Paul Bowler, founder of Winchester Distillery
The Hampshire village of Old Alresford has been home to Winchester Distillery since 2015 after launching from a domestic kitchen a year earlier. Here, founder Paul Bowler tells Thrings partner Mary Chant why he swapped software development for a career in gin.
How did you come to be distilling gin?
A mid-life crisis! I had recently turned 40, I’d spent 20 years in IT and I wanted a career which would enable me to spend less time travelling and more time with my family. I’d seen the law change to allow craft distillers to produce gin in the UK. My first job after university was with a cider manufacturer, where I learned about the back office side of the drinks industry, but gin in particular had always fascinated me. I was sure there were gin drinkers like me in Hampshire who wanted something local and a bit different to the mainstream brands and that’s where the idea started to form.
How did you get started?
I applied for a licence from HMRC. I don’t think they had licensed a Hampshire gin distillery before, so it was a learning experience for both of us. I had to produce a business plan which proved I was a legitimate business and not one which created moonshine as a hobby. My kitchen was my distillery. I had a small still, but it allowed me to produce experimental batches. And everything grew from there.
What about developing your customer base?
In the early days I would walk or drive to pubs, restaurants and hotels in Hampshire to gauge interest in my gin. I was fortunate that Toscanaccio, a wine and spirits retailer in Winchester, stocked Twisted Nose immediately. Then I started sampling and selling at Hampshire food and drink festivals. Finding those first few clients and customers took a lot of hard work but thankfully they are still supporting us several years later.
Where did the idea of using watercress come from?
Gin is all about extracting flavours from natural ingredients, collectively referred to as ‘botanicals’, and must include predominantly juniper berries. Hampshire is famous for watercress, but working with it seemed crazy. However, pepper often features in traditional gin recipes, and using watercress as a substitute worked well. So we were not only creating something that was made in Hampshire but something that contained Hampshire ingredients.
Where did you go after Twisted Nose?
As a craft distiller, I wanted the Hampshire countryside to inspire us to broaden our range. I also wanted to work with local businesses to create new recipes, so our Hampshire range of seasonal gins was created: Winter Wassail uses Bramley apples and quince from local orchards, Spring Meadow uses hand-picked cherry blossom from Hillier gardens near Romsey, Summer Garden uses New Forest strawberries and blueberries, and Autumn Hedgerow uses hedgerow fruit from nearby farms. I love experimenting with new recipes.
How do you reflect on the past four years?
It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. Sometimes it feels like it’s four days since I started, others more like 40 years. I’m proud of our products and how we never compromise on quality. I’m proud of my team of production, sales and events specialists. And I’m proud that we will always be Hampshire’s first-ever craft distillery. But for me, the future is about growth and diversification.
I love rum so maybe that’s the next thing.
It’s certainly going to be an interesting coup le of years.