Lance Whitehead – Spirited Perfection
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos of Lance Whitehead and gin products supplied by Dartmouth English Gin
I have made it a habit in life to avoid the envious ‘Jones Effect’ of coveting what other people have. I must admit though, when I recently visited Lance Whitehead (founder and distiller of award-winning Dartmouth English Gin), I struggled to keep this habit in check. He lives with his wife Caroline in a beautiful farmhouse set within a stunning sixty-acre farm which they are mid-way through turning into a plot of land that uses every square inch to produce ingredients for their own wine, cider, gin, brandy and much more. It is a special project indeed, with excellence and passion at the very heart of everything they do. As I was to find out, they have gathered more than a few fans over the last couple of years too. But first, let’s find out a little more about them.
Having spent twenty-one years in the RAF Regiment, an elite fighting force in the air force, Lance Whitehead eventually reached a point in his military career where he had run out of jobs to do. He decided that he didn’t want to become a bureaucrat for another twenty years and his last job was working with the Kuwaiti army, running their infantry officer training. This role involved speaking Arabic, so Lance underwent an intensive Arabic course before departure to Kuwait and while there he completed an MBA from Henley Management College.
Off the back of his Arabic studies, Lance was offered job completely out of the blue by an investment bank based in Bahrain. After a couple of years out there though, he came back to the UK as he wanted his kids to grow up here and, upon arriving back in Blighty, continued his career working with investment firms. As a military man who valued straight-talking and honesty, the sometimes-murky world of finance and investment became one that Lance couldn’t stomach existing within any longer, so in 2000 he joined the private equity team of Kleinwort Benson, before they were bought by Dresdner Bank. They, in turn, were bought by Allianz Insurance who shut down many of the subsidiary arms of the business, one of which Lance worked in.
This redundancy gave Lance the opportunity to take stock and he decided to start his own business, Cygnus Capital Partners Ltd which he still runs to this day. Since 2002, Cygnus have raised over $3bn for funds and direct investments, for a wide range of clients spanning the globe and across a variety of industries.
Fast-forward to 2010 and the Whiteheads bought a holiday let building plus a tiny cottage on The Calancombe Estate – a sixty-acre farm set in a valley between Ivybridge and Dartmouth . They quickly realised that they were sitting on a potentially fantastic vineyard site as most of the sixty-acre plot of land is south facing, it drains well and the climate is benevolent for growing fruit. Add to that the fact that Lance’s wife Caroline is a true connoisseur of wine so she could see the potential of the land. By the way, when I say that she is a connoisseur, I’m not over-exaggerating… she has a specially built underground wine cellar beneath the house with a collection of over two-thousand bottles of fine and rare wines stored in it!
So, they went about starting to plant vines, amounting to almost 23,000 over a five-year period and taking up twenty-four acres of their total sixty available acres.
I hadn’t ever truly appreciated how much of a ‘long-game’ planting a vineyard is until speaking with Lance. He commented,
“We’re still in the initial six- or seven-year process of planting, growing and nurturing the vines, with the first usable grapes having been harvested in 2017. That said, most of these first few crops of grapes are best used for making sparkling wine, which take an additional two to three years to sit before they can be sold. You can see that there is a real long-game involved in starting your own vineyard!
“We are preparing to sell our first bottles later this summer – in this case a really nice Bacchus. We also have 1,011 bottles of sparkling Pinot Noir from 2017 and will be bottling another 12,000 bottles of sparkling Pinot Noir after Easter. So, give it a couple of years and the initial bottles will be saleable, the vines will become more productive and the wine side of the business will start to really grow and thrive. As an estimate, in five years’ time, we will be producing 60,000 bottles of wine each year from our small family-owned vineyard.
Not too shabby if you ask me…
In addition to their vineyard planting, they have planted nine-hundred Cider Apple trees which they will make sparkling cider from using the traditional double-fermentation champagne method although, again, this will take several years before they can bottle and sell the produce.
These long processes evidently will bear fruit eventually (no pun intended), but it became obvious to Lance and Caroline that they would do well to diversify their offering with some shorter term wins too. Having set out with a dream of one day making their own spirits, it was about four years ago that they realised that making their own Gin would form the perfect base for many other liqueurs and, at the time, it seemed that gin was starting to pick up a real pace in the spirits market (an observation that, in retrospect, was an incredibly accurate one).
So, they started planting Mirabelles, Damsons, Plums, Blackcurrants and Rhubarb and, three years ago, Lance and Caroline started really upskilling in terms of their knowledge and their strategy. They attended several courses with Olivier Ward, Co-Founder and Editor of Gin Foundry, which served as a definite reality check in terms of the journey ahead of them towards making a living from producing gin.
The first and main decision for Lance and Caroline, once they had decided to embark upon this journey, was what Still to use. To produce in large quantities, there were many Scottish Stills which they could’ve purchased. However, their attentions turned to Germany as they realised that, due to an historic Austro-Hungarian law allowing farmers to produce no more than three-hundred litres per year of spirit for their own consumption or for sale, there was a micro-economy of world-leading small Stills being manufactured there.
