2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Gin and other Sacred Things: Hilary Whitney

On The Trip podcast, Sacred Spirits co-founder Hilary Whitney talks gin, literature, and London.

Ok, let me just read the tasting notes from worldginawards.com: “Whiffs of mint, fennel and aniseed, as well as a good amount of caraway. A little more fruitiness on the palate. Complex and interesting.”

Now, as you know, I have the palate of a four-year-old, so I can’t say I experienced all of these flavors in Sacred Spirit’s Old Tom Gin. But I can say that it won Gold for best British gin at this year’s World Gin Awards. And even if my palate isn’t that discerning, I am not always so easily charmed. But these people did it. They charmed me. I trekked north from the Bankside Hotel to Sacred Spirit’s headquarters, which is actually the home of wife-and-husband team Hilary Whitney and Ian Hart, and they fed me alcohol in delicate glasses and charmed me with their gorgeous life in leafy Highgate, with a ramshackle English garden in the back and a room full of curvy vacuum-distilling glass whirligigs that make London’s finest gin. Hilary and I sat down and talked about the history of gin in London, about how to sell alcohol without hiring sales girls in bikinis, and most importantly, about where I can find their excellent spirits back home in the U.S.

Here is an edited and condensed excerpt of our conversation. Subscribers can listen to the episode here, or subscribe at Luminary Media.

Hilary Whitney: Cheers. Welcome to Highgate.

Nathan Thornburgh: Thank you. Oh, that’s delicious.

Whitney: It is delicious. My gimlet is my go-to cocktail. I love it.

Nathan: So, what’s in this? You have a preference.

Whitney: Rose’s Lime Cordial. Which is traditionally what was used in gimlets. I think some people find it a little bit too sweet now. But if you get the proportions right, it works. I think you might remember, it’s mentioned in The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler.

Thornburgh: So, being a literary type, you’re going to drink a literary cocktail.

Whitney: Well, I do think that one of the things about drinks, and spirits in particular, probably all drinks, wine, beer, I think there are strong literary connections, which I really like. I really enjoy that part of it. There is some very good writing about drinking.

If there’s one human activity that I think is immeasurably and consistently improved by drinking, it’s talking.

Thornburgh: Well, and we have this conversation about cannabis, about alcohol, about creativity. At what point is it useful? How do these things work in there? How does alcohol fit into writing? You were a writer, before you made fine spirits, and a journalist. Does it play a role?

Whitney: Well, for me, to be quite honest, I can’t drink and write. It doesn’t work. I once met Lawrence Ferlinghetti and he told me how he really, really tried to stop Jack Kerouac from drinking, because he was the first person ever to publish Kerouac. He said he kidnapped him once and took him to his hut, his place in Big Sur, to try and get him off so he could start writing again. It just didn’t work. He said it was a ruination of him. Of course, there are all those people like Scott Fitzgerald, who I think were ruined by alcohol. But I love reading about it. I think it makes for great reading. But personally, if I have to write something, whether it’s Neiman or anything, I can’t do it with a drink. I have to be completely straight.

Thornburgh: If there’s one human activity that I think is immeasurably and consistently improved by drinking, it’s talking.

Whitney:  Yes, I agree, I agree.

Thornburgh: I dare anybody to come up with an argument against that, said the man speaking loudly at the end of the bar. I become witty and so much more interesting. So, it’s not just the cordial, but it’s Sacred Gin in here.

Whitney: It’s Sacred Gin in here, yeah. Our classic Sacred Gin, which is made in this house in Highgate.

Thornburgh: So, I have been very fascinated by gin as a consumer, but also somebody like you who likes to think perhaps a little more about alcohol than I should. I don’t know if you’re in that camp as well. But I am fascinated by being in what I would consider the spiritual home of gin.

Whitney: London. Yes, indeed.

Thornburgh: London dry gin. What is it? Is it like a DOC? Do you have to make the gin within the confines of London?

Whitney:  London dry gin can be made anywhere. It’s a category. Obviously, it’s nice when it comes from London. But there are very, very good London dry gins made all over the world, now. It means that it has to be made from very good quality base spirit. It has to have a larger proportion of juniper compared to the other botanicals. It has to be juniper-led. It shouldn’t have anything added afterwards, like sugar, or flavoring, or color, or anything like that.

