Both sides of the lyne arm
The brewers who also who distill
Thursday 01 August 2019
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The craft beer market, in case you hadn’t noticed, is getting pretty crowded these days. After a decade during which the sector has enjoyed solid advances year-on year, brewers now face increased competition and slowing growth. The spirits market has also been booming for the past decade, but doesn’t appear to be suffering the same fate. Gin in particular continues to go from strength to strength. It makes sense then that some brewers are turning to spirits to protect their bottom line, diversify their income streams and grow their brand.
Spirit of Cornwall
One brewery that’s gone down this route is the Atlantic Brewery and Distillery. If you don’t live in the southwest, you may not be familiar with the name. “Something that’s always a bit tricky down in Cornwall is exporting out of Cornwall,” says Stuart Thomson, Atlantic’s founder.
Stuart makes organic and vegan cask- and bottle-conditioned beers. As well as the usual pale ales with American hops, he also produces beers flavoured with ingredients grown at the brewery – such as blackberries, elderflower and rhubarb – all certified organic. This carries higher production costs and, since the economic crash of 2008, Stuart has found it appealing less to his customers as a selling point. Which is partly why he decided to try distilling as well.
Stuart began exploring distilling in 2016 with the landlord of a local pub, the Falcon in St Morgan’s. “He was a big advocate of local and craft ales, so he was buying our beers regularly and I was drinking there regularly,” says Stuart. “After 10 years, he was looking to retire and looking for something else to do. We got talking over a few beers and thought we’d investigate the world of gin.”
Stuart visited local distilleries to learn the craft and bought two 100-litre Portuguese copper pot stills. He spent six months developing recipes, then released Atlantic’s first two spirits: Jynevra and Gorsedh. Both gins contain gorse flower, a very Cornish touch. Jynevra is an elegant orange-led dry gin supported by bergamot. It has prominent juniper and citrus flavours with a light herbal note from the gorse flower. Gorsedh is a rich, herbal dry gin: floral, grassy and earthy with hints of coconut and lime.
The spirits caught on and within 18 months were equalling the sales of Atlantic’s beer. Atlantic have since made gins flavoured with blackcurrant and mint, and rhubarb and vanilla. Stuart will complete this trio of garden gins with a gooseberry and elderflower gin later this summer. Again, all three use organic ingredients grown at the brewery.
For Atlantic’s spirits, provenance is a big selling point. “Much more so with the gin than with the beer,” says Stuart. “It seems to be coming more and more to the fore at the moment so it’s a very good story for us. I’m proud of the fact that we grow our own Angelica root. I’m not sure if anyone else does that.”
Stuart has found his spirits easier to sell outside Cornwall than his beers. This is partly down to their greater shelf life and stability. And also because, with their higher price, the economics of selling them to bars, hotels and restaurants across the country makes more sense. “We see the spirits as having a much greater scope geographically and therefore giving us a much greater potential for growth.”
Back when Atlantic was only making beer, Stuart continued to work at his day job in IT. He describes slowly migrating from working towards brewing over eight to ten years. Only in the last five years was he finally able to go full time with his brewery. The upturn in Atlantic’s fortunes since diversifying into spirits has been dramatic. “The headaches that stocked up under me have gone away,” says Stuart. Atlantic will soon move its distillery to a new, separate site where it will have room to expand. And Stuart plans one day to step up to a full distilling licence to make a greater range of spirits.
Like Stuart, many people who go into the spirits market start off making gins and vodkas. Partly it’s because they’re delicious and hugely popular. But there are other underlying reasons to do with their manufacture that make them a sensible option. Not least of which is that they are not aged, so warehousing becomes much simpler.
And then there’s the distillation itself. Gins and vodkas are made from a neutral spirit distilled to an extremely high strength in order to leave it with as little character as possible. This gives a blank canvass upon which a distiller can build his or her own flavour profiles. You don’t need to make this neutral spirit yourself. In fact, the vast majority of spirits producers do not. Instead, it’s common to buy it in, then re-distill it with botanicals. If juniper is chief among these, you’ve made gin; if not then it’s vodka. This practice is called rectifying. All you need to get going is a pot still and the least bothersome of HMRC’s various distilling licences.
