Cotswolds Distillery – A Beautiful Ideology

Nestled in the countryside of Shipton-on-Stour is a tiny and unassuming property, the Cotswolds Distillery. It was so sweetly hidden in the rolling hills and golden fields that only those with intention could find it. And what a reward for those who do, as these quiet buildings are hiding something truly magical.

I first met Jack Barnard of Cotswolds Distillery at one of Gin Festival.com‘s Festivals in Bristol. Now, one of the perks of my job as a Brand Representative for Tinker is that I get to work these festivals and rub shoulders with other gins, terrible stuff, I tell you…with a wink and a smile. I spent a little time talking to Jack and fell in love with their 1616, (more on that later), which had me quickly asking to visit and write up on them. It’s a fantastic drink, but I didn’t realise quite how much they had going on there.

We begin our story with Dan Szor, a New Yorker that had moved to London. The Cotswolds were a regular holiday away from the city. He decided to make the move and being a whisky fan, he looked into setting up a distillery. I have to say, I made one trip to that place and I can see how he fell for it. It is utterly stunning, and this beauty has become the ideology behind their range of spirits in everything between the initial concept to the final product.

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Visitors Centre

Dan brought the two barn buildings and warehouse and set about renovating them. The first now houses the visitors centre and shop, the second is where every part of the production process happens and there’s also a warehouse housing one cask from each batch of malt spirit for them to check regularly. The rest lie in a specialist warehouse built next to the river Mersey. The whisky is ready soon, the 7th October, however the first batch is already sold out. Having tried the malt spirit, I’d say its a sound investment as it’s looking very promising that they’ll have created something very special. And, we need to thank this aging process, as the spirits they’ve created in the meantime are very special too. Unintentional and incredible, humble yet wildly spectacular.

To begin the tour we were sat in a room to watch a brief video giving an introduction to the distillery. The video opens with the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar and panning shots of the hedgerows and wildlife. The video covers the contributing companies including Warminster Maltings who supply the barley to make the Cotswolds malt spirit, and are local to the Cotswolds. There is a focus on the whisky as this was Dan’s primary intention however, it was the beginning of a path into lots of different spirits, included of course, the glorious gin.

As we find with some distillers, they distill a malt spirit but then start looking into other spirits while waiting for the aging process to make it whisky. Being that gin doesn’t require this aging process, many distilleries then turn to gin to keep “the lights on” until the whisky is ready. I am truly thankful that this is the case, as this has led to the production of some fantastic gins and other spirits to boot.

With Cotswolds, they wanted to create a classic London Dry “a gin that could stand up to tonic”. They began by distilling some 150 botanicals to create what they call ‘The Library’. Three distillers then set about creating a gin and they were blind tasted to chose a winner. The idea with the gin, as with the whole range of spirits, is that they are a taste of the Cotswolds, they evoke the peaceful countryside and the rich nature surrounding the distillery. Quality of process was paramount to evoke the status of the renowned landscape.

The botanicals in the Cotswold Dry are a heady mix with key botanicals lavender, bay leaves and pepper. Fresh zest of grapefruit and lime are used, requiring regular hand peeling as mechanical peeling includes the piff which gives the gin a bitter taste. When they originally thought up this plan they were making one batch every six weeks. Now however, they make two a day, every day. Has this changed their process? Of course not. This is a major part of the gins flavour and mouthfeel, so as Distiller Zoe Rutherford puts it “We’ve got to deal with it now”. This is a prime example of their attention to detail and their ‘roll the gloves’ up attitude to hard work.

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The tailor-made, hybrid Holstein Still 

The process of distillation is precise. The base botanicals juniper, coriander and angelica go in to the 96.3% NGS (Neutral Grain Spirit) overnight for 12 hours before the final 6 are added the next day before distillation. The still is steam powered and heats the mixture to temperatures under 100 degrees but above 78.5 as this is point in which alcohol evaporates leaving the water. They heat it slowly meaning a longer and more gentle distillation with 6-7 hours of heat. For each distillation they get 150L of hearts at 83% and they the leave this to rest for 5 days before watering down to the required ABV and bottling. As Zoe explains, its important to let all the flavours bind. “When we cook a stew or a curry it always tastes better the day after”. They’re quite happy to give the patience required to make a higher quality product. Even so, including the rest period the whole process of making a batch, from start to finish is still just a week, which in relation to the whisky, makes the gin a very practical staple.

And, the gin is doing very well. Since it’s launch in 2014 it’s won various awards, including the IWSC Silver in 2015 and the World Gins for Best London Dry in 2016. It’s now being stocked in Selfridges, and now in Waitrose’s around the local area. It’s also being exported to 23 countries around the world, which is impressive stuff for such a short amount of time. However, despite how far the gin is reaching, Zoe admits they “couldn’t have done” it without local support and that their core focus is still their backyard. The distillery prides itself on keeping business as local as possible and for operating in the most eco-friendly way. For example, all the waste, the heads and tails that come off each distillation get put into an effluent tank and taken to a local anaerobic digestion plant that turns it into bio gas.

