Robin Eveleigh investigates the torrent of illicit spirits being produced by the UK’s hobbyist distillers
Tuesday 04 August 2020
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For Bryn Hawkins, heaven is the shed at the end of his garden, where the white noise hiss of his boiler creeping up to temperature heralds the classic dry gin perfumes of juniper, coriander and lemon peel. Refining his formula for Bryn’s Gin has taken two patient years of study and toil, and his now fully licensed microdistillery has been wrestled to fruition thanks only to a stint making bootleg booze - perfecting his recipe, honing his craft.
Until a few months ago, Bryn was one of thousands of illicit distillers quietly cooking up moonshine in homes, garages and, yes, garden sheds across the UK. Much like the novice homebrewer reeled in by the 10p-a-pint promise of a cut-price extract kit, plenty of home distillers are first inspired to fire up their stills by the lure of £2-a-bottle vodka, gin, whisky and rum.
And just as chasing brewing perfection often means a tumble down a wallet-emptying rabbit hole of stainless steel vessels, speciality grains and exotic hops, home distillers soon find themselves captivated by the intricacies of their hobby.
“Of course, there are distillers doing it because it’s cheap, in the same way that there are homebrewers and turbo cider makers doing it because it’s cheap,” says Bryn, who launched his Hawkins Distillery website in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis. “But there are plenty who actually care about what they’re drinking and what they’re consuming, who want to make the best product possible. It’s more than just cheap booze. It’s an obsession.”
In 2020 Britain, unlicensed home distilling of alcohol is a criminal offence, but there was a time in the late 17th century when simply posting a public notice identifying yourself as a distiller was enough to keep you on the right side of the law. Over the next 60 years, an imperfect storm of ill-conceived statute and social deprivation plunged London into the ‘Gin Craze’ – likened to a liquid version of America’s crack epidemic – before a handful of leading distilleries consolidated their hold over the industry under tighter regulation.
In Scotland, whisky distillers were driven underground by increasingly burdensome taxes and, by the 1820s, an astonishing 14,000 illegal stills a year were being confiscated. The 1823 Excise Act put an end to the chaos by allowing whisky distilling for a £10 annual licence, plus a gallon of spirit. After years operating at the sharp end of illegal distilling, Glenlivet founder George Smith became the first in Scotland to go legit.
Nowadays, the 1979 Alcoholic Liquor Duties Act upholds a ban on moonshining, punishable by a £500 fine, seizure of equipment and payment of evaded taxes. It’s perfectly legal to make, buy, sell and even operate a still, say for distilling water or essential oils. It’s legal to make beer, wine, cider or any other fermented alcoholic drink at home – but running any of your ferments through a still requires a licence from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) – a licence granted only to commercial operators.
In fact, until just 12 years ago, even commercial small scale production was effectively outlawed by a piece of 200-year-old legislation banning stills under 1,800 litre capacity. Artisan creativity was finally allowed to flourish from 2008 when gin makers Sipsmith and Herefordshire-based vodka producer Chase successfully challenged the law, sparking a small-batch spirit renaissance.
Since 2014, the number of UK distilleries has more than doubled from 184 to 441 – with 82 opening last year alone – and just as the craft beer boom has inspired a new generation of homebrewers, a revived interest in spirits has galvanised moonshiners keen to emulate the flavours and quality of top tier brands at home, but for a fraction of the price.
Budget, stove-top stills can be had for under £100 on eBay or Chinese shopping sites like AliExpress. Online homebrew stores have dedicated sections for distilling kit and run YouTube how-tos, all carrying the caveat that unlicensed distilling is illegal. On social media groups, there’s a clear intersect between homebrewers and distillers, with the two disciplines sharing some identical gear and similar methods. And while many home distillers are understandably keen to cruise well below the radar, the general vibe is that the law is little more than an inconvenient irrelevance.
Neil runs a Facebook group for users of a popular plug-and-play electric home still - the T500, made by New Zealand-based Still Spirits. He’s welcomed hundreds of new members in recent months, and the community is as far from the trad image of the snaggle-toothed, hillbilly moonshiner as you can imagine.
“I tell everybody: do not sell a drop,” he says. “That’s the only time the authorities will come down on your heads. There’s no profit in it anyway – it’s hard work and for the volume you get out of it, you’d have to be doing it fifty or sixty hours a week to make any money. There’s just no point.”
Bryn Hawkins, from Sheffield, came to distilling via homebrewing and cider making, the latter prompted by the frustrating sight of an orchard floor carpeted in fallen apples left to spoil.