Grain to glass
While most producers buy in their neutral spirit, some choose to make their own and distill from grain to glass. “We’re one of only a handful doing that,” says John McCarthy, head distiller at Adnams. “It’s not just the small producers who are buying in the neutral grain spirit. The likes of Bombay Sapphire, Gordon’s, they’re all buying in neutral grain spirit made by someone else.”
By law neutral spirit must be distilled to 95% ABV in the USA and 96% in the EU. “It doesn’t sound like much, but trust me it’s a massive difference that 1%,” says John. To achieve 95% ABV requires a column with roughly 10 to 14 plates. To reach 96% you will need at least 30 plates and possibly as many as 40. This represents a huge outlay on equipment alone, but that’s just the start of the difficulties.
“It’s slow,” says John. “It takes 11 hours to make 300 litres of pure alcohol. And we’re putting it through a polishing still after that as well. So it’s time consuming with some very expensive equipment. And you need a lot of space — a 40 plate column is very tall. Ours is split in two and it’s still very tall.” On top of which, neutral spirit sells for peanuts. Little wonder then that many companies — even established premium spirits brands — choose to buy it in rather than make it themselves. “People are not going to go to that expense when they can buy neutral grain spirit for as little as £1 per litre elsewhere,” says John.
So why does Adnams bother? “It’s because we’re brewers. Why are we going to buy someone else’s alcohol when we can make our own? It’s our USP.” John also likes to use local ingredients. Provenance like this is important because even at 96% ABV, with almost every trace of the raw ingredients stripped out of the spirit, some subtle character will remain.
John uses primarily local grains fermented with Adnams yeast. East Anglia produces some of the finest barley in the world, so the appeal is clear. “We actually have rye that’s grown by Jonathan Adnams on his own farm a mile away. I can take you to a field and show you where the rye is growing, and we can do the same with the barley and the wheat”.
Adnams makes three different washes (basically unhopped beers for distilling), each of which has its own distinct mouthfeel, textures and flavours. The first uses 100% barley. The second uses 75% rye and 25% barley. The third is mostly wheat, with barley and some oats to give it a creamy texture. This last brew, once distilled, becomes Adnams Longshore Vodka. Longshore has won the International Wine & Spirit Competition Vodka Trophy twice, in 2014 and 2018.
As well as vodkas, John makes whiskies and gin. “Developing the gin recipes is my favourite part of the job. I take influences from holidays, from food... Our biggest selling gin is the Copper House Gin. One of the botanicals in that is hibiscus flower. That came about because I’d been on a diving holiday in Egypt and when you get to the hotel they give you hibiscus tea. Today I’m distilling one with habanero chillies and lime because I’ve just been to Mexico. We’re launching it in three months’ time but it goes into our gin club in a week.”
Adnams is of course a much larger brewery than Atlantic, producing more beer and selling it further afield. But even for a huge concern like this, the new distillery was quick to make an impact on the company’s balance sheet. “It’s a small but important part of the business,” says John. “We’re selling a quarter of a million bottles of spirits each year, but it’s still small compared to the 25 million pints of beer.”
Adnams began exporting spirits by sending a few cases of sloe gin and absinthe to the Falkland Islands. Now it sends them all over the world. “We’ve got spirits in countries where we don’t have beer,” says John. So for Adnams too distilling has helped spread their brand further than beer alone.
Distillation, brewing’s arcane cousin craft, is a lot like alchemy. Not in the sense of mediaeval weirdos — part wizard, part con-artist, part scientist — hoping to turn lead into gold. But in the way that it stemmed from early attempts to get to the heart of things. Distillers still talk about heads, hearts and tails. Extracting the essence. Getting to the spirit. It’s a process that leaves everything it touches forever changed. And it seems that its transformative power can affect the distiller as much as it does the ingredients inside the still. I expect we will see more brewers taking this next step on from fermentation over the years. And I look forward to discovering how it changes them — hopefully for the better.
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