Full name: Howard Lawrence Davies
Role: Co-Founder and Director, Salcombe Distilling Co.
DOB: 13th March 1977
Birthplace: Amersham, Buckinghamshire
Fun Fact: “…Once surfed the Severn Bore”
Let’s start at the beginning. You founded this thing, you’re doing great guns and you’ve been in business for 2 and a bit years now… but you weren’t always in the spirits business, right? You have been, amongst other things, a sailing instructor? So, how did you and your co-founder Angus Lugsdin meet, and how did you find yourself making gin in Salcombe? Are you a longterm gin lover? …did you come from a ‘foodie’ family?
That’s right; I’ve not always been in the spirits business and wouldn’t say that I came from a ‘foodie’ family as such! I’ve worked in various industries in the past, of which certainly the most fun was working as a sailing instructor. This is actually also how Angus and I met… I’ve always been a keen sailor and in my youth used to teach sailing at a brilliant sailing school called the Island Cruising Club in Salcombe; which was where we met because Angus was working there too.
After a hard(!) day on the water teaching sailing, we would retire to Salcombe Yacht Club and sit down to enjoy a gin & tonic to catch up on the events of the day whilst enjoying the beautiful view overlooking the estuary. This certainly started my fondness for gin (in moderation of course) and created a strong link in our minds of Salcombe & Gin.
Since then, even though we each ended up pursuing different careers, we kept in touch and then in 2014 we’d both got to the point where we were ready for a change from our current careers to build our own business doing something different & fun, and given our love of Salcombe and passion for gin, we thought this was a perfect match! We then spent 2 years gaining experience working in the industry, creating a very detailed business plan, building a team around us with further expertise in the industry and developing the gin itself – then finally, in July 2016 we launched Salcombe Gin…
Please tell us a little about more about the gin and what you guys do there. 13 botanicals, Dartmoor water and you also managed to get master distiller Jamie Baxter aboard. How long did it take you to come up with the recipe? You’ve also built a gin school that overlooks the sea?
The development of the recipe took Angus & I over a year and of course within this a lot of time was spent creating numerous recipes, then blind tasting them (both ourselves and with other willing testers) and then tweaking the receipt further and testing again, and repeat, and repeat… But also a lot of time was spent simply researching and trying various botanicals and other gins to decide what we liked and didn’t like.
We had originally set out to use about 10 botanicals, but had always felt strongly that we wanted a citrus led gin with layers of complex flavours and to achieve this we needed to add a few more botanicals and concluded that the 13 in our final recipe gave exactly this depth of flavour we desired. Our recipe development has resulted in an exceptionally smooth gin, within which the ruby red grapefruit citrus comes wonderfully through on the fore, followed by layers of warming spice from the cinnamon, a touch of sweetness from the liquorice and finally a subtle peppery note from the cubeb.
The gin is smooth enough to serve neat over ice or in a very dry martini with a twist of grapefruit peel, and for the ultimate gin and tonic we recommend mixing with a premium tonic, plenty of ice and a slice of ruby red grapefruit.
As well as the developing the gin we have created a fantastic bar at our distillery in Salcombe which overlooks the estuary, and at the premises we also have our gin school which will be opening in March.
This will be the ultimate gin experience for the curious gin lover, where people can come and take charge of a beautiful copper mini-still to develop and distil their very own 70cl bottle of gin. We are extremely excited about our gin school and can’t wait for our opening; we’re actually taking early bookings and selling gift vouchers now at https://www.salcombegin.com/gin-school
In terms of food and drink, anything else in your neck of the woods we would be looking out for? I do remember the seafood in Salcombe being pretty spectacular…
Salcombe is also very famous for its Crab which is exceptional, and also the ice cream from Salcombe Dairy is delicious.
Also, perhaps you can clear this up for us – did you guys crowdfund the whole thing? I’ve seen some conflicting information…
No, we didn’t crowdfund but had considered this at one point, in the end we were very fortunate to secure the funding we required from a small group of investors the majority of which have a close association with Salcombe.
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the gin business?
There is no typical day! My favourite days are when we are at Exhibitions or Festivals giving our mini Salcombe Gin & tonic samples for people to try; the positivity of feedback is always amazing and I find this hugely rewarding. Other days can involve discussing and experimenting with new recipes with gin; this is of course always great fun and I never get time for as many of these type of days as I would like…
And of course, some days I get back to the core of our business and work on the distillation of our gin and the whole production cycle; distilling the gin is a lovely process and being involved in ensuring the quality of our gin and packaging is very satisfying.
