d got the ball rolling, I reached out to anyone that I could think of who could possibly help, either providing technical expertise or potential investment or becoming a business partner. It was at that point I contacted Howard, an old friend of mine, whom I had known for years, having met as teenagers whilst teaching sailing in Salcombe. I pitched the idea to Howard as I believed he could bring a different skill set to the table and coincidentally, he too was looking to strike out on his own. We formed the company in July 2014, launched our first gin two years later and the rest, as they say, is history!
In what ways does the Salcombe setting determine your product offering?
It’s fundamental to our brand and approach. There is such a rich nautical history of worldwide commerce with Salcombe, that it has provided a huge amount of inspiration for our recipes, our use of botanicals, our product packaging, the visual identity of the brand and even our tone of voice. Although Salcombe these days is better known as an aspirational lifestyle destination, in the 19th century it was famous for the Salcombe Fruiters, schooner sailing vessels that were amongst the fastest of their day. Built in Salcombe and the surrounding area, they sailed across the world in their pursuit of the finest citrus fruits, herbs and spices, bringing them back to England’s ports including London, Liverpool, Bristol, Hull and Southampton.
Crewed by local men, the Salcombe Fruiters had copper sheathed hulls and a rakish design to aid their passage. They had to sail with the hatches open in all but the worst conditions to help keep their precious cargos in top condition. Sadly, none of the vessels survive today, but there are amazingly detailed historic records, paintings and cargo manifests. It is from these cargo manifests and their trading routes that we have drawn much of the inspiration for the botanicals we use in our gin and also the names of our gins.
Are the local geographical features useful too?
Yes. In addition to the historical traceability and provenance of the ingredients we use, we’re also very fortunate to have an exceptional water supply in Salcombe that flows all the way from high up in Dartmoor National Park. This beautifully soft and naturally pure water is perfect for distillation. Everything we do is linked to both mine and Howard’s shared love of the sea and coastal living and we rarely pass up the opportunity to get out onto or under the water.
How did the ‘Island Queen’ gin collaboration with Monica Galetti come about?
It turns out that we had two introductions at about the same time. Our London Brand Ambassador Richard had been working on a listing of our flagship ‘Start Point’ gin in Monica’s restaurant Mere. They, in turn, are supplied by a great wholesaler, Thorman Hunt, who we also work with. Richard had also been talking to David, Monica’s husband, about a couple of the Voyager edition projects that we had previously worked on with Michael Caines MBE and Mark Hix MBE. Monica thought the Voyager Series was a great concept and was interested in collaborating with us on a future release.
Each of the Voyager Series gins are created to be a reflection of the philosophy and style of the chef or winemaker we’re working with. I spent some time with Monica both in London and when she came down to Salcombe, exploring her culinary style and approach to her craft. Together we created ‘Island Queen’ to reflect her heritage and love of tropical ingredients. Whilst it is still very much a gin, it has a wonderful aroma of freshly cut pineapples. Pineapples were one of the main cargos of the Salcombe Fruiters, who used to announce their arrival in London by pinning the largest specimen they had on the end of the jib boom as they sailed up the Thames. The choice of botanicals and collaboration was therefore a great fit for us both.
How are tastes changing in this area, as new consumers come of age?
There is a keener appreciation and interest in real provenance and story, and the ability to build a direct connection with the customer is very important. Tastes are changing, but I believe there will always be a place in the market for traditional gins, as in those in which juniper is the dominant botanical. The current trend for overly sweet, brightly coloured so called gins is starting to change, with consumers questioning some of the products that have been coming onto the market and wanting to trade up to better quality products. There is always the temptation to jump on the bandwagon and ride the same wave as everyone else, but it goes against our ethos and approach.
The pink gin category, which is a catch-all for coloured and flavoured gins, has seen enormous growth in the last two years and these are great gateway drinks. As new consumers come of age, we hope these gateway drinks will lead them into appreciating better quality, more traditional gins. We’re working on a new gin due for release this summer which we believe will elevate the category, appealing to both millennials and traditional gin enthusiasts alike and bridge the gap.
How did the Salcombe Gin Butler Service idea come about?
Salcombe Gin is all about transporting the customer to their special place, whether that be a holiday memory or a Friday evening on the terrace at home. A ‘Salcombe & Tonic’ on the back deck of a yacht overlooking the water with the sun going down is, for me, that special place.
We wanted to try and make that experience available to others, so initially came up with the idea of the Gin Hamper yacht delivery service, delivering all one requires (including ice and garnish) to enjoy a ‘Salcombe & Tonic’ aboard. The following year we expanded that offering to a full Gin Butler service whereby we will come aboard your yacht and serve our signature serve ‘Salcombe & Tonics’ and cocktails for you and your guests for a couple of hours.
We appreciate that not everyone has a yacht, so do also offer Gin Hamper and Gin Butler services on land and this summer we’ll be extending the availability of the services for holiday makers to the local beaches so that they too can enjoy the ultimate sundowners in the picture-perfect setting of Salcombe.
How about the Salcombe Gin School?
The Gin School was part of our original plan. With the increasing interest in provenance and story comes the thirst for knowledge and experience. It’s a great way to spend a morning or afternoon and we now run up to nine sessions a week, which are often booked up months in advance.
Our Gin School experience starts with a ‘Salcombe & Tonic’ in our waterside tasting bar, before one of our distillers provides an overview of the Salcombe Gin story and insight into our distillation process in our still room in the presence of ‘Provident’, our 450l copper pot still. They then head across the courtyard to our dedicated Gin School, where we have 10 miniature copper pot stills set up for attendees to distil their own bespoke bottle of gin.
It’s a very hands-on experience, with guests choosing from over 100 botanicals to create their own unique gin recipe. Once they’ve selected their botanicals, they are added to the still which is then sealed up. It takes about 40 minutes to produce c.450ml of distillate. This is then cut with Dartmoor water to bring it down to bottling strength. Guests then name their gin and create a bespoke label, which is then applied to their bottle before it is placed in a presentation case to take home with them.
We aim for them to produce enough liquid so that they also have a large measure that they can take back to our tasting bar. Our mixologists then create a couple of G&Ts for them recommending garnishes and tonics to complement the aromas and flavours of their newly created gin, which in turn helps them know how best to serve and enjoy their gin once they’ve returned home.