Words by Dan Warden
A man on a mission to explore the wilder side of gin.
A far cry from his previous career in finance, Alex Palmer-Samborne, founder of award-winning Lantic Gin, has realised his dream of running his own distillery whilst living a life outdoors. Born and raised in the south west, Alex spent most of his childhood and teenage years with a love for the outdoors. With an upbringing spent scouring hedgerows and hillsides for foraged goods along with his family – who share his passion for growing their own produce – from a very young age, a lifetime pursuit of flavour and determination to capitalise on the coast’s natural larder was well and truly ignited.
When he first moved to London to work for various investment houses, Alex’s interest in food and ingredients was, at the same time, being further fuelled by the start of Jamie Oliver’s Naked Chef series. Together with his flatmates above a well-known bar in Shoreditch, Alex dreamed of owning his very own gastropub in the southwest. And despite his base in London, being an avid surfer meant that he could often be found on the First Great Western mainline on Fridays, returning home to make the most of decent swells. Later in 2009, in the wake of the time’s financial crisis, Alex decided to move back to the region full time, settling down as an Investment Manager in Devon.
It would take a trip to Barcelona to plant the seed of an idea in his head for a gin business. Whilst he was there, his Spanish friends were all drinking gin and tonic from Copa de Balon glasses, something which he hadn’t seen before. “An early experience of my grandmother’s gin had left me none-too enthusiastic about the spirit,” he laughs, “but I was intrigued, and then surprised to discover a different and lighter flavour.” Back in the UK, the pioneers of the craft gin movement were proving that it was indeed possible to move away from the traditional juniper heavy gins towards new, exciting, contemporary offerings – refining their recipes and firmly steering perceptions away from the ruinous reputation of their predecessors.
“I became really interested in discovering these new gins and their story, particularly local distillers, as well as the process behind it,” continues Alex. In 2017, he decided it was time to bring together his burgeoning interest in gin and passion for foraging, and begin distilling his own. Inspired by the rich flora and fauna in Cornwall, his ambition, he tells us, was to create a gin that was different to any other on the market; not only made in Cornwall, but made using Cornish ingredients and thereby capturing, in a bottle, Cornwall’s unique seaside character. But it wasn’t as easy as Alex perhaps first envisaged, and he soon discovered that whilst the gin distillation process itself is well documented, there is little information available around the use of more exotic ingredients, particularly botanicals native to Cornwall.
Middle, the fruits of Sam's labour, right, Cornish botanicals
So, it was with an open mind – and a foraging book to hand – that Alex set about distilling his first batch of selected botanicals in his original two-litre copper alembic still, building up his knowledge of foraged flavours along the way. “Quite often, after distillation,” says Alex, “promising finds turned out very differently from their original flavour and aroma,” however after distilling and sampling 50 different variations, he finally arrived at a point where he was confident to leave a career in finance and invest all of his savings, and dive headfirst into opening his own distillery.
The pursuit of native Cornish flavours
The namesake of the birds whose song is the soundtrack to many of Alex’s foraging expeditions, Skylark Distillery is located in a converted barn on the Boconnoc Estate near Lostwithiel. After the initial set up, it wasn’t long before the first batch of Lantic Gin was produced – named after a nearby hidden bay on the south Cornish coast. The recipe comprises six hand-foraged herbs and flowers – gorse flower, heather and rock samphire, apple mint, water mint, and lemon thyme – alongside more traditional botanicals, all blended together with pure Cornish spring water. “The challenge was to find native flowers and herbs that are sustainable and thereby keep our environmental impact to a minimum,” says Alex, speaking of an ethos that underpins everything he and the Skylark Distillery team do.
In 2018, having perfected the ‘Lantic’ blend, Alex purchased a new 150-litre still, which he named after his mother, Virginia. Then in May that year, he sold his very first bottle at the local shop. “It was the best feeling ever.” But it was a high that he was soon to beat, as he explains that the next day “I sold six cases to a large local distributor. I was completely ecstatic!”
The perfect serve
Now well and truly into the swing of things, Alex’s determination to maintain momentum saw him head to his first event – Lostwithiel Gin Festival. “I was incredibly nervous being surrounded by all these other successful gin distilleries,” Alex admits, but he needn’t have been; his supply of Lantic Gin quickly sold out, testament to its growing popularity. This, he says, was “the biggest relief and the confidence boost I needed”. Later, to seal off a superb first year, Lantic Gin scooped Silver at the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC). Later still, it ranked an impressive 6th in the world at the IWSC’s 2020 Gin and Tonic Awards!
Left, a drop of the coast, right, Sam’s original two-litre copper alembic still
Since then, Alex has gone on to develop two further gins under the Lantic Gin brand – a Summer Foraged and a Winter Foraged gin. “During the development of Lantic Gin, I found some wonderful botanicals which were only viable for one to two months of the year,” he explains. “I’ve now used these in my seasonal limited editions, which we successfully launched last year.” While Lantic Gin has come to evoke Cornwall’s year-round natural beauty and wilderness, these seasonal editions capture the fleeting moments of the year that those who know Cornwall love. In such moments, a different larder of wild herbs and botanicals is there to be raided, and each offers up a distinctive flavour profile that perfectly complements their seasonality.
With a wealth of foraging knowledge under his belt, Alex continues to explore the Cornish coastline with his Labrador Bentley in tow. In fact, he is currently working on some exciting plans and prospective proposals which he hopes to launch over the next few years, meaning that for the gin lovers out there, Lantic is most definitely one to watch.