Ruth Brindle discovers the art of blending the perfect flavour for a G&T on a weekend away at an historic coaching inn.

It may only be mid-morning on a sunny day in the glorious South Downs National Park in West Sussex but I confess I’ve already had a few gins.

In fact, I’ve got a whole line-up of glasses in front of me and I am quite happily smelling, swirling and sipping my way through some delightful blends led by my delightful and very knowledgeable host Sarah Thompson at the beautiful Blackdown Distillery, surrounded by the forest’s Silver Birch trees from which the brand takes its signature sap (

My fellow travellers and I are being led through some of the insider tips of blending the perfect gin and it’s fascinating. Hints of juniper, a waft of elderberry, whatever takes your fancy. I am amazed there are so many different possible flavours and so many different possibilities for this drink that is enjoying a growing popularity among trendy types around the country.

Some gin connoisseurs in our enthusiastic group even prompt a discussion of which tonic mixers should be used to enhance our drinks and which should be shunned! I’ll keep quiet about my supermarket brand languishing, previously opened and without its fizz, in my dining room cabinet.

Sarah is an entertaining host as she shows us around the artisan distillery that she and husband Nathan set up in 2012. They also produce vermouth, mead, vodka and liquers and have obviously worked tirelessly to open to the public this year, putting the renovation of their period home next door on the back burner.

This visit is part of a popular package put together by owners of the nearby Spread Eagle Hotel in Midhurst, one of the oldest coaching inns in the country. The hotel boasts its own Gin Bar with 60 different gins, including Blackdown, of course (and 12 different tonics), so we were able to continue our own ‘gin journey’ in the historic and cosy atmosphere at the hotel even choosing garnishes brought in from the Spread Eagle’s own garden.

It’s this level of attention to detail that was to epitomise my stay over a relaxing weekend.

The Spread Eagle dates back to the 15th Century in parts and from the first moment you walk through the doors it’s obvious you will be staying somewhere special. Owned by the same family for more than 50 years, there is a friendly, attentive atmosphere that immediately draws you in.

Oak beams and uneven floors tell you that this is indeed an historic building – Admiral Lord Nelson stayed here during the 1790s - but it’s the modern, luxury touches that complete its appeal. I’m staying in one of the deluxe suites and particularly love the antique furniture and Pip Studio porcelain and bathroom accessories. It’s a stylish touch.

But while it’s tempting to remain in my beautiful room, lounging under the four poster canopy, the spa was calling. The indoor swimming pool, jacuzzi and fitness room are open to all guests, and is a beautiful space with a tranquil courtyard garden to lounge and relax. After a short splash in the pool, I decided to take full advantage of my chance to unwind by enjoying a treatment. My back massage with therapist Steph was one of the most effective I’ve had. Goodbye knots in muscles. The products used in the spa are from Templespa, based in West Sussex and this highlights a priority for the Spread Eagle and its two sister West Sussex hotels Bailiffscourt in Climping and Ockenden Manor in Cuckfield.

Wherever possible the aim of the upmarket hostelries is to use local products and produce and the menus offered throughout the day reflect that.

The provenance map gives a fascinating insight into the rich offerings around Sussex – meat and game, charcuterie, coffee, cheese, seafood, even wine and vodka are bought in from a rich selection of top-rated local suppliers. Sussex sparkling wine was a special treat as there are several award-winning vineyards in the surrounding area.

There’s certainly plenty to explore and discover during a longer stay in the heart of the South Downs National Park, but I was content to just wander around Midhurst itself, a charming market town that has been voted one of the best places to live in the UK by a national Sunday newspaper. I can see why. Just a short walk from the hotel are the ruins of the historic house on the Cowdray country estate where Queen Elizabeth I and Henry VIII once stayed. It was partially destroyed by fire in 1793. Next to the house you can also stop at the café and farm shop, wander around some of the 16,500 acres of the estate and even watch a polo match as there are 450 during the season.

The town itself, with more than 100 listed buildings, has also provided inspiration for writers such as HG Wells, Anya Seaton and Ruth Rendell. St Ann’s Hill was once the site of a Norman castle.

I’m so glad I discovered the area and particularly the Spread Eagle, which is a true gem and so easy to get to from London and the Home Counties. I’ll certainly be back and when I arrive I’ll start with a refreshing Blackdown gin and tonic.

Fact box

A West Sussex Gin Journey with The Spread Eagle Hotel & Spa From £339. Price includes overnight accommodation in a Traditional Room on a B&B basis, a three course dinner, gin cocktail, gin tasting tour at Blackdown Distillery, return transport and a gin blending kit. Subject to availability. To book: 01730 816911,