Monday, 17 October 2016

The rise of "Craft-Spirits"

Although not beer related, the following post is still about alcoholic liquor, but in this instance we will be looking at a class of alcoholic drink which is considerably stronger than beer. I am referring of course to spirits, and in particular gin; a type of spirit once looked down upon as “mother’s ruin”, but which has now undergone a complete renaissance and spawned a whole new drinks sector in the form of “artisan spirits”.

This post was sparked by an article in the local press which alerted me to the recent opening of a gin distillery at a location just to the north of  my home town of Tonbridge. The Greensand Ridge Distillery, is the brain-child of Sevenoaks entrepreneur Will Edge, and is launching a range of different gins with the theme of “sustainability”. This will be achieved by using quality fruit, which has been rejected by supermarkets owing to issues of size and shape, and this will be enhanced with locally sourced “botanicals”, including such diverse items as cobnuts, gorse flowers and oak moss.

Mr Edge, formerly worked in IT, marketing and finance, took a Masters Degree in Brewing & Distilling, before going ahead with the plans for his gin distillery. Right from the start he was keen to promote the concept of “sustainability”, so much so that the company’s distillation plant is powered by 100% renewable electricity. In addition and the distillery is committed to using no chemicals (hot, recyclable, high-pressure water is used for cleaning), and zero non-recyclable waste. The company is named after the sandstone ridge which lies just north of the village of Shipbourne, where the business is located.

Greensand Ridge Distillery becomes part of a rapidly growing group of companies, as the number of gin distilleries in Britain has doubled in six years. Last year alone saw 49 new plants opening, after a huge growth in demand for “artisan gin”. The increase, up from 116 gin producers in 2010, is said to have been driven by "boutique distilleries" that are making small batches of the spirit.

“Artisan gin” first hit the market back in 2009, with the opening of the Sipsmith Distillery in London. The firm’s traditional copper distillery was the first such example in London for nearly 200 years, and it took a change in the law for HM Revenue and Customs to be able to grant the company their licence. Prior to this, gin tended to be produced on an industrial scale, rather than in small batches. The government said the quantity of gin the company was producing – 300 litres from the original still – was so small it was technically classed as "moonshine". It took two years of lobbying by Sipsmith, for the law to be changed.

It is not just gin which is undergoing a revival; other spirits such as vodka and whisky are also seeing a renaissance. The opening, in late 2006 of the English Whisky Company’s operation at Roudham, in the Breckland area of Norfolk; the first English whisky distillery in over 100 years proved the catalyst for a number of other distillers to set up shop.

Like Sipsmith, the English Whisky Company also fell foul of HMRC, who wouldn’t consider granting a license for anything smaller than an 1800 litre set-up. Unlike their gin compatriots though, the Nelstrop family, who own the business, decided to go for broke, and set up an operation which met the Custom and Excise people’s requirements.

I have driven past the turning to the English Whisky Company’s site many times on my journeys up to Norfolk and back, but as the turn-off is close to the end of my outward journey, and I am usually in a hurry, I have never found the time to stop there. Looking at the company’s website, it seems a visit would be well worth while, as along with a well-stocked shop, daily tours of the distillery and bonded warehouse are also available.

I said at the start of this post that it was not beer related, but in a number of ways it is. The initial stage in the production of malt whisky involves malted barley being mashed in a very similar way to making beer, with the extraction of sugars from the malted barley. Unlike beer there are no hops, or other flavouring ingredients added, and fermentation of the sweet wort is the next stage, followed by distillation and maturation.

In the case of malt whisky, the young raw spirit produced, must undergo maturation in oak casks for a period of at least three years, so setting up a malt whisky business from scratch is both costly and time-consuming.

The raw spirit used for both gin and vodka manufacture, is produced from a number of different and often diverse sources, including barely, wheat, rye and potatoes. There may be a maturation process, particularly if the end products are flavoured, and the production of enhanced gins and vodkas is another strong growth area of the market.

On a more general note, the massive rise in numbers of micro-breweries, followed by that of the craft-beer movement, not only proved the demand for more locally sourced and hand-crafted products, but also provided the perfect role models for distillers of artisan spirits to follow. The world of spirits then, finds itself owing much to the world of beer, and the rise of these distinctive and flavourful drinks is something to be valued and applauded, in the same way that the rise of so many diverse beer styles has.

I obviously welcome this new trend as even though I am not much of a spirits drinker, the increased variety of distilled beverages available is to be applauded. Speaking personally, the occasional glass of single malt whisky, Irish whiskey or Cognac is about my limit, although spirit-based cocktails are also enjoyable.


Ed said...

With craft gin manufacturers the netural spirit that is distilled with the botanicals is almost certainly made at a much lager industrial plant.

StringersBeer said...

... and it costs you about 20p a litre, once you've added 60% tapwater. Chuck in a quids worth of "botanicals", pay (11 quid? duty) and flog it for 40 notes. Laughing.

Paul Bailey said...

Ed, I remember my first job in Quality Control, in the East End of London, when I worked for Hedges & Butler (the wine & spirit division of Bass). The company occupied a number of buildings on a large bonded site next to the River Lea. There was one building which was strictly out of bounds, as it was a gin distillery.

I remember seeing the large, empty, blue-painted steel drums stacked outside. They had contained the ethyl alcohol which, as you point out, is used as the base for gin. Ironically, my present company buys the odd drum of ethanol, for use in one of our processes. It still comes in those same blue drums.

Sounds like you are in the wrong business, StringersBeer; although you could always install a small still and turn out your own Schnapps!

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