22 Feb, 2024
20-21 March 2024
10 April 2024
4 March 2024
With over 30 years of experience, including 23 years as a British Army officer serving on operations all over the world and retiring as a senior officer; many more years delivering technical and business consultancy to the public and private sectors; and founding Sky Wave Gin, a craft distillery in Oxfordshire whose Signature London Dry Gin was named The World's Best Contemporary Gin 2020 at the World Gin Awards. Andrew Parsons is the Co-founder and global award-winning Master Distiller at Sky Wave Gin. He also works as a Senior Associate Consultant with small leading consultancies.
To be honest, mine is very short in the scheme of things. In my former life, I was an Army officer for 24 years, very much on the ‘consumer’ side - which did allow me to hone my views on what I liked and didn’t like. I have been distilling since May 2018, so I have a steep learning curve. We made many mistakes in the early days, but we found the (craft) distilling community to be so welcoming and helpful that they helped us work through problems and learn the rights and wrongs of the craft. We are now proud to be a ‘go-to’ for a number of less experienced distillers and pass on our knowledge when we can. We were also commissioned to write a book on the practicalities of craft distilling, which other distillers tell us they find very useful for day-to-day reference.
We clearly learned well, as we now have 39 accolades (international medals and nominations) across our own brand and the gins we create and produce for other brands in under 4 years in the craft.
We love experimenting and perhaps pioneering some styles. For example, we believe we were the first craft gin to age in a Spanish red rioja-based vermouth barrel - a sublime 400-bottle limited edition that has now sold out. Our 2022 project is also very exciting - but secret!
I can only really speak for the gin industry, which has obviously seen an explosion of craft distilleries - just like ours. Lockdown seemed to see a number of home experiments turn into distilleries. I think this will die off over time, and only the best quality will surface and survive, as is the case in most industries.
Provenance and authenticity will continue to be key as the gin wave perhaps flattens and drinkers following the current trend give way to hardcore gin fans. Classic and London Dry gins will continue to be the mainstay, and flavoured gins will only survive if authentic and not ‘chemically’ flavoured. Novelty gins will, thankfully, die out.
Outside of my area of expertise, it’s wonderful to see the growth in really high-quality English whisky, and long may that continue.
My role is a combination of Managing Director of the company and Master Distiller in the distillery itself. I’d say the split is 80 / 20 at the moment as we’re probably only distilling once or twice a week. The MD role is pretty much everything except sales, marketing, and events (which we have a small team for), so everything from strategic planning to managing suppliers, from cash flow to staffing matters.
But the distilling is my passion. I love distilling days. They usually start early with botanical prep (we don’t macerate for historical reasons). On a good day, the still will be heating by 7.15 am. This allows us to complete a full still run and also cut the distillate for resting all on the same day. I am also enjoying working to bring on our distillery hand who is keen to learn about distilling and is looking to a future in the industry.
On development days, I can be found at our tiny 2L still working on something new, either for a client (we have several high-profile clients we have created bespoke gins for, such as Blenheim Palace) or our next project or limited edition.
Sky Wave Gin, as a brand, is all about adventure.
Founders and distillers Rachel Hicks and Andy Parsons have both lived lives full of adventure – Rachel was a BBC journalist reporting from all over the world, and Andy was an Army Officer and mountaineering instructor, a veteran of many global adventures. The gin in our bottles reflects this ethos. Born of a spirit of adventure, our botanicals are sourced from the places we have travelled all over the world, from our Moroccan coriander to our Eastern European juniper.
And what of the name? A Sky Wave is a form of worldwide radio wave, keeping us in touch with home as we travelled the world. But it also encapsulates our sense of adventure depicting the skies we fly through and the wave we sail over in pursuit of the next exploit.
As a result, the gins in Sky Wave’s portfolio are unique. We rise above the ordinary, creating a premium range of gins that sits head and shoulders above the competition in terms of flavour and quality.
A fully hybrid approach is the only one that works: start with training - bar staff must be brand ambassadors and want to sell our gin because it is fabulous. Invite them to the distillery, let them see how and where the gin is distilled and the full operation. Allow them to get a feel for the passion. Provide curated tastings of the portfolio. Get them fully emotionally engaged.
Then, provide the collateral - barware, branded glasses, everything to immerse the consumer in our gin in their bar.
Pretty much everything Sky Wave: how we started, our story, our history; how we make gin and the five reasons our gin is so special and so smooth; tutored tastings of the whole range; perfect serves, preferred mixers and ratios, mixer options; garnishes; potential food and snack pairings.
By being authentic and available. We often do ‘Meet the distiller’ events and love meeting bar staff and drinkers alike. The authenticity of both the founders and distillers and the story, and then the product, is critical to this engagement.
That’s hard! A scientist and mathematician, with outstanding attention to detail and record keeping, with a superhuman sense of taste and smell!
Why all of these?
Firstly, distilling is a science. It is essentially chemistry. Understanding the chemistry allows you to optimise your process, both for flavour and from a business sense. And there is quite a lot of (basic) maths in calculating quantities, ABVs, density ratios, etc.
Attention to detail is required for repeatability and quality control. For example, we weigh out botanicals to the gram or tenth of a gram, tails to the millilitre, and all this MUST be accurate if we are to produce consistent products. At the same time, leaving the wrong valve open could be catastrophic!
Record keeping allows repeatability and the ability to understand and learn when things go wrong. And of course, HMRC is unforgiving of poor record keeping!
And the superhuman taste and smell? A great distiller will be able to nose a gin and identify possibly up to 5 botanicals. The tasting may unearth a few more. He or she will be able to isolate each individual component and thus think about balance across them - what’s too much to the fore, what has been lost in the background, is that the desired effect or do we need to tweak? Only with this sense of smell and taste can perfection be achieved.
It sounds cheesy, but a classic G&T, with a two-to-one ratio of tonic to gin, can’t be beaten. If you’re asking me to name a gin (other than Sky Wave, of course!), it would be Gin Aux Agrumes from La Distillerie de Monaco - a superbly balanced juniper and citrus gin. And our mixer of choice is Merchant’s Heart Tonic Water - it simply lets the gin speak for itself, without adding flavour or sugar, which the distiller never intended.
The perfect setting? Watching the sunset over fields from our Oxfordshire garden or anywhere with a sea view.
If we can’t get a G&T, cold champagne will do!
Building a small, self-funded business is pretty time-consuming! But I read, love theatre (we’re only 40 minutes away from London’s West End), enjoy live music, run half marathons, and spend time with the family. We are lucky enough to visit Pembrokeshire regularly, so we rock climb, sail and walk the famous coastal path there too. We also ski and kiteboard…so lots of fun and continues the adventure theme! I also do a little bit of charity work through my London Livery Company, the WCIT.
A happy and well-trained distillery team delivering first-class products, for which we are the global ambassadors, allowing us to travel and promote the brand whilst searching for the best botanicals in the world.
Header Image: Andrew Parsons
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