A very special artisanal producer
We can sense that we are in for something of a treat as Charlotte Race, Thyme's mixologist and I travel the 15 minute journey to the tiny hamlet of Westwell, the home of Gibson's Organic Liqueurs. Narrow single-track roads criss-cross the Oxfordshire countryside, a landscape of rolling fields flecked with poppies; the sun is shining and as we park there are skylarks above us. We have come to meet Miles Gibson, an unassuming, charming man passionate about organic growing.
Taking his ‘commute to work’ from his backdoor up a short bank to the field of fruit that fuels the small winery, we are momentarily speechless at the sight of the expansive field of long grasses and flower meadow stretching around us, framed as it is by woodland and the roof top of his parents’ home, Westwell Manor. The air is still and it is unimaginably peaceful. Rows of autumn raspberries, half their potential height at this point in July; black, red and white currant, almost ripe; elderflowers just turning toward berries; half rows of blackthorn for their sloes. It is very ‘Darling Buds of May’. Miles studied organic farming at The Scottish Agricultural College in Edinburgh before taking a nomadic journey to gain experience with box-scheme producers of fruit, vegetables & herbs in Scotland, and winery placements in Sussex & Somerset – but for Miles, a twinkle in his eye and blackcurrant liqueur staining his forearms, it was ‘booze all the way.’ He explains that ‘small organic farmers know they have to produce as well as grow,’ to rely on selling fresh fruit from his small acreage would not make sense, and we get the sense it wouldn’t have been enough. He is not only a farmer, he is an artisan. So after finding some ancient recipes in a wonderful old book, currently mislaid, Miles began his journey as a liqueur maker. Ten years after planting his fruit, the business produces a range of fruit liqueurs alongside sloe gin and an intriguing sloe whisky.
He is waiting for the sunshine to ripen the currants and then harvest can start in earnest. We walk a mown path intended as a running track, past his shed where he had thought to sit and contemplate his fruit although there never seems to be time, and make our way to the ‘winery.’ It is a simple, humble space, no great hum of technology simply a water-press for the fruit and the large 200 litre containers for the liqueurs and then the bottling table. The integrity of the liqueurs, of Miles' growing ethos, supported only by volunteer farm workers during harvest, ensures that the simplicity of the process is extraordinarily thoughtful. It is about taste; they are not bottled until they are ready, no sulphites, no additives, and everything is done by hand only using fruit grown on the farm. The flavours are coaxed out of the fruit, from the gentle way they are grown in the Cotswold landscape to the considered way he bottles the liqueur. Handing this year’s elderflower liqueur to Charlotte, Miles asks her opinion about its readiness – it is not ready yet they both agree (I think it is lovely but what do I know!), it will be given the time to mature, for that heady aroma to really come through before it sees a bottle.
We use Gibson's liqueurs in The Baa at Thyme & at The Swan. They are delicious chilled on their own with cheese or dessert, fabulous in a glass of bubbly and we were so inspired that Charlotte created a very special cocktail for our recent Thyme’s Table with chef & writer Oliver Rowe, introducing Gibson's to our guests in the best possible way – in a martini glass.
We are grateful for the use of Ros West's gorgeous images