Photograph: Katharine Davies

Photograph: Katharine Davies


Jo Denbury, Features Writer  

“It was when I gave Robin his Christmas present in 2014 that the idea really took hold,” says Jane Cannon. She is talking about her husband Robin’s passion for artisan gin. Gin had been a bit of ‘hobby’, not only for Robin, but for them both. The couple had always enjoyed sampling it, so Jane decided to take the next step and give her husband a tour of a distillery in the south of England as a yuletide treat. “That was the catalyst for a new venture,” she smiles. Newton House Gin was born.

Newton House is the name of their home, a Jacobean manor in Somerset which they purchased in 2007. It was in a state of complete disrepair and they have since spent 10 years lovingly restoring the house and its gardens to their former glory. The grounds are spectacular; the walled garden in particular is perfect for growing the fruit and botanicals they use in their gin.

It has taken just over two years to develop the project and turn what was once the dairy into their distillery. But it is a journey that was waiting to happen in such a natural habitat for a locally produced gin.

Hidden among the foliage is a spring that produces clean, crystal-clear water for the gin, while the botanicals are largely foraged from the garden. Lining the wall of the garden are large glasshouses, at least 90 foot long, that house lemons, oranges and peaches. The mint and blueberries, two of Robin and Jane’s favourite flavours, are picked from nearby garden borders. To those they add the all-important juniper berries, coriander seed, bergamot, yellow grapefruit, liquorice root – this was Robin’s particular choice – almonds and angelica root. The latter, says Robin, “particularly sets the flavour”.

They have clearly had a lot of fun developing their gin. The first foray began with ‘Hermione’, their 10-litre copper still, which was used for much of the experimentation. Once they had settled on the recipe, ‘Henrietta’, a somewhat chunkier 60-litre copper still, was installed. “We named them both over a boozy new-year lunch,” says Jane. Luckily, the girls seem to get on.

Despite all the fun there is to be had, artisan gin has become a serious business, as more and more distilleries are opening up. We Brits have always enjoyed this tipple. It is said that gin was invented in the 17th century by a Dutch chemist called Franciscus Sylvius. It was initially intended for medicinal purposes and used to treat a range of illnesses ranging from kidney ailments to lumbago. In England, however, its popularity really began to soar in the 18th century, when the brandy tax went through the roof and a ‘gin’ craze overtook the country. It is said that, around that time, 11 million gallons was consumed in a year – with an average of 90 bottles a year downed by man, woman and child.

Thankfully, we have now become a little more discerning and prefer to discover the ‘nose’ of the beverage. Although there is still a defining stipulation for gin that no sugar be added, there must be juniper present and a minimum alcohol content of 37.5% – Newton’s stands at 43.2%. For connoisseurs, it is the scent of the botanicals as they hit the palette that has become the ultimate quest.

Robin is covert when it comes to his particular recipe and likes to leave the imbiber to discover the particular sensory ‘notes’ of Newton House Gin. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that this is a slow-pressure gin that won’t be rushed. “Our aspiration is only to produce gin on a small scale and to keep it hand-crafted,” explains Robin. “At the most we will only be able produce 1,000 bottles a week.” > Over the past year Robin and Jane have been busy making the gin themselves. While Robin has been in charge of operating the distilling side of things, Jane has managed the labelling and bottling. However, Tristan Jorgensen has recently joined the business from Islay distillery in Scotland and will take over the distilling for them.

The truth is that, despite being apparent fledglings, these are not people who do things by halves. “Gin has always been my tipple of choice,” says Robin – and, with that, he leads me into the personal gin bar. It is a warm, glamorous corner in the house, where he keeps a collection of over 300 different bottles of gin, both vintage and new. “If I start something, I have to go the whole way,” he explains. “And if it’s something I can collect, I just collect and collect.”

Such a passion has led them to open a bespoke ‘Gin House’ in the former stable and coach house, where they host gin and jazz nights with a supper. There will also be ‘gin and ginger cake afternoons’, to be held on days when the gardens will be open to the public. But the most exciting prospect of all, is that Sherborne will have its own nearby distillery, one that produces an aromatically balanced gin made from waters that flow into the river Yeo. We can all raise a glass to that.