As I sit supping on a refreshing rosehip spritz, a libation unique to the new upstairs bar at The Star, co-founders of Sacred Spirits (and real-life couple) Ian Hart and Hilary Whitney talk about the journey that led to their new venture at the much-loved watering hole. My choice of drink matches the weather – a summery tipple, combining Sacred’s gently bitter yet fruity Rosehip Cup Liqueur with soda and fizz.
“We did our first bottling in 2009 and we operated out of our house in Highgate,” says ex-journalist Hilary. “Basically, I’d been out of work for 18 months, working out what to do,” continues ex-banker Ian.
“I was interested in creating a vacuum-distilled gin, never really thinking that very much would come of it, so when our local publican in Highgate said he’d give us a spot on the bar, it was my first break. Now we export to 17 countries.”The couple took a real chance. “What’s important to realise,” says Hilary, “is that a decade ago when we started, people weren’t into gin as much. We did take quite a gamble because no-one really was doing it, it was a very different climate.” She recalls asking a fellow journo to sample their gin: “It’s nice,” he said, “but no-one drinks gin now, what are you going to do?” What they did is create a thriving operation, one that now employs two apprentice distillers and a business developer. “If anything happens to Ian, we’ve got someone to carry things on,” Hilary jokes.
Why the move away from home-brewing? “We just needed to expand a bit,” Hilary says. “Because it’s our private family home, we wanted to have a facility open to the public where we could have events and bartenders installed.
We did do occasional events in our house and people loved it, but it’s quite difficult, so we decided to look for somewhere else. The Star was already a customer, and we knew they had the upstairs area.” The new bar is open three nights a week, and they’re running cocktail-making classes, gin-blending sessions and distillery visits (“the word tour seems a bit grand,” laughs Hilary).Let’s talk drinks. Last year Sacred sold 51,000 bottles, still “quite small,” Ian says modestly. Their classic London dry gin is a firm fave, but others include spicy coriander, organic sloe, zesty pink grapefruit, and orris root, a botanical Ian describes as “very peculiar, almost like the flavour of palma violets.”
Not to mention turning their hand to vodka, whisky and vermouth too. The rosso-style vermouth is made using English wine from Three Choirs Vineyard in Gloucestershire. If you’re wondering why Ian vacuum distillates as opposed to using traditional copper pot stills, he says that it’s “a unique form of distillation, with fresher distillates, the difference between fresh cut oranges and cooked marmalade flavour.” Juniper is very different when you use the vacuum method: “it’s much fresher, crisper, and makes a very quaffable martini.”
It’s time to see the rest of the space. We move from our spot by the impressive bar into the front section of the L-shaped room. It’s light and airy, yet intimate: the wood-flooring has been painted a warm shade of burgundy, leather sofas and chairs are dotted about begging to be sat in, low-level rustic wooden tables at the ready to rest expertly mixed cocktails on.
A balcony runs the length of the room, the ideal spot for a balmy day. “At night this bar looks so cosy, it’s just gorgeous,” says Hilary, who also informs me that the barrel in the corner not only acts as a piece of furniture. “It’s actually got whiskey that Ian made himself in there which we made with mash from The Bull in Highgate.”
I spy the pièce de résistance. Ian’s unique distilling kit looks like a giant chemistry experiment; this is where the magic happens. There’s no mad scientist at the helm, rather Ian and his ingenuity.
“Little by little, it evolves and changes,” he says, as talks through the process. “This is an overall integrated system, you can copy it, but most people who would attempt vacuum distillation wouldn’t do it like this.”
I sip my cleverly-named Scarlett Sloehansson – sloe gin with Rosehip Cup and Solerno, a blood orange liqueur. “It’s the nicest job,” Ian says. “You start, not knowing what you’re doing, and as months turn into years, you work out what you should and shouldn’t do.”
Doing business with people who fit their ethos is key. “At the start we were sending packages off to every single supermarket and shop I could think of – thank goodness Tesco didn’t take us.” These days, he says their aim is to “be a small international drinks company and for people to know about us.” So if they’re new to you, we advise you climb the stairs at The Star.