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Meet Walsingham’s Catholic gin-makers

Work and prayer: Peter Allingham and Jude De Souza of Archangel Gin

Every year 250,000 people make the journey to Walsingham, a remote village in Norfolk which since the 11th century has been one of Europe’s great pilgrimage sites. They may not know it, but on the way they pass a new business venture partly inspired by the faith: Archangel Gin, a Norfolk-based drink made with locally grown juniper, and distilled, bottled and labelled in the area.

The name is no accident. “The road that passes by the back wall of the distillery has been part of the pilgrimage route to Walsingham for hundreds of years,” says co-founder Peter Allingham. “I imagine that there have been tens of thousands of guardian angels walking that route beside their charges. I’m very keen on guardian angels. We put them to so much trouble but they never desert us.”

Allingham has many strings to his bow. He is an IT specialist, amateur Egyptologist and farmer. He’s in his early 50s, as is co-founder Jude De Souza, a London-based statistician and former BBC audience researcher. Two years back they joined forces and built their own distillery on Peter’s family farm.

“Our family has two farms in Norfolk with lots of lovely old buildings which were rather underused,” Allingham says, “so I thought ‘Gin-making sounds fun – let’s do it!’ Sometimes you just have to go for it.”

The design of the angel on the label is “inspired by the highly stylised angels from the Watts Cemetery Chapel at Compton in Surrey,” Allingham explains. “I’ve had those images in my head since I first saw them about 30 years ago.” The seal on the bottle-cap foil reads Angeli ab oriente: “The distillery is in the heart of the diocese of East Anglia and I like to think of our products as Angels from the East,” he says.

The gin draws on local history, too. “We wanted to make something that wasn’t a standard London Dry. There was a heavy Dutch influence in our part of Norfolk in the 16th to 19th centuries. You see that in the many Dutch-style houses in local ports. So making something that paid a little homage to traditional Dutch genever was very much in mind.”

Tasting from the stylish bottle with a large cork leaves no gin connoisseur’s eye dry. While the hefty amount of alcohol (45 per cent, compared to 37.5 per cent for Gordon’s Gin) evaporates into the nose, the rich texture of well-rounded flavour floods the mouth. This gin has a long and delicious finish.

Its strong character means it retains its integrity in mixed drinks, such as gin and tonic and even gin and dry ginger, where it creates a delightfully unexpected experience.

“Archangel is a very full-bodied gin,” says Allingham. “Its rich orange peel base produces something quite different. There are notes of spice there too, and I love the sea buckthorn, angelica and grains-of-paradise flavours. I’m biased, of course, but I think it’s delicious. With tonic, we use about ¼ gin to ¾ tonic with a slice of orange and bags of ice. I love the idea of a cocktail made with as many English ingredients as possible, other than things like orange zest of course.”

It seems to be a winning formula: the first batches of the gin are selling exceptionally well in country and culinary fairs as well as online. Allingham says they wanted to make 4,000 bottles in their first year. So far Archangel has produced around 6,000 bottles in 10 months with nearly £100,000 in sales.

But it all requires a great deal of planning. “We planted a lot of juniper bushes about 15 years ago for pheasants and we’ve just planted another 250. So in due course we’re hoping to be self-sufficient. Alas, at this stage they take a huge amount of very exhausting weeding. I’m afraid the pheasants must go without now.”

Allingham and De Souza offer the work in the spirit of St Benedict’s Ora et Labora – “work and prayer”. “I’m a lay religious in simple vows so lauds, vespers and the rosary are frequently said in the distillery,” Allingham says. “In fact, the distillery was comprehensively blessed back in January 2017, which was a lovely occasion, though horrendously cold as we hadn’t installed the heating at that point. I’ve finally been able to find a crucifix large enough to put up on the wall in the bottling room. It’s a really lovely late 19th-century Dutch crucifix – very appropriate.”

Allingham says his attitude to gin is “very much like Lily Bollinger with her champagne. To paraphrase: ‘I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.’ ”

Are Catholicism and alcohol a good mixture? “Most definitely. Our Lord’s first miracle was at a wedding party turning water to wine and Catholics love to socialise, dine and spend as much time with friends and family as possible. Of course, there is an ancient tradition going way back of monasteries producing beers and liqueurs. We are simply continuing that noble tradition.”

The gin is available on the internet via the online shop, and is also spreading in stores throughout Norfolk, including the region’s leading department stores: Bakers and Larners in Holt and Jarrold in Norwich.

Having spent the first year perfecting the production process, Archangel staff are now concentrating on expansion, including international sales. What began on the road to Walsingham is now going out into the world.

Jan Bentz is a freelance journalist based in Rome

This article first appeared in the January 26 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here