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The Warehouse

After a look at the whisky process we are taken through to the warehouse by Ellie. We learnt some very interesting facts here. For example, the hotter the whisky is in the barrel, the quicker it ages (which makes sense) however more is lost to the normal 2% angels share, hence they are aged slowly at a lower temperature. The barrels are a mixture of American oak bourbon barrels from companies like Woodford Reserve and Jim Beam, giving warm vanilla tones and wine casks. For other projects a collection of wine casks, sherry butts and port barrels amongst other interesting casks.

Then, the exciting part. The tasting room. The tasting room is welcoming, a cosy front room, complete with log fire, sofas, tables and chairs and its own corner barn. There wasn’t one thing even slightly ‘business’ about this space. It was so comfortable and homely and had me immediately wondering how amazing it must be around Christmas. This for me, and most likely the others on the tour, was the grand finale. Because one of my favourite things about this distillery is the diversity of the other spirits that they produce. All of the other valuables that have come from their natural creativity and restless attention to detail.

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The Tasting Room

First up the Dry. Dry on the nose with lavender, peppercorn and lime, there is a high quantity of a high quality botanicals, around 10 times more than some distillers. In tasting I found the lavender so well balanced with the lime and peppercorn dancing at the end. With ice it becomes creamy, the citrus oils giving a thicker feel and a louche, an effect where the gin becomes slightly cloudy and iridescent in colour. This generally happens when there’s a lot of citrus oil in the gin and it reacts with water. Louching has has mixed reviews in the past and rather than shy from this, Cotswolds are very proud of their ‘cloudy gin’. I’m really behind them looking to change this opinion to be more positive. I love the citrus flavour, you can taste the freshness and hard work put into hand peeling all of the fruit. If this comes as a slightly cloudy gin then I’ll take my gin cloudy. More information on the technicalities of louching can be found on their website here. Recommended serve of this is with grapefruit and a bay leaf.

DSC_0477Secondly the 1616. The 1616 is what made me fall in love with them from the start. It’s essentially a Genever, a malt based spirit with juniper, but being a locally protected term they still refer to it as gin. Cask aged in specially toasted and recharred wine casks, it’s a truly fabulous drink and with the addition of ginger beer it sets ablaze, a glorious taste alluding to hot cross buns. As far as I’m concerned, this drink is a triumph. A tribute to William Shakespeare on the 400th Anniversary of his death, their malt spirit is re-distilled with juniper, coriander, cassia, nutmeg and orange peel amongst other secret ingredients before going into the casks to mellow. This is one exquisite libation. As Shakespeare wrote in the Merry Wives of Windsor “Come, gentlemen, I hope we shall drink down all unkindness”.

DSC_0479They’ve made a summer cup. I tried this with ginger and it was a beautiful ode to the old English tradition. Made using their dry, homemade Vermouth a splash or Triple Sec and their Spirited Sherry, it’s just gorgeous. They’ve made some experimental gins, the Countess Grey Gin and Bahorat with cardomen chili, cuman and black pepper, a gin that starts with sweet fruits moving on a gentle spice.

DSC_0475Then we have the other drinks. There’s a cream liqueur, which I shall be using to make the most delicious cheesecake. There’s an absinthe, modelled on a 19th century recipe. Absinthe is an interesting drink, botanicals like wormwood are believed to hold the power to give the drinker hallucinations. Don’t panic, they’ve tried and tested this and have concluded that you would need to consume 20-30 glasses of absinthe to feel this effect and at 60% it’s highly likely that would hit you first. There’s a gorgeous and warming apple brandy and my favourite of the off shots, the Spirited Sherry. They first got the idea from the Sherry-seasoned barrels for maturing the whisky. They left Dan pondering that “if sherried whisky tastes great, then so should whiskied sherry.” A blend of Spanish Olorosso and Pedro Ximenez are used along with the single Malt spirit. This is on my Christmas list for sure. If you could keep a note of that, Jack and Zoe, I’d really appreciate it.

Just in case this has wet your appetite somewhat, all of the delightful libations can be purchased through the Cotswold Distillery’s online shop, here.

When I write, I like to go into detail. And, the Cotswolds Distillery have so much detail, it’s almost easy to get lost in it. For this reason, this article needs a sum up, a conclusion at the end. My conclusion is this: that The Cotswolds Distillery has my respect. It’s a distillery that doesn’t cut corners, that tirelessly works to produce spirits to shine as a testament to their beloved local area, from the hard work of farmers plowing the fields of golden corn, to the beauty of the sunset after the day of work, to the light fragrances and soft sounds of wildlife that drift around in the evening; to the Cotswolds themselves. Their creativity has produced a large and varied range of spirits, wild and free, that still share a similar nature, a certain magic that can be found there and only there. And as harvest season is upon us, I raise a glass to everyone who works those beautiful fields and those whose imagination allows me to drink such an evocative thing and to imagine I’m sat amongst those fields myself.

Many thanks to Jack Barnard and Zoe Rutherford for hosting, for your assistance and the photos – courtesy of Cotswold Distillery.

 

 

Sipsmith and Portobello Road – Two staple gin related London landmarks.