Thornburgh: Is your classic Sacred Gin a London dry gin?

Whitney: It is, indeed, yes.

Thornburgh: Let’s talk about Sacred. We’ve published about your gin on Roads and Kingdoms before. Oliver Bullough did this incredible piece about the new gin craze. I think for him, you guys were a sort of an avatar for a new generation of distiller that was recovering gin from a very tired sort of aging-royal drink.

Whitney:  Absolutely, the Queen Mother.

Thornburgh: The Queen Mother. I mean, from Queen Anne on down to present time. You had a bunch of very stuffy gin drinkers.

Whitney: Yeah.

Thornburgh: As he had described it for, I think, young Londoners, especially young British people, gin was this tired colonial spirit. All of a sudden, that changes. You have people like yourselves making this incredibly thoughtful, refined, valuable, desired gin in a still in your playroom. How did we get to there with Sacred Spirits? How did you come to this business?

Whitney: It’s very strange and I’m not really sure how it happened. Ian’s quite good at anticipating waves and things. He worked in finance and he was out of a job back in, was it 2007, before the crash, really.

Thornburgh: So he was ahead of his time when everyone else lost their jobs? 

Whitney: Well, he worked in financial recruitment, so, obviously, everyone started slowing down before then. He’s done many other things, but that was what he was doing at the time. He is very entrepreneurial and he is very interested in food and drink. He started experimenting. He had several ideas, but one of them was that he had always enjoyed distilling. As a child, he enjoyed distilling. Not alcohol, but gasses and unusual things.

Thornburgh: Child distillers. It’s very Dickensian, somehow.

Whitney:  So, he started distilling. He’s got a collection of Bordeaux Wine and he started distilling it. Poorer vintages had been through the, been watery harvests. So, he could make them richer. He would extract some of the water out so that makes the wine richer and not so dilute, I guess. It actually works very well but you can’t really do much with that. I mean, the winemakers themselves would have a fit.

Nathan: Right. You’re not gonna rebottle and start selling that.

Hilary Whitney: Yeah, yeah. You can’t. He’d always quite enjoyed drinking gin. So he though he could use his rotovap he had been using to distill the wines with to make a gin. He tried 23 different recipes. We used to take them to our local pub, The Wrestlers, around the corner, for people to try. Then, the 23rd recipe was the one that everyone said, “Yes, this is great.”

Hilary Whitney: And the landlord said, “If you bottle it, I’ll put it behind the bar,” so that’s what we did.

Thornburgh: Wow. You were saying earlier there was a period of dubious legality, as you were experimenting. Was that in that era, like 2008?

Whitney: I guess. And I’m not just saying it because it’s being recorded. I don’t think we were doing anything illegal. But we certainly couldn’t have sold it or anything until we got our licenses. And at that time, I was working as a freelance journalist.

Thornburgh: So, Oliver had gathered a small round table of tasters when he did this story about the new gin craze. And he had a lot of comments that were like, “Hm, this tastes like gin.” I think, for a lot of people, particularly casual drinkers, good gin tastes like gin. Bad gin tastes like not that pleasant gin. But there’s such a strong, especially this juniper-forward thing, is such a strong flavor profile. So, out of 23 gin recipes, the crew at The Wrestler had decided that this was the one. What, for you, makes that really great, solid gin? What are you tasting when you’re tasting it?

Whitney: With our gin, I’m tasting a certain mouth feel which is hard to describe but it’s like a creaminess. I think it’s quite creamy. I think it’s quite soft.

Thornburgh: That’s interesting. Those are two words I would’ve kept very far from gin, usually.

Whitney: Yeah. But having said that, it’s still, because we distill botanicals at such a low temperature, it’s still kind of crisp and fresh. It’s very fresh, I think. I would describe it as fresh.

Thornburgh: And that is the secret, obviously. Ian is the mad genius working on the plumbing in the gas, the vacuum, and the glass containers. But, essentially, the process, and one of the distinct characteristics of what you do is vacuum distilling. So, you do it at lower temperature.

One of the reasons they allowed people to distill gin was because they were at war with France and they wanted to stop people drinking French brandy.

Thornburgh: One of the things that I find fascinating, why I’m so excited to talk to you in north London about gin is gin, I think, among all the spirits, is so deeply tied to English-ness.

Whitney: Yes.