After searching high and low, they settled on a small family-owned Still manufacturer called Müller and Lance dealt directly with their fourth-generation Still builder, Sebastian Müller, placing an order for one of their copper Müller Brennereianlagen Stills which took a year to be built – a real work of art and worth a pretty penny too. One of the main reasons that Lance and Caroline picked this particular Still is that it is exceptional at creating spirits from scratch but it is also excellent at rectifying into gin.
In the interim whilst they waited for their Still to be built, they used a rotary vacuum Still and started learning about botanicals by distilling incredibly small amounts of single botanical spirits. They tried close to seventy different botanicals – from the usual Juniper, Coriander or Cardamom to the more unusual Frankincense and Star Anise. They learned about the potency of botanicals as well as how they interacted with each other and went about a trial and error process of combining certain botanicals and trying to arrive at a basic recipe before their permanent Still arrived.
When it did, in November 2017, Sebastian came with it and put the Still together for Lance and Caroline as well as showing them how to use it and performing some trial runs of their initial recipe with them. Then ensued a final refining process of fine-tuning their recipe. By the ninth time that they ran their still, the recipe was set in stone and that ninth batch was their first full-size distillation of the recipe that has been adhered closely to ever since. It was also their first commercial production of Dartmouth English Gin which they started to sell in late July 2018, mainly in and around Dartmouth.
So popular was this new local gin that the wine shop in Dartmouth has sold over nine-hundred bottles in just seven months and the Dartmouth English Gin name has been spreading like wildfire around the South West and beyond. In fact, just a few months into their journey as a brand, they were encouraged to enter the Craft Distillers Expo Competition, to which Lance laughed and commented,
“It was ridiculous! We’d only just started production and there was no way in my mind that we’d be anywhere near competitive compared to some of the other more well-established craft distillers.”
Never has Lance been happier to be wrong in his life!
The judging day was held at Laverstoke Mill (the home of Bombay Sapphire) and, against incredibly tough competition of over one-hundred gins, the ten industry gurus who were judging unanimously selected Dartmouth English Gin (in a completely fair blind-tasting process) as the winner of the whole thing! So, within a matter of months of producing their first batch of gin, Dartmouth English Gin were awarded Classic Gin of the Year 2018 by the Craft Distilling Expo – a quite remarkable achievement.
The main challenge ever since has been consistency as Lance and Caroline want to ensure that they continue to produce gin of the highest quality that fulfils the various characteristics and flavours that they have painstakingly chosen within their recipe. Lance and Caroline are fanatical about this quality control side of the process and measure out to the last gram the amounts of botanicals used in each distilling process as well as checking the various temperatures around the Still every ten minutes during the long distilling process. This means that their input is as identical as possible each time, which ensures that their output is consistently excellent too.
The Still is housed in an agricultural building positioned along the valley from the Whitehead residence which houses both their production facility and is the site of a brand-new Visitors Centre which they have brought local builder Tony Paul in to complete, ready for opening in the summer of this year. The two facets of the business are highly complementary and overlapping as the experiential side of food and drink production is a real area of growth in the industry. Lance explained their plan to have a mezzanine floor, where the Still will be located, which externally overlooks the beautiful natural surroundings and internally provides a viewing gallery into the production warehouse where their wine is made, bottled and packed for shipping. There are also plans to build bars on both floors to allow for small-to-medium-sized events and, eventually, there is a desire to open a small eatery using ingredients from their terraced kitchen garden (also currently under construction).
A very keen sailor and an amateur artistic blacksmith in his spare time, Lance told me just how close to his and Caroline’s hearts Dartmouth is. He gushed,
“We both have strong Dartmouth roots in terms of our family trees. My maternal grandfather ran a troop ship from Dartmouth which sailed all around the world and my mother and her three sisters all grew up in the area too. Caroline’s mother’s maiden name is Richardson (of which there are many in this area) and she still has family in the area who, historically, were ship builders in Brixham and Dartmouth. We both absolutely love Dartmouth. It is truly one of the most amazing places in the world, and I’ve travelled a lot of it in my life!”
It is clear to me, having spent a wonderful morning with Lance touring their vineyard and facilities, that Dartmouth English Gin (and the variety of other drinks that Lance and Caroline are producing) have a bright future indeed ahead of them. With military planning and precision, coupled with creativity, bravery and vision, they are building something genuinely special and exciting at Calancombe. Watch this space and, if you’re so inclined, get your hands on some Dartmouth English Gin before they start selling like hot cakes!
Stay up to date with Lance Whitehead and Dartmouth English Gin @english_gin on Twitter
In search of more tales of gin? Why not read about Salcombe Gin’s launch of the Voyager Series in collaboration with Monica Galetti here.