Friday 24th February, I went on a lovely jolly up to London with the illustrious David T Smith and delightful Cherry Constable, in order to research for a new book. It’s a hard life, I tell you.

First up was the monumental Sipsmith Distillery. Now any discerning gin drinking will know the importance of Sipsmith. Back in 2009 they successfully completed a court process to allow small batch distillation again and set up the first distillery in London for approximately 200 years. Due to this, they are arguably the forefathers of the ‘glorious’ revolution we have been experiencing the last few years. They are essentially the gardener who pulled up the paving slabs and let the flowers grow.

With this in mind, you can perhaps understand my overwhelming excitement at visiting their distillery with new bar. It’s an interesting thing, discovering where the magic happens. The entrance to the distillery is purely functional, looking more like a garage for your MOT than one of the most successful and established gins in the artisanal range. As soon as we get inside however, it is apparent that the humble exterior is concealing all sorts of delightful surprises. A beautiful copper bar sits along the right hand wall with members of staff to run through the gins and give the all important tastings.

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We were lucky enough to have a tasting session with the man himself, Master Distiller, Jared Brown. We began with their sipping vodka, the 40% spirit used to make the gin. The taste is sublimely smooth and sets a good standard for the quality and flavour of the gin. ‘Sipping vodka’ is an extremely adequate name.

We slowly worked through the range. Beginning with the London Dry a classic soft pine, sweet citrus “dry meadow flower warm spice, lime grass with pepper in the long finish”. During distillation a narrow heart is collected and there are differing opinions on filtering, Jared putting forward the good point that filtering can remove qualities as well as impurities. When it comes to the recipe they had a mission: “In the absence of a bench mark we set out to create a bench mark, a dry gin made in London”.

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The tasting session was full of really delicious and interesting and information on the distillation process. or example during the production of the Lemon Drizzle, fresh fruit was used plus hand squeezed peel. That’s a lot of work and a lot of love in every bottle. I thought that it tasted good, and now I know why.

We also tried the VJOP (Very, Junipery Over proof), London Cup (a punch using the London Dry) and the Sloe, all fabulous gins indeed. The wall to the left of the bar is covered with large round bottles of experimental flavours. It’s quite clear that Sipsmith do strive to create spirits of quality with a specific, almost scientific approach but that creativity is still thriving. I’d definitely recommend a visit there. It’s a fantastic place and the people are lovely. Well done guys and girls!

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Feeling considerably light headed, we then moved on to ‘The Distillery’, the Portobello Road Distillery with Gintonica bar and hotel. What a beautiful place that is and a fantastic idea to boot. The decor is gorgeous with deep blues and greens on the walls with huge sash windows giving a beautiful sense of decadence to the building. There was something romantic about it, as if it had the capacity to transport us back in time to the days of the true gin palaces. It really is a lovely place.

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The Gintonica Bar is equally special. We were lucky enough to meet James, who is responsible for writing the cocktail menu, a fantastic twist on the growing popularity of Spanish serve gin and tonic in copa glasses, a halfway house between the gin and tonic and the cocktail. There were some fantastic options, my favourite being one including Nordes  Atlantic Galician Gin with hibiscus, orange and ginger.

Portobello Road have also been experimental with their flavours. I was lucky enough to try their ‘Butter Gin’, the sweetness was strong and very nice, making this a prime base to use with cocktails holding any sort of peanut butter or chocolate flavours. They also produce a ‘Director’s Cut’, utilising the unusual botanical of late season English Asparagus. The flavour is wonderful and very unusual.

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Finally getting to visit the Sipsmith Distillery was a fantastic experience and one I’ve been waiting patiently for, for so long now. It feels ever so good to finally tick it off my list! As for the Portobello Road Gin Hotel, what a beautiful building. Their Gintonica Bar is 100% worth a visit. Lots of interesting gins as well as there own variations and their cocktail menu is gorgeous. Thank you for having us!

IOW Distillery – Mermaids and the mighty – HMS Victory Navy Strength Gin

Being lucky enough to work at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth, I have developed an enormous appreciation for all things nautical. This concept goes exceedingly well with gin, which has a place in naval history, including cocktails originating from naval roots. What we see today as created for taste was once created for functionality. Even the humble gin and tonic was suggested to be born during the navies voyages to colonial India, with quinine being recognised for anti-malarial qualities and the addition of lime a necessary shot of Vitamin C goodness to fight scurvy.

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Ryde Pier

Bearing this is in mind, you can imagine my excitement at the opportunity to meet Xavier Baker of the Isle of Wight Distillery, creator of the mighty HMS Victory Gin. So, I hopped on the catamaran and made my way to Ryde on the beautiful Isle of Wight just over the water and a world away.

Xavier has many years of brewing experience under his belt and it shows. Years of brewing on the island plus a three-year stint setting up a brewery on the Dingle Peninsula of Ireland. With such a rich background, distilling felt like the next natural step. His 20 yearlong friend Conrad Gauntlett of Rosemary Vineyard provided the perfect opportunity and over an idea and a handshake one day they decided to set up the IOW Distillery.

