Meet the Distiller
Jon Hillgren, Hernö Gin
Homage to juniper: how Jon Hillgren set out to make one of the world’s best gins and succeeded
Working as a bartender in London in the late 1990s at the start of gin’s renaissance, Jon Hillgren fell in love with the spirit’s classical juniper-forward flavour.
He dreamed of creating a gin that was among the best in the world and eventually started the search for a site to build a distillery in his Swedish homeland.
When he and his wife bought a historic farm in Dala in the beautiful solitude of the High Coast of Sweden, he quickly realised it felt right to build the country’s first dedicated gin distillery there.
After several months of experimentation, Hernö Gin was born in 2011. Jon explains: “I had my vision of the flavour clear and, quite early in the process, I was close. But it needed some fine tuning before it was ready to launch.
“My goal was to create a gin that was among the best in the world but that the company would grow so quickly was beyond my wildest dreams.”
Jon’s goal was realised when he perfected Hernö Gin, a gin he describes as “true to heritage, juniper predominant, yet crisp and floral. The fact that our water is so pure is a huge bonus and something I could have just dreamed about.”
His timing, too, was perfect. Gin sales in Sweden have exploded over the past ten years with a ten-fold increase to more than 560 different gins available in 2021.
“Total volume has grown over 57% and, at the same time, there is a move towards premium and ultra-premium gin,” Jon explained. Additionally, buoyed by its success as the most awarded gin in Europe between 2013 and 2017 including being honoured as the World’s Best Gin twice, Hernö Gin has enjoyed export success.
“Today our biggest exports markets are UK, Denmark and Australia,” Jon said. “We have a few relatively, for us, new markets in Asia where we are also hoping to see quite quick growth.”
With his passion for juniper-forward gins, Jon was inspired to go a step further and create Juniper Cask Gin, the first gin to be matured in juniper wood casks. He explained: “Juniper is the requisite to call the spirit gin. Juniper berries are the predominant flavour of the distillate, why not juniper wood to mature? That journey had some challenges but the amazingly skilled coopers at Thorslunds Kagge have made a fantastic cask.”
The success of Hernö Gin led Jon to expand with a restaurant, cocktail bar and a hotel, the latter opening in 2024, all of which are helping to create a unique gin experience.
“If you can’t visit us at the distillery then we will create hubs with our cocktail bars to give you the experience of Hernö Gin; if you can’t stay overnight in Härnösand to visit us then we will build a hotel. We are removing all hindering factors for your unique gin experience.”
The distillery’s location is part of the brand story and has become a powerful tool, with visitors getting to enjoy the natural beauty of the High Coast of Sweden.
But Jon added: “On the practical side it has its challenges, especially in winter when there is over two metres of snow. Someone at the distillery is always shovelling snow during winter, it’s part of nature and we love it.”
Other challenges, such as Covid-19, haven’t stalled Hernö Gin’s growth. While the pandemic had a huge impact on exports and travel, the business adapted to the digital world, having online meetings and tastings. Jon said: “Coming out at the other end, we are more agile and can work smarter. The pandemic slowed down exports, but we are seeing more and more markets picking up again.”
In 2022 Hernö Gin joined The Gin Guild, as Jon explained: “The Gin Guild has done great work in promoting gin as well as protecting its heritage. We want to support and be part of that.”
With their vintage series Hernö Sipping Gin and Hernö High Coast Terroir Gin, and their limited series, Hernö Interpretations, which has included a successful collaboration with Four Pillars in Australia, Jon and the team know how to keep Hernö’s name and gins on consumers’ lips.
But their main focus remains clear, to: “continue with high quality within our core range,” Jon says. With the number of international awards Hernö continues to accumulate, there is no doubt they are succeeding.