Creating the Philharmonia Gin

Wardington's Original founder Shaun Ward with Philharmonia Gin

In 2020, the Orchestra embarked on a new adventure with artisan distillery Wardington’s Original Ludlow Dry gin, resulting in our now award-winning Philharmonia Gin.

Explore the story behind the gin’s creation in this blog from Wardington’s Original founder and chief distiller, Shaun Ward.

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Creating a new gin is always a joy and a pleasure…

The Philharmonia Orchestra is something of a national treasure, and one with which I’ve had first-hand experience over many years. Hereford is one of the three cities that host the Three Choirs Festival, the oldest music festival in the world, tracing its history back over 300 years. For a slightly shorter period, the Philharmonia has been the resident orchestra at the festival. Hereford has also been my adopted home for the last 20 years, as my husband Peter is organist of the cathedral. He regularly performs with the Philharmonia at the annual Three Choirs Festivals, and as a former oboe/cor anglais player himself, working as part of such a fine ensemble is one of the highlights of his year.

Our relationship with the Philharmonia deepened during the last Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester in 2019. Ludlow Gin hosted a gin bar in the cathedral close, frequented by concert goers and orchestral players alike. The music world is a small world, and by various close connections it wasn’t long before both parties saw a possible benefit in supporting each other. At a Philharmonia concert in the Royal Festival Hall, the orchestra’s London residence, the idea for a limited-edition gin first came to me.

Music has played an enormous role in my own life. I grew up in Bristol with a background where the arts and music weren’t readily accessible or available. The great epiphany of my childhood was being taken to my first carol service at our local church. Candles, choir, organ all combined to create an experience that was beyond my imagination. Ultimately, I went on to learn the organ, and was lucky enough to win a scholarship and read music as an undergraduate and postgraduate.

I also had a long career in conservation of historic buildings, and British modernism is something of a private passion; the Royal Festival Hall (RFH) is a remarkable space, faithfully restored, full of post-war confidence and a perfect backdrop for the enjoyment of music.

Cathedral concert at Three Choirs Festival, seen through a window shaped like a clover

The Philharmonia performing at Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester

Imagine now my joy at sitting in the concert at the RFH in spring 2020, listening to the incredible ensemble of players, creating sublime music for a house full of punters. Nothing replaces live music. It’s a visceral experience, something that takes us back to a primitive camp-fire collective experience; something we share, often without needing to speak, but focussing instead on the sights and sounds we are witnessing.

The music that evening was Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.2, a piece a dear friend studied and performed when I was reading music at university. During the slow movement, the combination of space, architecture, music, personal connection and sublime playing allowed me to experience something almost impossible to put into words. It was at this event that I realised I must do something to help support the work of this one of the UK’s finest ensembles.

Fast forward just a few weeks: lockdown had hit, concerts across the country were cancelled, our own business had changed dramatically, more so than any of us could have imagined. In times like these, there is only one thing to do: set your mind to the wind and sail into the storm. Our close bond with the orchestra had been made and it was therefore perfectly natural to say, the opportunity lies before us, let’s work together on a new gin, a gin for the orchestra, a chance to provide a small but vital contribution to their important work. 2020 also marked the 75th anniversary of the Philharmonia and so it was very timely to work on an exciting project to celebrate all that is excellent in live music-making.

The Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall

When creating a gin, I need to feel a connection, and a historic one makes for easy inspiration. London was firmly in my mind when creating it and how the Thames, that great artery into the city, was once the blood line that fed commerce. From this trade, the British connection with exotic fruits has many historic roots; Nell Gwynne, daughter of the Welsh Marches, was famous for selling her oranges in London theatres. As was a little Peruvian bear who enjoyed nothing better than a Seville marmalade sandwich: Paddington. The bronze statue of Paddington sits in Paddington station, and when I arrive in London on the GWR, I often give a nod to my fellow bear, from whom my own nickname Wardington Bear is derived.

Seville oranges were therefore a natural choice; my cousin Paddington would have been proud. I can imagine now the ships docking with the cargos of dried peels for the gin distillers of London. The docklands must have been an extremely interesting area, with fragrances of spices and commodities filling the air. The ‘big four’ botanicals, as they are known in the gin world, are juniper, coriander, angelica and orris. These form the backbone of all of our Ludlow gins, they’re like the four sections of the orchestra: strings, woodwind, brass and percussion.

But what of the soloists? Well, the imports of the spice trade would have provided exciting potential for the London distillers to give their individual gins something of an edge. For our own creation, we’ve added cassia bark – strong cinnamon-like notes; grains of paradise – a touch of heat; and liquorice – actually known as distillers’ sugar as it’s fifty times sweeter than cane sugar. The gentle aromatic spices and heat are the perfect partner to the bitter Seville orange, the liquorice adding just a touch of sweetness to achieve the perfect balance.

After months of thinking and meetings, I committed the botanicals to the still, to see what my idea would produce. In those lockdown times, a zoom gin tasting with three players from the orchestra was an interesting distraction in dark times. As ever, I like to keep my own powder dry, but I was very proud of what I’d created – two contrasting versions had been dispatched, one lighter, one more intense. Much fun was had that evening; both players and office staff joined us for an introduction into the world of distilling and then the blind tasting. The intense version was chosen, by an almost overwhelming majority, interestingly the one I felt was best too. And so the Philharmonia London Dry Gin was born.

Music has an ability to change lives. From the very birth of time humans have gathered together made music, danced and felt a mutual bond. In our current difficult circumstances, the online presence of the Philharmonia brought much needed comfort and connection. The summer of 2021 has brought much joy as concert halls have begun to reopen. We were lucky enough be at the first live concert with the Philharmonia recently, what joy!  The summer promises even more delights with the Three Choirs Festival set to run at Worcester from Saturday 24 July to Sunday 1 August. We’ll be running a gin bar in the cathedral close, and Philharmonia gin will be featuring, so pop along for a drink and support the orchestra by buying a bottle; we look forward to meeting you. Chin, chin!

Two bottles of Philharmonia Gin and a glass on top of a piano next to a season programme, fairy lights in the background

Bottles of Philharmonia Gin