The premises is a kid in a candy store situation of all things farm shop. Shelves of indulgent chutneys, chocolates, liquors and wines gleam the rich colours of temptation. Xavier admits he has been very lucky, despite the intensive two-year experience to obtain a full distillery license; he got there eventually. Not one to do things by halves, he went for a full license so he could create whatever he wanted. “It was like being on the apprentice” he smiled, “They were sat at a desk facing us and they asked what we wanted to make and our response was whisky, vodka, gin…oh and moonshine”.

It is absolutely worth mentioning the moonshine at this point. Before we even got into the gin I was lucky enough to sample the 30% Apple Pie Moonshine, grain spirit mixed with fresh apple juice from the Island, brown sugar and vanilla. It’s honest, natural goodness and it tastes incredible. Meant to be mixed with hot chocolate or lemonade, I confess that I’d be quite happy sitting next to a fire sipping it straight from the jam jar. This along with an Isle of Wight Whisky currently ageing in the cask (6 months in and tasting fabulous), Rock Sea Salt Vodka and let’s not forget the gin; shows the ambition and creativity of their distillery. Still, it’s all taken in stride and he seems quite comfortable with the new pace of life. There are more ideas on the boil…but unfortunately, he’s not able to tell me about them just yet.

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Still in action

It was a wonderful moment when I arrived to find a distillation in progress. Watching the gin flowing down the insides of the column still evokes the peace of watching a water feature in a nice garden. Oh? Would I care to try some freshly distilled at 90%? Don’t mind if I do! When it comes to distillation, Xavier cuts the hearts off early, leaving longer tails which admittedly is an extra cost implication but it really does boost the quality of the drink. Even at 90% it’s still incredibly smooth. Botanicals are maturated in the gin for 24 hours, distillation takes equal time and the resulting gin is left to rest for 7 days before being bottled.

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Inspiration

So let’s get onto that all important gin. We’ll start with the Mermaids (named after the boats out near Seaview). It’s light, bright and airy. It reminds me of an old, white walled, high ceiled room near the sea, with the big sash window open and a breeze gently twiddling long net curtains between its delicate fingers. As well as freshly peeled lemon zest, botanicals include Grains of Paradise for extra peppery hues, rock samphire to give that sweet and salty almost carrot like quality and a hint of elderflower. Bodecian hops grown in Ventnor botanical gardens seem to be a nod to Xavier himself, with him living in Ventnor and with his brewing history. It’s an eclectic collection of botanicals that politely sidestep the idea of forefront flavour and dance together harmoniously. Woken with an eager prod of tonic and cucumber garnish, it’s a refreshing twist on the popularity of Hendricks style sweeter gins.

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Botanical Mix

And what’s the story with the infamous HMS Victory Gin? It’s the same botanical make up as Mermaid’s only stronger and it makes such a change to the flavour. The peppery citrus is pushed to the back of the queue and the rock samphire comes roaring forward like high tide. Xavier had been wanting to create a navy strength gin and had been wondering what historical approach to go for. Living so close to Victory, it became obvious that a homage to her was a brilliant idea. Built in 1765 and designed by Sir Thomas Slade, she is a Georgian first rate ship of the line (or ‘battle line’, a name that birthed the more modern day term ‘battleship’). 850 crew manning 104 gins made her a formidable opponent and her fight at Trafalgar led by Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson has made her one of the most famous ships in the world. Xavier has been working very closely with Giles Gould, Head of Commercial Services at NMRN’s Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. I for one can testify as to the passion and dedication all those within the Dockyard put into bringing these ships and histories to life, not merely for us to observe them, but to feel and truly experience them. With this in mind we are always looking for new ways to engage the pubic and spread the word of history, endeavouring to ignite a spark that could develop into a roaring interest. This was a brilliant opportunity to remarry gin with our local nautical heritage.

So work began in earnest. The gin itself was a relatively simple move, alcohol content was increased from 42-57%. For those unaware, 57% navy strength spirits were born from the fact that if they were spilt on gunpowder at 57% or above the gunpowder would still ignite. She needed something further, but what else could be done? Victory was a ship that had engaged in numerous battles and skirmishes over a period of approximately 40 years. At Trafalgar no British ships were lost to the combined French and Spanish fleet who lost 22 ships between them in a resounding win. Lord Admiral Nelson passed away on the Orlop Deck on hearing the result, over 3 hours after being shot on the quarter deck by a French gunman. She is the oldest commissioned warship in the world. Something this special deserved something special in this gin.

Four barrels were created by the Country’s only Master Cooper, Alistair Simms, using staves of oak from Victory herself. There will also be some original copper. The barrels were charred to allow the grain to open to increase the surface area and potency of the aging. The idea behind this is that over the various time periods (5 months, 1 year, 3 years and 5 years), the flavours and colour will be drawn out recreating an experience similar to what Officers drinking gin could have had all those years ago. In essence the gin will not only be based upon history, it will be made from history itself. A percentage of sales will go to support the ongoing restoration project of Victory which is incredibly important work required on one of our own National Treasures.

The first of these special casks is due to be opened during a ceremonial evening on Victory in October, along with a talk with Gin Historian David T Smith, who himself had a relative at the Battle of Trafalgar which is a fantastic link. I am just desperate to get on board for that evening. I’m sure there will be plenty I could share with you. Let’s keep our fingers and toes crossed for that one.