What’s your greatest/most memorable professional moment been, so far?
It’s a bit more than just a moment… it was the whole summer this year; we launched Salcombe Gin towards the end of July and hoped the launch and Summer would be quite good, but in fact it just went crazy with a fantastic reception and huge demand.
With a team of just 3 of us at the time (myself, Angus and our Production Manager Jason who joined us in June) were working flat out manically to keep up, it was extremely hard work and madness at times but we were absolutely loving every minute of it.
Where do you get your ideas?
In all kinds of ways, but much of our ideas for our current (and future) gins have been inspired by Salcombe’s maritime history, specifically the ‘Salcombe Fruiters’. These were built in Salcombe and nearby Kingsbridge in the 19th century and responsible for importing over eighty percent of fresh citrus fruits to England around this time.
These fast sailing vessels imported fresh oranges from the Azores and Spain, lemons from Sicily and Italy, pineapples and shaddocks (pomelos) from the Bahamas and spices from Barbados, Nevis, Sri Lanka and further afield. Reading through the old cargo manifests for these vessels is fascinating and the source of many nice ideas for botanicals!
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had, how did you overcome it, and what did you learn from it?
Founding Salcombe Distilling Company with Angus and progressing this to the point where we launched Salcombe Gin; there were multiple challenges within this too numerous to list, but the key thing is that we overcame these and succeeded, and this really was primarily due to our great partnership and each having complementary skills such that together we made quite a powerful combination who could get things done.
In addition to this we also had a fantastic team around us including Jamie Baxter and Nick Marshall whose knowledge and experience was invaluable. In terms of what I learnt; know your strengths, don’t be afraid of your weaknesses and risk failing now and then – you will learn a lot if/when you do anyway.
Who’s the person who’s most inspired you in your work – food industry or otherwise? Is there anyone that you draw inspiration or strength from?
Difficult question! I’ve drawn inspiration from so many people and other companies I have come across in the industry during our journey, too numerous to name here and would be unfair to pin down to 1.
What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?
As per my ‘day in the life’ answer; meeting people drinking our gin and loving it is the thing I probably enjoy the most. As for the least… there is a understandably a great of regulation and legislation in this industry and we work very hard to ensure our operations are perfect in this regard – nonetheless completing the admin for these can be a bit tedious at times.
What advice would you give to aspiring food and drinks entrepreneurs who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
Work hard on your research, do test your product extensively with others who provide you with honest feedback (not just friends and family) and work with a great team who can help with any skills and experience where you need support.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing instead?
Hmmm – probably working in some kind of business related to sailing / watersports which is my other great passion.
If you could get anyone to try your gin (fictional or real, living or dead) who would you pick? Assume that they go on to be your brand ambassador…
Sir Francis Chichester. He was a Devon man who is a great fit for our ethos ‘venture with spirit’ and would also have been great at taking our gin around the world, although his plane and boats were typically always quite small so wouldn’t be able to carry too much stock!
What’s your ultimate aim and goal for the distillery? If you could achieve anything with it, what would you pick? Money and reality are no obstacle, so shoot for the moon…
I want to be able to sail into any harbour in the world, walk into the nearest bar/restaurant/hotel and be handed a Salcombe & Tonic, served with lots of ice and a slice of ruby red grapefruit.
Where next for you and the business? Any new gins in the pipeline?
Our next big step is opening the gin school in March as mentioned earlier which is going to be brilliant. And yes there are some new gins in the pipeline which we are very excited about – but these are secret at present – watch this space…
And we always ask three customary ridiculous questions…
If you could swap lives for the day with any fictional character (and you’d be guaranteed to return to your life after 24 hours), who would you choose, and why?
Indiana Jones – He gets to go and have cool adventures in all kinds of exotic places.
If you had to get into a no holds barred, 20 round fist fight with any fictional character, who would you square off against?
Mr blobby – I always found him quite irritating! Plus he is quite rubbery so would reduce the likelihood of me getting injured which might prevent me from getting back to the important task of distilling gin.
If you had to have any character from Greek mythology to come and work with you guys, who would you employ?
One of the Hecatoncheires; each of them had 100 hands and 50 heads, so would be extremely useful when it comes to juggling numerous distillation, bottling, labelling and gin sampling tasks in parallel!