SB meets… Xavier Baker, Isle of Wight Distillery

Xavier Baker, co-founder of Isle of Wight Distillery, the UK island’s ‘first and only’ distillery, tells us about finding success in the US and the company’s move into rum.

What made you start the Isle of Wight Distillery?

The idea was to produce some gin locally here on the Isle of Wight that would represent the island and its coastal elements. Going back and forth with my good friend Conrad Gauntlett, who ran Rosemary Vineyard, and has been a winemaker and grower for 35 years, we would meet up and have a chat about fermentation, bottling, filtration, all sorts of things. We thought to ourselves ‘geez you know it would be great to get a distillery set up and underway on the Isle of Wight’, and we went from there really.

What sets Mermaid Gin apart from other gins?

Being on the island gives us a good bit of provenance. For the gin, we use rock samphire – a botanical that we’ve forged on the south side of the island. I brewed a beer with it four years ago, so I’ve always had a soft spot for it, and its nickname locally is mermaid’s kiss. That comes from an urban legend and also ties into the range’s name.

Why do you think Mermaid is doing well in the US?

The launch in America has been incredible. For us, it was a big unknown. We partnered with Total Wine & More, which has about 230 stores in 23 states, and we’re available in all of them. While [in the UK] we are almost on the other side of a boom, over there it’s still quite new.

Tonic brands like Fever-Tree, London Essence and Artisan Drinks Co are putting time and investment into America, where tonic can be generally very sweet. In the past a gin and tonic didn’t really work out there, but now they’re understanding the importance of having a quality tonic in the fridge to pair with gin. Tonic brands working with Palomas and Mules, some of the most popular cocktails out there, have the opportunity to establish themselves in bars in America, so this is certainly helping growth and interest in gin.

What are you doing to be sustainable?

With our plastic-free bottles, we wanted to have something of beauty that was tactile, but also sustainable and reusable. People upsell them on Ebay and last year we were the highest-selling empty bottle on the site. We love hearing that bars around the country are selling the bottles for £5 and that the money goes towards a local charity. It’s great to hear what they do with the bottles – turning the recyclable glass into lights and lanterns, chopping them into counters and all sorts.

What measures are you taking to help the local community?

We’re very passionate about the surroundings and environment being here on the island. We see some of the stuff that gets washed on shore, like plastic nurdles in the seaweed. We work closely with Surfers Against Sewage, which is an active body that tries to stop water companies dropping discharge into our seas.

We also support Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust focusing on seagrass meadows here on the Solent, as we have the longest seagrass meadow in Europe; from Osborne Bay to Bembridge Ledge, which is over half a mile from where we are now. The team go down in their wellies at low tide, monitoring the sea grass – a habitat for bass, lobsters, cuttlefish and other marine life – so we’re supporting the local economies and fishermen as well. We just want to get involved really. If it wasn’t for the island getting behind us, we wouldn’t be where we are now.

We’re also rowing from the Canary Islands 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to Antigua on 12 December for an initiative named ‘The World’s Toughest Row’. Mermaid Gin is the main sponsor and the team is called Mermaid Atlantic. We’re supporting the same local charities to curb the damage done to the ocean and its ecosystems.

What made you produce rum?

While the gin is our flagship, we wanted to do something with rum for a long time – especially with the island’s smuggling history over the years. We’re bringing in a blended rum, of sugarcane and molasses matured in Bourbon casks, from the Dominican Republic.

We wanted to infuse that with some of the Isle’s fruits and botanicals. So local cherries, apricots, honey from hives on the distillery and holy grass that my mum grows in the garden. We feel our spiced rum really captures that island essence.

We’ve also done a navy strength rum for years, named HMS Victory. We have a partnership with the National Museum of the Royal Navy and 5% of sales go back to the ongoing restoration of the ship. We’ve also got an oak stave from the HMS Victory itself in the barrels. Having gone into the museum’s archives we have recreated (as far as we can say) the truest replication of a navy rum from back in the day when the Royal Navy were going around the Caribbean islands selecting rum from Trinidad and Jamaica and blending them together at 57% ABV.

What are your thoughts on the surge in interest for rum?

There’s a lot of interest in rum at the moment. It’s flying up. We’re finding that what whisky lovers appreciate about a nice dram – things like the wood maturation, history, barley and everything else – seems to be following through to rum. I think people apply the same principles to rum now, savouring the moment and showing a desire to understand more about it. A lot of the rum interest stems from whisky. People are looking at a discerning drink, sipping it neat and are keen to understand more about the oak, the history and where the liquid comes from.

What do you have planned for the future?

It’s an uncertain time. Of course we remain forever positive. We launched a zest gin two years ago, made with grapefruit, lemon and bergamot. That’s doing really well now. For now we’re going to stay focused on our core range and steadily keep moving forward.

We’re having early conversations about entering Australia which we are hugely excited about, and over in Asia. We’ll also try to work with chefs and restaurants for some food pairings next year.

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Author: Rupert Hohwieler

Timothy Kelly

Tim is the Founder & Master Distiller at Felene. He developed his passion for the spirits and hospitality business while growing-up and working in his family's restaurant and liquor store business. Tim’s passion for the epicurean lifestyle has found it’s latest manifestation in the Felene Distillery. Tim is a 5-time Gold Medal Award winning Distiller. He has won a Platinum medal at the Prestigious Los Angeles Spirits Awards and his signature vodka was named Best-in-Category by the American Distilling Institute. Mr. Kelly is also a prolific author and writer and his blog is filled with ideas, discoveries, observations and recommendations to help his readers enjoy life’s simple epicurean pleasures.

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