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Nautical by Nature

From the rolling hills of Rosemary’s vineyard, we took a short journey to the Seaview Hotel, right by the beach in Seaview. The link here was this hotel was one of the earliest to stock Mermaid’s gin. Tracy Mikich, the warm, friendly and very witty Executive Assistant, has been incredibly supportive of Xavier and his projects. As soon as she heard there was a locally made gin she called to order some and they’ve never looked back. They provide gin as it should be, with copa glass, Fever Tree mixer and complementing garnish, cucumber for Mermaids and blood orange being a favourite in discussions of what would best suit Victory. Mermaid’s gin is popular with the locals and is a big seller. This sort of support is exactly what independent businesses should give their local gins. Wholesalers including clauses restricting customers to purchase all gins through them have a bit to answer for. The beauty of a gin is its locality and it’s something that locals should be proud of and should support. I’m a firm believer that in this world dominated by big brands, any decent local pubs/bars should sell some local gins.

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The Seaview Hotel

The Seaview Hotel is absolutely magnificent. In times of bland, tick certain boxes hotels it is simply fantastic to find somewhere so very true to itself and its heritage. Originally built by sea faring family the Caws who founded the village, it’s just soaked in history. (There’s even family legend amongst the Caws that Nelson used to row to the Hotel for a beer, although the only remaining Caws, William Gerald, thinks that may be an exaggeration). The museum worthy collection of nautical memorabilia that adorns a huge part of the interior walls keeps growing with additional contributions from guests and the staff there are starting to catalogue which is proving a timely but rewarding exercise.

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Fever-Tree’s new Aromatic Tonic Water is just made for HMS Victory Navy Strength Gin

We sat in the quiet Naval Mess Bar and Tracy brought over some glasses and cucumber for us to set up a session. With Mermaid’s gin and standard Fever-Tree it make’s for the perfect serve and I sip politely with eyes upon me and gulp when heads are turned. It’s a wonderfully refreshing drink. All the flavours play in their gentle harmony to give a beautiful all round taste. I try some Victory on it’s own and again I can really appreciate the quality. For the tonic I am incredibly lucky to try some over Fever-Tree’s new offering, the aromatic tonic with extracts of angostura. Due for release in August it is slightly pink in colour and created specifically to compliment navy strength gins in ode to the traditional pink gin drunk in the Navy. I have to say, I’m so pleased to see a new offering from Fever-Tree and it tastes wonderful, especially with the gin. For further info on Fever-Tree do check out my previous write up on them.

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The food at the Seaview is divine. It should be, being the only venue on the island to be awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand, but even lunch is special. I passed up the opportunity of the hotels speciality dish, the crab ramekin (I promise I’ll be back for that) and went for traditional fish and chips, which had a beautiful crunchy batter. Tracy takes a great interest in history. She tells me that the neighbouring village of St Helens may have been one of the last views Nelson had when leaving Portsmouth to head to Trafalgar and it is also thought that Victory was moored at St Helens with his body on board whilst they made the funeral arrangements. There is a painting that hangs in the Nelson Gallery at the Historic Dockyard that portrays this, ‘HMS ‘Victory’ Anchored off the Isle of Wight’ by John Wilson Carmichael.

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HMS Victory Anchored off the Isle of Wight – John Wilson Carmichael

After some heartfelt goodbyes and promises of returning visits, I waited for my boat back across the water. I took deep breaths of the salty air and a moment to really appreciate the setting of the sea washing out under the pier. The history behind gin is fast becoming a deep and dedicated interest of mine. I felt truly privileged to have met both Xavier and Tracy and to have had an insight into a really lovely world where history is cherished like the memories of lost loved ones. Mermaids gin is beautiful and the Victory gin is truly mighty. However, for now we play the waiting game, to see just how wonderful the cask aged gin will be. To love history so much and be able to actually consume it, to feel at one with the seafarers that gave us both our future and our heritage, well that surely is that special gesture that HMS Victory so deserves.

Special thanks to Xavier and Tracy for being so kind and hosting me in wonderful fashion and to all my friends and colleagues at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard for the support and your continued care and commitment to our precious history.

Half Hitch – A double exposure of past and present

I’ve had a soft spot for Camden since I was young. It reminded me of Brighton, where people were colourful and inventive and most importantly didn’t judge each other. It’s been my favourite pocket of London for as long as I can remember. As it transpires, under that bright and bubbly surface lay a deep history of distillation of one of my favourite spirits. At the age of 15 I can remember looking down the canal. Little did I know that buildings I saw and the surrounding landscape once housed a 20 acre goods station complete with gin distillery, set in motion by illustrious Brothers Walter and Alfred Gilbey. The site handled everything from distilling to bottling to shipping all over the world. Almost lost to the sepia pages of an old history book, the story is being continued and brought back to life in the form of a small batch gin, handcrafted in a micro distillery in a humble but prominent premises in West Yard, Camden Lock. The premises was once the blacksmiths, where the shoes were made for the horses that pulled those gin bearing barges some 150 years ago.

