The Countdown Begins
Swansea’s history lies muddied and ground into obscurity by the ebbs and flows of the tide of it’s life.
Cygnet Gin is the white phoenix that seeks to rise from the ashes of that seafoam green tumult.
To know Cygnet Gin is to know Swansea, and to know Swansea is to know its history, its heartache, and its beating heart – the people. It was a millennium ago that Swansea first sprung from the Earth. In the mouth of the Tawe there stood a spit of sand, and stories tell of a man named Swein, a Northman who had come to raid the coast, who built a fort there. The fishing was good, and the sea gentle, and it made the perfect stop off before raiding up the Severn to the settlements there. He called this island Sweins Eg, which meant Swein’s Island. For three hundred years, this tiny island was used by the Northerners, and slowly but surely, they outgrew it, spreading to the shore. By the thirteenth century, a fort was built, and the town was a thousand people strong. The Northmen had settled, an accord had been struck, and the raids had ceased – but that didn’t stop Sweins Eg from growing. With the advent of so many travellers and fishermen, the estuary was cleared of debris and weed and a harbour was formed. Boatbuilders flocked to the area and Sweins Eg boomed as a fishing town.
The Ugly Duckling Transforms
The story goes that one hot Summer’s day, the Alderman of the town, woke up one morning after a particularly stormy night. The hardened fishermen knew that that the Severn Estuary was ripe for fishing when the waves churned the silt up, driving the fish to the surface, so they battled the waves and filled their ships with as much fish as they could carry.
An army of fishwives, children, old folks, and anyone else who could hold a knife all flocked to the port and set about gutting and cleaning the fish before they went bad in the sun. They didn’t have time for buckets or troughs, so they simply cast the guts into the water, thinking that the tide would wash them away. But it did something else instead, and when the Alderman woke up and walked out onto the hill to look down over his township, he was enamoured by the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen.
The film of fish oil and meat on the water had had attracted an entire sea full of swans. Thousands flocked in from all across the coast to feed in a frenzy. The ocean churned white in the chaos, a deafening roar rose from the port, and feathers swirled in a whirling dervish of porcelain white.
The alderman ran back inside to tell his wife, it was nothing short of a Swan Sea…
And so, Swein’s Eg, through the Alderman’s story, became Swansea – connecting the animal with the town and fusing them forever more.
But how do we get from the thirteenth century to here? Well, from then on, Swansea was synonymous with opportunists. The savvy swans blazed the trail for anyone looking to make their fortune, and just like the tide, with each ebb and flow, trends changed, fortunes were made and lost and industries flourished and withered.
The Tide Starts to Rise
By the fifteenth century, Swansea was a major shipbuilding hub and trade hub, and those proud men, sea blasted, and salt caked, stood strong against the elements – traders, and merchants, planers, and joiners. Sea men through and through.
By the eighteenth century, Swansea was a major metallurgy hub too, exporting tin, iron, and copper in vast quantities.
The town has seen rises and falls, from the Black Death in the thirteen hundreds, which wiped out half the population, to the blitzes during World War II, where two hundred and thirty nine people died, and the town centre was demolished. All of our hard-won history was shaken that day, but in no way wiped away. We rose again. We rose through wars before that, invasions, changes in monarchies, revolutions and revolts, and Cholera outbreaks in eighteen thirty two and eighteen forty nine. We stood stoic against the storms of time like the swan, pulling ourselves forward through the surf with quiet reservedness.
We knew that whatever spirit we distilled, that it would have to be as intrinsic to Swansea as the bird on which it would be moulded, and after some careful research, it became apparent that fate had only one thing in mind. Gin.
The Wheels of Fate Begin to Turn
During the Cholera outbreaks, a local man named Peter Wakely, who worked the docks, knew that when a wound was had on the docks, that spring water and herbs were the best remedy for cleansing and dressing, and keeping the infection out. So what better way to fight an infection inside than with the same ingredients? And with merchant ships coming in from all over the empire for repairs and trade, it meant that he could collect exotic ingredients for his remedies without much trouble, on the recommendations of the men bringing them in. All he needed now was a way to infuse them.
