Hamish Martin, the botanist sharing his love for nature through pink gin
Meet Hamish Martin, founder of The Old Curiosity Distillery
“I had no intention to make gin. I had no intention to spend any time selling alcohol. All I wanted to do is grow plants and sell herbs and create a green space” says Hamish, founder of The Old Curiosity Distillery.
10 years ago, Hamish was working in the booze trade, and he thought he’d left it all behind when he decided to study botanics instead.
“It’s like opening Doctor Who’s tardis door” he exclaims. “I had no idea where this journey was going to take me. I just knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with plants.”
It started when Hamish spotted a huge derelict glasshouse, with a smashed, concave roof, filled with rosebay willowherb and thistles. Most wouldn’t have looked twice, but Hamish visualised how it looked in its prime with beautiful vines and figs and peaches and he thought, ‘Right, guys. I hear you. I get it.’ He knew he needed to buy the land, and his family moved into a static caravan for three years while they got to work.
“It’s all about finding the keys, sweeping away the ivy, opening the door to let the magic of plants into your lives”
Hamish wanted to create a green space for people to experience nature and the magic of plants. Together with his wife, three kids and five dogs, he created The Glass House and The Secret Herb Garden (with over 600 varieties of herbs), inspired by The Secret Garden book. “It’s all about finding the keys, sweeping away the ivy, opening the door to let the magic of plants into your lives,” says Hamish.
To make a living, they opened a cafe selling coffees, cakes, salads and the plants. “As we got busy, it was brilliant. People came to us and said, ‘Actually, can we get married here because we love it?’ So, we ended up doing weddings.” says Hamish.
The weddings were incredibly successful, and it meant they had a ‘real’ business. “Both Libs and I feel that we’re actually passengers – we’re not driving this car. Everything’s been coming to us and I’m a great believer if you are in the right space, the right people and the right things come at the right time” says Hamish.
But the big plot twist came when the council told them that they could no longer hold weddings, as it wasn’t in line with their horticulture holding. “Without weddings, to be honest with you, the business as a model wasn’t going to work” sighs Hamish. They’d have to fight to keep weddings going, and needed a new stream of income.
Little did they know that things would fall beautifully into place. “As a herbalist and an ex-distiller, I’d been making this pink gin from the roses” says Hamish. “We’d just been drinking it at home for a laugh for maybe two years previously.” It was then when Hamish’s wife said, “You’re going to have to start a business with that gin.”
They found three investors, and with nine months of hard work, The Old Curiosity Distillery was born. Fortunately, the gin was a godsend and it’s now stocked in Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, Fortnum and Mason, M&S, and John Lewis. Not to mention their small family team which has grown to 17 people.
“If we hadn’t done the gin, I can guarantee we wouldn’t have survived. There’s no way,” says Hamish. Even better, after two years of struggling with the council, they won and started holding weddings earlier this year.
Hamish hadn’t planned on returning to the booze business. “My passion is plants. So, how I do it now is I put gin on a label but I’m really talking to people about plants, about nature. That’s all I’m doing. I just use gin as a vehicle,” he explains. “All it’s done is just given me a bigger audience to communicate how powerful nature is.”
Their renowned colour-changing gin is miraculous, and it’s all down to a natural chemical in the plant petals called anthocynanin.
Their renowned colour-changing gin is miraculous, and it’s all down to a natural chemical in the plant petals called anthocynanin. When mixed with citric acid in tonic, it turns pink. “It’s a completely natural reaction. The colour of the gins only come from the colours of the petals of the plants themselves,” explains Hamish.
As a herbalist, Hamish proudly uses the Apothecary rose, which is the only rose with medicinal qualities. “A garden without a rose is like a body without a soul. You have to have them,” says Haimish, who has recently opened The Apothecary Rose Garden, to pay homage to the rose behind their colour-changing gin.
When visitors tour the space, they see the garden and the botanics, the drying room, the bottling hall, and they witness how everything’s done by hand, from earth to glass. “Then they become our best ambassadors, because they know actually this isn’t a marketing con,” explains Hamish. “All I want people to know is how magical nature is. That’s it.”
And that’s the message the brand is built upon. “People are waking up to the fact that the earth needs to be treated with more respect,” he adds. More than anything, Hamish wants to inspire everyone to have a relationship with nature and think ‘actually, maybe I should be looking at plants in a different way.’
Every journey comes with ups and downs. What does Hamish say he’d have done differently? “Nothing. The toughest periods you go through are the greatest learning opportunities. Expect challenges and respect them and crack on,” he declares.
For Hamish, one frustrating period was when he first tried to open a business bank account. “The bigger banks are so painful” sighs Hamish. “It was one step, another step, and then we got so far down the road with one bank, and they said, ‘Oh, you haven’t got x document…’ and I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’” This was the final straw that led Hamish to discover Tide. “We logged on and joined that way. No problems. So easy.”
One aspect of Tide that Hamish is particularly pleased with is being able to see his transactions immediately – there’s no more downtime having to wait until the following month for his paper statements to complete his management accounts.
And finally, one of Hamish’s best pieces of advice: “As a small business, stick to a principle that you believe in and don’t worry about having to set the world on fire.”
Cheers to that.