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The view from the canal. Gilbey House, the white building on the left was once the distillery. Dead Dog Hole is under the Interchange Building on the right.

Founder Mark Holdsworth’s love and pride of his work is difficult to describe. Despite his 16 years previous experience, including with brand giant Barcardi, it’s still a brave thing stepping foot into the world of gin, setting up a small business and swimming with the big fishes. Even with this, he’s not the only one, but he’s got a very good idea. Being a local man (he worked at Camden market when he was a teenager), his knowledge of the area is comprehensive and driven by a genuine interest that most historians will understand. On arrival we go for a walk around the market, gin in hand, to the bridge over the canal, where he points out the old W & A Gilby distillery building and the Interchange Building complete with Interchange Basin known as ‘Dead Dog Hole’, created to take six horse drawn barges a time for loading (the half hitch knot being used to moor them). There was even the Gilbey Express railway that used to export gin to the dockyards and all over the world. Mark must also take credit for the introduction to the website which explains with a kind of magic how ‘those who walk the surrounding cobble stones are blissfully unaware of its history”.
(View from the canal photo credit geograph.org.uk)

The botanicals used continue to allude to the old photographic scene developing in my mind, the smell of key botantical single estate Malawian black tea, with pepper and Calabrian bergamot, the smoky air smelling faintly of English wood and hay fed to the working horses. The shouts of people hard at work, in an era that slowly drifts away from our current day, leaving the staunch remnants of architectural wonder, museums and period drama. Still, the distillery is a beautiful homage to those times as well as now; fusing modern distillation techniques with the old. Half Hitch use a combination of tinctures, a traditional column still and a vacuum still (the sight of it really took me aback when I arrived), a wonderfully new and scientific approach as overseen by Mark’s resident distiller Chris Taylor, formally of COLD who holds a brilliant scientific knowledge. A chemistry graduate from Warwick, he also has a professional qualification from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling.

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Mark with vacuum still to the left and traditional copper still to the right

The vacuum still is a fantastically futuristic piece of kit. Reminiscent of school days in science labs, the ability to lower the boiling points of botanicals allow more fragile flavours to be released. It’s only able to process a small amount at any one time, but by doing this to add to the traditional distillation and blending with tinctures gives a whole extra level to the flavour spectrum to play with. Tinctures are a lovely homage to old (a traditional process for medical purposes of using alcohol to extract the flavour of more delicate botanicals such as the tea). Half Hitch are indeed, incredibly experimental and have the set up to facilitate it. I was lucky enough to try a little of the ‘pickled onion monster munch’ variety. The preservation and balance of the flavour was mindblowing from what was in essence a packet of crisps and it had me immediately thinking of all the other flavours there were in the world to play with. Mark explains their ‘ethos is using the right production technique to get the best out of each botanical’ and they are very proud to use high end botanicals too.
(Mark with vacuum still to the left photo credit Boutique Barbar Show).

The gin itself is just wonderful. I love the colouration taken from the tea as this further alludes to the sense of days of dirty faces, smoky clothes and old letters blowing in the streets. There is fantastic complexity to the earl grey type flavour that I can’t help but imagine the Gilbey’s celebrating. Orange is a key garnish to both cocktails and G&T’s as it naturally coaxes out the woody notes and bergamont citrus. If you need some more ideas for drinking then check the cocktails page on their website which has a few twists on old favourites. Bottles can be ordered online direct from the Half Hitch site or from a number of stockists and are even available in prestigious stores such as Selfridges.

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Mark first stumbled across the history through his daughter who is educated locally. Further to this he discovered further information from local heritage campaigner Peter Darley, founder of Camden Railway Heritage Trust. Walter and Alfred Gilbey began their enterprise after being discharged from the Crimean War and returning to London. They started with wine, moving to the Camden premises in 1869. Camden was a particularly good location due to the London Birmingham Trunk Railway (built by Robert Stephenson and the first of it’s kind in the world to enter a capital city) and setting up their gin distillery in 1871. During this time the landscaped changed with basins being enlarged and buildings being changed however was fit for purpose. A lot of this can still be seen today and it’s an important part of the local history that is too often missed. (I’ve linked most pages in this article, but further information on the history of W & A Gilbey can be found at various sources, most notably the Gilbey page on Peter’s website, with additional information on  the Gilbeys on a local history page and Camden’s Railway Heritage from the Friends of the National Railway Museum). It’s this history that Mark appreciates and it occurred to him that it had been 50 years since 1964, when the Gilbey industry had moved to Harlow and with that he decided it would be a nice idea to start making gin there again as an ode to its monumental past.

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This mix of old and new is to me, the heart of Half Hitch. Many gins allude to their history, but it’s nice to see one where history and its inevitable future wrap around each other and start to grow into something else. The foundations of idea lay as they’ve done since 1869, and history is revived through that mix of old and new, creating the giddy glory of taste and smell achieved through knowledge and techniques that would have had our gin making ancestors as fascinated as we are when something allows us to see back in time. As the years go on connections to our past are lost. But with people like Mark creating quality gins based on an lost history, he is inadvertently bringing those eras together and tying them tight with a round turn and two half hitches of a rope knot.