William Lee, another local man, who was known for distilling his own grain spirit in the hills above the town at the same time, was too concerned about the outbreaks of sickness. The barber surgeons came to him at times and asked for his spirit to help to clean their tools, and he’d never known a drunkard who had the sickness, so he guessed that there must be some sort of connection between the two. He saw an opportunity for himself, and after sitting down with the local apothecary, he found out that there was a local man who had all of the herbs and spices that he could ever hope for to create his heal-all spirit.
Peter and Lee found each other in the midst of this, each needing the other’s help to finish their tincture. They struck an accord and began working tirelessly on fusing together their ingredients into a potion capable of curing the sick.
Of course, it didn’t work – you can’t cure Cholera with gin. But what they did succeed in doing was crafting a recipe that took everything that makes Swansea the great city it is, from the crystalline water running through it’s hills and streams, to the spices and good running through its ports, and brought them together in a symphonic swan song that would forever leave a mark on the city.
The Ebb and the Flow
Sadly, that didn’t happen, and due to their close proximity to the illness while trying to sale their product, they both caught Cholera and perished. Luckily enough however, they fathered families before then, and wouldn’t you know it, Peter and William’s lineage persisted through the years, and through the wars, and ended up with a reincarnation of their partnership, right here.
And that’s our story.
That’s the story of our Gin, our homage, our pledge to the history of this great city. And what better way to honour this standing stone, this megalith of a city, than by crafting a drink as closely tied to it as the animal from which it bears its name.
The Beating of Great Wings
Cygnet Gin embodies every milestone in Swansea’s rich and diverse history. Beginning with the Swan itself, an eight hundred year old mascot. A powerful and proud bird. A timeless and iconic symbol.
Cygnet gin’s bold and brazen presence is undeniable. Like a swan in a duck pond, it glides through the mouth with an elegant grace, gracefully veiling an underlying potency that exhibits itself in as much complexity as the exquisite bird from which it draws its name. But like any story of rebirth, we know that we have to nurture it, despite it’s bold legacy. We chose the Cygnet as a symbol to remind ourselves that we’re always reinventing. We’re always making the new from the old. We’re just the newest generation in a glorious heritage.
Swans are survivors. They fear nothing, and dominate everywhere they go with a quiet nobility that needs no introduction.
We couldn’t not model our own Gin on these principles. An olfactory experience in itself, Cygnet gin is carefully crafted by our own master distiller from a multitude of ingredients, modelled on the recipe of William and Peter – an expert and subtle blend of spices, herbs, berries, seeds, roots, and history.
“Fishermen of mermen
Creep and harp on the tide, sinking their charmed, bent pin
With bridebait of gold bread, I with a living skein,
Tongue and ear in the thread, angle the temple-bound.”
The Hatching of a New Era
History can never lay buried forever, and it waits unendingly for someone to unearth it. We don’t create new things, and we don’t come up with grand ideas. We borrow and craft and reinvent and combine the old together until something is born. We took that recipe, we took the swan, and we took Swansea’s history – the copper from our metalworks to make out stills. The ideals of the the fervent opportunists. The notion of rebirth from the stalwart strength our people have shown in overcoming adversity. The lines from this Thomas poem, which so eloquently express all that we hold dear. How we can find something, locked away in the darkness of our all but forgotten path, and with a single, warming breath, revive it into a thought, an idea so vehement that it burrows into us and refuses to let go.
This is our legacy. – This is our history. – This is your gin
“You have kicked from a dark den, leaped up the whinnying light,
And dug your grave in my breast.”
(How Shall My Animal – Dylan Thomas)
Cygnet Gin – a thousand years in the making.
David & David (Cygnet Gin Founders)