Thornburgh: Although, I guess, it came over. My family says that we’re descendants of William of Orange.

Whitney: Your family are descendants of William of Orange?

Thornburgh: Oh, yeah, that’s what they say.

Whitney: Yeah.

Thornburgh: But I would guarantee that’s probably bullshit. It’s a nice thing to say.

Whitney: It is nice.

Thornburgh: William of Orange came over in 1688 and he brought lots of Dutch shit, including gin.

Whitney: Geneva.

Thornburgh: Which then turned into, as Oliver had put it in his article, turned into occupying, essentially, the space that crack cocaine occupied in the ’90s.

Whitney: Absolutely, absolutely. And, of course, one of the reasons they allowed people to distill gin, or distill spirits, was because they were at war with France and they wanted to stop people drinking French brandy. And, also, it helped the farmers. And the farmers were always politically conservative, so there were lots of reasons to encourage it.

Thornburgh: I saw this statistic that, in the mid-18th century, when they really started to crack down, there was a huge communal outcry against the sins of gin. They said that 80 percent of the gin was drunk here in London. And it was all the things that this landed aristocracy feared about urbanity and mob rule and so on. Somebody said when people drink gin, people think they’re kings.

The marketing geniuses of their day commissioned Hogarth to do a character assassination of gin.

Whitney: Yes, yes. And I think, of course, life then was really hard. It was really difficult. People were incredibly poor. People starved. And it gave some relief from that.

Thornburgh: The old gin craze was also very gendered, right? That’s also where the focus of the public paranoia about gin was. That moms were selling their babies for gin. There’s a Hogarth print, Gin Lane.

Whitney: Yes.

Thornburgh: It’s just like a dystopian vision of a mom neglecting her child.

Whitney:  The baby falling out of her arms. You know that was commissioned by, I can’t remember which brewer it is now, but one of the breweries because they wanted people to drink beer and not gin.

Thornburgh: So, the marketing geniuses of their day commissioned Hogarth to do a total hit. To do a character assassination of gin. And, also, the way that they were calling it Gennifer and it had turned into a woman, like gin was this female, almost psychotic and seductive presence that was destroying their society. It’s so fascinating to me to turn around and see, where people who are young and wanna make bold, angry statements wouldn’t have turned to colonel’s gin.

Whitney:  No. It goes in cycles. So, I think, obviously, you get in the ’40s and ’50s, people went back to cocktails. People started drinking martinis and the three-martini lunch and that kind of thing. But, as their children grew up, and then, particularly, in the U.S., as well, the counter-culture of the ’60s, people rejected what their parents had. And having a cocktail would seem a stuffy, formal thing to do.  Now, I think, the ritual of the cocktail is beautiful. But, depending on when you’re growing up, it seems stuffy. Whereas, grabbing a beer or having a glass of wine just seems more inclusive.

Thornburgh: So, you are not doing just gin anymore.

Whitney: Nope.

Thornburgh: You still make the classic. The Sacred Gin is still the strong, the fundament of your, now, home based distilling empire. But what else are you making?

Whitney: In addition to the classic London dry, we make an organic gin. Made with organic spirit for healthy drinking.

Thornburgh: There you go. You hear that? You can be healthy and drink gin.

Whitney: And, then, we have two, we make two vodkas. We only started doing the vodka because people who had the gin said, “Oh, if you made a vodka, we’d buy that, as well.”

Whitney: We want to do something different. So, we do something called London dry vodka. So, it’s made in the same way as our gin but it doesn’t have juniper in it.

Thornburgh: What can people do in the United States to find Sacred Gin and all these Sacred Vodkas, and so on.

Whitney: So, there is a place in L.A., called Flask Wine and Whiskey or something. We call it Flask.

Thornburgh: Okay.

Whitney:  And they ship all over the States. They have most of our stuff and they ship all over the States. Or Bounty Hunter in Napa.

Thornburgh:  Great.

Whitney: Our focus on the States has quietened down a bit but we are aiming to have more of an impact there.

Thornburgh: But you’re all over Europe?

Whitney: We are.

Thornburgh: So, people need to come here…

Whitney: Yes.

Thornburgh: For some of it. Or they can order. It’s such a pleasure to come to the place in London that makes the best London dry gin. This is how you want distilling to always be.

Whitney: Thank you.

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