 

 

City Of London Distillery

Amidst the hustle and bustle of London City, nestled quietly down Bride Lane and just out of reach of the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral; sits the humble entrance to COLD or to those in the know, the City of London Distillery.

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The distillery opened in late 2012 and was the first within the City of London Square Mile for 200 years, (the Victorian gin craze has a lot to answer for). The Square Mile, or ‘City of London’ is a city inside a city, with their own Mayor and police force…so it makes perfect sense that they should have their own distillery.

So how did COLD come about? In 1967 a gentleman called Jonathon Clarke was a 16 year old dishwasher in the golf club/bar that previously occupied the premises, living on £32.50 a week. He would go on to purchase the freehold in 1997 and at 50 years old would get into gin and tonic, eventually becoming Master Distiller of COLD.

Descending down the stairs away from the close heat of outside, the understated and subtle entrance hides a beautiful speakeasy style underground bar that opens up into a blissfully relaxing space that feels a world away from the busy streets just above. Today I’m meeting Alfie Amayo, Brand Ambassador and COLD know-it-all for a distillery tour and tasting and boy, does he know a trick or two! Despite being not long back from a business trip to Switzerland, he’s excitable and engaging, with his torrent of knowledge being broken down into sizeable chunks by pausing to ask questions, keeping me well on my toes. He’s full of fantastic gin related tit bits such as the ancient medicinal uses for juniper, including its use during the bubonic plague and as a contraception (not to be tried at home ladies and gentlemen, there is little proof it worked).

The distillery

The distillery is a beautiful set up and it spotless. Approximately 9ft x 14ft in size, it’s made up of Jennifer and Clarissa, 2 x 140L copper pot stills and named after the 2 fat ladies. Also a fabulous 7 level column still, which really is very clever indeed. The first step is cleaning the spirit. White spirit, which can be made from starchy materials such as grain or potato is brought in, (it’s actually quite rare for a distillery to make their own). In this case it’s wheat based and through Jennifer it’s cleaned to remove as much of the methonal as possible.

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The spirit is mixed with water then heated by an electric coil (as we know alcohol is incredibly flammable and despite the bomb proof glass surrounding the equipment, we certainly don’t want a explosion). It’s made up of methanol (the bad stuff) which evaporates at 67.4deg, ethanol (the good stuff) which evaporates at 74deg and water, which as we know evaporates at 100deg (all Celsius). During this process the sulphites react with the copper, making copper sulphite (surprise) which needs to be cleaned from the walls of the still regularly. This over time thins the metal, meaning a full replacement is required very 10 years or so. Not a cheap endeavour when we’re talking highly sought after German Carl equipment. In fact, in just 3 years, public demand means the waiting list has soared from 4 months to 18, which is perfect testament to the fabulous gin revival that we’re lucky to be living in, well I feel blessed for certain.

The 7 plate column still then filters, as the vapour rises it hitting the metal sheets, cooling it down and separating the methanol and ethanol by condensation. Ethanol comes out at 95% and Alfie explains the finer details that it will always react with the environment to be at 95%, higher levels are only achievable in a controlled environment.

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Once the spirit is clean, the single shot distillation can begin with Clarissa. Micro distilleries such as this, producing 200 bottles per batch can use the single-shot process; the botanicals, alcohol and water being distilled into a liquid where only water is added. Companies making larger batches need to use the multi-shot method, where are the gin ‘concentrate’ is created through distillation and then watered and sugared down into it’s final form.

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It’s this single shot method, that requires full attention and care from the distiller. A distillation has to be watched at all times as the changing pressure can alter the times and volumes and each batch must come out perfectly. There is just no room for error when there’s no way of altering the final taste. The botanicals are put in the still with half alcohol and half water. This is to prevent them from getting closer to the coil and burning as the alcohol evaporates as this would impair the final flavour. He admits after playing with different waters to see how it would affect the final taste, they prefer to use water that’s been purified through a reverse osmosis machine. It’s interesting to note that pure water is actually quite dangerous for us, but when it’s mixed with alcohol it’s ok, thank goodness.

Of every 80L, the first 500ml distilled will be the methanol, or the ‘heads’, this is collected in a jug and discarded by a company in an environmentally friendly manner (there are different methods such as it being sold on to make nail varnish remover), the next 63L is the ethanol or the ‘heart’ and is collected in large, metal churns. The ‘tails’ left over from the process consist of broken down compounds and are not used in the gin.

The gin

Alfie takes me through a room full of mini stills (for gin making classes), to the tasting room which is stacked with different gins and small jars full of different dry botanicals. Here we get to grips with the individual smells and tastes of piney juniper, coriander to add spicey and citrus notes, liquorice to sweeten and angelica to give the flavour a good earthy base. These are the base flavours for City of London gins and there are different varieties that have their own twist. All are made by forefather, Jonathon Clarke, bar the Christopher Wren gin, which I have read good things about and incredibly eager to try. The bottles are new, designed especially for COLD and take inspiration from their neighbour, St Paul’s Cathedral.

