Meet the Distiller
Jonathan and Sarah Nelson, The River Test Distillery
The perfect place to make gin: The River Test Distillery
Despite beginning their venture with limited experience of gin, the perfect location of Jonathan and Sarah Nelson’s cottage on the River Test in Hampshire and overwhelming support from the gin industry filled them with confidence to start making what quickly became an award-winning gin brand.
After long careers as teachers, Jonathan and Sarah were determined to start their own drinks business with the freedom to be creative. They mulled over a number of ideas before the gin industry found them.
Jonathan described: “We weren’t avid gin drinkers, so a distillery wasn’t our first thought. But the more we researched, the more we realised we have clear waters, rich botanicals and everything a distiller needs right on our doorstep.”
It felt like destiny; however, the couple needed convincing. In summer 2017, Jonathan booked himself and Sarah onto a course about how to open a distillery, and they were blown away by the support they received from other passionate distillers.
“It was clear that people skills, networking and marketing are essential to running your own gin brand, which is where I could really excel.”
Jonathan added: “The people side of things really excited Sarah, and I was reassured we could learn the necessary technical skills with the support of other distillers.”
In December that year, they registered the River Test Distillery. While their new industry connections couldn’t show enough support, friends and family aired their concerns. Sarah said: “Those closest to us thought we were taking a big risk.”
Jonathan spoke with attendees on the distilling course who planned to purchase an iStill – a fully automated distillery from an innovative Dutch company of the same name. Intrigued, Jonathan went to the iStill factory in Woerden, near Amsterdam.
“This technology is ground-breaking. It handles all of the complexities that come with distilling without taking any shortcuts, allowing you to experiment with rich flavours and create your own unique taste. I enrolled us into iStill University and haven’t looked back.”
Setting up their garage for gin production on the River Test wasn’t easy, with large amounts of space to clear, special power supply arrangements, and lengthy planning applications.
Sarah said: “We were advised to double or even treble whatever room you think you need for a distillery, which turned out to be good advice.”
Jonathan and Sarah planned to launch the River Test Distillery with stock bottles until they received some crucial advice from a drinks branding expert. Jonathan said: “She helped us realise we have a unique story to tell with the River Test’s world-famous chalk stream that produces gin-clear waters. We decided to go all-in with the branding from the get-go.”
The couple worked with Allied Glass in Leeds on a distinctive bottle that captured the spirit of the River Test.
Sarah described: “As you rotate the bottle, it creates a fishnet effect and mimics water flowing through the chalk stream. It gives a sense of True River Spirit that we’re very proud of.”
The importance of the River Test extends to the brand’s gin production, with a borehole dug deep below their premises to pipe chalk-filtered water into the distillery. This is in addition to Jonathan and Sarah handpicking the rosemary, bay and distinctive meadowsweet botanicals that grow along the riverbanks.
“We only pick Meadowsweet when it’s sunny and it can be difficult to pick, especially in large volumes, which can put distillers off using it. We also include the whole flower, not the leaves.”
The hard work soon paid off, as the River Test Distillery’s London Dry Gin was so successful upon launch that it caused capacity issues for the fledgling brand.
Sarah said: “The authenticity and story of our brand really resonated with people. We were running out of space and had to keep expanding to store pallets, bottles and boxes!”
Winning Best London Dry Gin in England at The World Gin Awards 2020, Gold at the World Spirits Competition 2020 and a Master medal from The Spirits Business in 2020 carried the River Test Distillery’s success through the Covid-19 pandemic. Jonathan and Sarah were also busy making a special edition gin for the Craft Gin Club, a subscription service delivering boxes of gins to people’s homes every month.
Jonathan said: “We created Chalkstream Gold Gin for the Craft Gin Club by replacing meadowsweet with Maris Otter barley, another ingredient growing in the fields adjacent to the distillery, that gives the gin a subtle sweetness and smoothness.
“We received such good feedback that we’re now pleased to be able to offer Chalkstream Gold Gin alongside our London Dry Gin.”
Growing faster than they ever imagined, Jonathan and Sarah now look forward to building a bigger distillery along the river, while working on their third gin. For others considering their first foray into gin, Jonathan and Sarah advise:
“Being inducted into the Gin Guild in 2021 made us realise how fortunate we are to have the support and guidance of amazing people in an amazing industry.
“Gin is all about people, so don’t be afraid to ask questions, learn everything you can and create the best gin possible.”