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No1. City of London Dry – 41.3% – Amongst the base 4 botanicals, there is a wonderful combination of orange, lemon and pink grapefruit which gives a lovely zesty finish. It’s a delicate dry gin with a superb flavour and winner of the Silver Award for the International Wine and Spirits Competition 2015.

No2. Christopher Wren – 45.3% – Created by Tanqueray distiller Tom Nichol, this was the one I’d been eager to try, with the addition of sweet orange, the flavour is divine. Named after the architect responsible for rebuilding St Paul’s Cathedral after the great fire of 1666, this gin proves itself as an architect of flavour by winning Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2016.

No3. Old Tom – 43.3% – I’m a fan of Old Tom gins. As well as a bit of history (you can read more on this in my A fantastical history of gin), my palette likes a sweetened gin if it’s done right. Distillers have to be careful. Sometimes they can be too thick, almost syrupy in flavour and consistency. I have to say, this Old Tom is brilliant. Really delicately flavoured and on the nose with balance of cassia and cardamom spice and a slight hint of sour from zesty orange and lemon.

No4. Sloe gin – 28% – Made with Blackthorn berries, this is an excellent example of a sloe gin. A slow gin has to be sweetened as it’s just to sour on its own. Again, COLD have delicately sidestepped over sweetening with a well balanced sloe gin that leaves a tingle of tartness on the tongue. This is not surprisingly, the winner of Silver-Outstanding Award in the International Wine and Spirit Competition 2015.

No5. Square Mile – 47.3% – Similar base to the dry gin, but with a little tweak and some extra strength. Coriander is used to give additional citrusy flavours as too much citrus would make the drink to oily and cause it to turn milky when added to tonic. This gin is a well deserved tribute to the home of COLD. Winner of the Gold San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2016.

After a few drinks I was comfortable and heady so I stayed talking all things gin with Alfie for quite some time and to be honest, I could have stayed longer. COLD is a beautiful place, steeped in history and passion from the people that work there. Everything alludes to their love of gin, from the delicacy and complexity of flavour to the constant homage to their history. Through Alfie’s time and patience I probably learnt more of the technicalities of craftsmanship than any of my meetings to date. I can’t recommend it here enough, at minimum for a drink or ideally for a distillery tour/gin tasting because it’s a brilliant experience that’s fun and oh so interesting. And please, please do yourself a favour and seek out the Christopher Wren. It’s gorgeous.

 

 

Paul Bower – Twisted Nose

Paul Bower, the creator of the locally renowned Twisted Nose was the first distiller I had the joy and good fortune to meet. Not only was he a gentleman,  he was also to keen to tell the secrets of a gin that continues to grow in popularity. Produced locally in Winchester, Twisted Nose is an ode to the surrounding area. The trademark peppery watercress and lavender have been grown locally for centuries (the name Twisted Nose itself comes from Nasturtium – Latin for watercress). Keeping defining notes in the recipe to local ingredients was an intentional move from Paul, who insists that the best gins come with their own story, and a bit of history. image His passion is apparent in his words and his obvious enthusiasm in his craft. Bringing along his first copper pot still, there is a certain sense of well earnt pride in what he’s established. The years of experimenting with flavours and timings are starting to pay off. Having a new premises on the horizon and with business booming, he hasnt let it go to his head and still personally distills each and every batch to determine where the best hearts are and he sets his standards high. “Yes” he acknowledges, ‘”I still take extreme care with each distillation”. image Meeting him was a true eye opener to my early days of gin knowledge, as he had also brought along a small kilner jar of each of the botanicals he uses so we could identify the individual scents. This was a huge stepping stone in my understanding of each botanical and what it delivers to the overall ‘gin flavour’ we know and love. Juniper, citrus peel (Paul chooses grapefruit to give a different twist), cassia, fennel and with angelica and oris root to seal it, all became definable and I’ve ever since been able to pick those flavours out of any gins I try, and understand how the varying intensities affect each flavour.

The success of his gin has also allowed him to explore new territories. He let us sample his new sloe gin, with a more fresh and natural approach to flavour than what we taste in the sweeter existing varieties. Next was an incredibly flavourful wasabi vodka (a must for any bloody mary) and a remarkable and very different vermouth. A strong hit of wormwood gives this a beautifully earthy and rustic taste and I immediately wonder what a gin martini would be like. There is also a barrel aged gin, for those after something a little special. His knowledge is astute and the gin is aged in German oak barrels for several weeks. The choice of barrel is a reference to those widely used to transport gin in days gone by and the delivered flavour is wholesome and honest. There is most certainly a sincerity in natural flavour that is dazzling but humble and this style is really what makes his range stand out. The vermouth is definitely on my wishlist (It’s my birthday in August, in case you were wondering Paul).

Now I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re feeling thirsty. If you want any info on the Twisted Nose range (including where to find it), you can find out more at the website here and if you’re local to Portsmouth, why not pop into Gin and Olive for a quick tipple. Thank you Paul for creating a fabulous range of drinks, for putting your heart and soul in to such a dedicated task and for allowing my realising gin fanatics would love to read about distillers such as yourself. Good luck with the move! Can’t wait to see what you’ve got lined up next!