“I spent the next few weeks grabbing apples that were going to waste wherever I could get my hands on them,” he says. “I made 140 litres of pretty bloody awful cider and knew I could do better. I dabbled with kit brewing for a bit before I came across distilling and I was just drawn in.
“The first stuff I made tasted like petrol, but slowly and surely I got into making gin and perfecting the product. Perhaps if I’d had the budget I could’ve skipped a lot of the trial and error, but I didn’t, so I chose the slightly naughtier route.
The illegality was a concern... but I was careful who I told, and I never sold a bottle
“The illegality was a concern; it wasn’t something I lost sleep over, but I was careful who I told, and I never sold a bottle. When I got to the point where my gin tasted as good as anything I could buy, I knew I wanted to share it. It was time to go legal and get licensed.”
Lockdown boredom has brought out the hobbyist in many of us, and while some have used the time to dial in their sourdough skills, others have sought out craftsfolk or engineers and commissioned bespoke moonshining gear.
When I speak to Dan Garrity, another homebrewer based in London, he is waiting on delivery of a TIG-welded, stainless steel still head from a furloughed marine engineer.
“I was planning to start with a twenty-five litre set up, but it’s ended up being triple that,” he laughs. “It’s made out of an old beer kilderkin with an immersion heater element bolted into it. I’m a big gin drinker and the idea of being able to turn ingredients that I’ve got lying around the house into gin is really interesting to me.”
Alan Manning, a 64-year-old engineer and inventor, who speaks with the patient, clipped diction of a Radio 4 presenter, has been making copper stills for 20 years, advertising them on YouTube.
“I’ve made thousands,” he says. “For customers all over the world. No one I sell stills to is in the slightest bit bothered whether it’s legal or not. People just don’t take any notice of it, it’s unpoliceable.”
Whether home distillers plump for one of Alan’s £250, gleaming copper towers, or an eBay bargain, or even cobble together their own still from Instructable PDFs, the majority broadly follow the same process with the aim of creating an odourless and flavourless, neutral base spirit made of almost-pure ethanol alcohol.
The starting point is a stomach-churning soup of sugar, water, lemon juice and yeast nutrient - often tomato paste or the waste water left over from boiling kale. This concoction is fermented with a high tolerance yeast - baking yeast works well - to create a ‘wash’ coming in at anything between 10-15% ABV. The wash is heated in a boiler, which might be a repurposed beer keg or pressure cooker, or the kind of proprietary electric-powered vessel that forms the basis of all-in-one brewing systems like the Grainfather.
Vapours rise through the still’s reflux column head, condense on packing (marbles, baking beans, copper scourers) inside, falling and vapourising again and again, eventually finding their way over the top of the column and into a water-chilled condenser which cools them to liquid.
A decent set up will strip between two and three litres of 90-96% pure alcohol from a 23 litre wash, depending on your starting ABV. Potentially harmful and foul-tasting portions from the start and finish of the run - called the ‘heads’ and the ‘tails’ - are either discarded, distilled again in future runs or turned into BBQ lighter fuel or even hand sanitiser. The middle-section ‘hearts’ are proofed back with spring water to a more palatable 40% ABV, and either drunk as vodka or flavoured with additions which mimic popular spirits. For a more refined taste, they might be carbon filtered or re-distilled another two or even three times.
“I do four runs over 13 hours,” says Bryn. “You do it because you love it.”
To make gin, a basket or pouch of botanicals can be added to the column, or the herbs and spices can be steeped in neutral spirit and re-distilled. Whisky and bourbon require more skills and finesse – including washes made from grain or corn mashes – and a simpler still, called a pot still, which retains some of the mash flavours. Spirit-curious Grainfather owners are in luck - it’s possible to buy a copper dome attachment which turns your all-in-one into a whisky still.
Richard Blackwell, founder of homebrew store Love Brewing, has been importing the Still Spirits T500 for over a decade and estimates the UK market is about 1500-2000 units a year. London’s Sacred Gin – which at the time of writing is moving to a new store and distillery on Highgate High Street – uses one to create a pudding, whisky and gin distillate for their Christmas pudding gin.
Richard said: “Sales have been on a continual growth path for 10 years. That’s a lot of people making spirits at home, and the quality is unbelievable.
“We’ve even spoken to HMRC about it. You can’t get them to commit to this, but their view was quite simple. If you’re doing it in your own home for your own use, they couldn’t give a monkey’s. If you start selling it, they’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks, and quite rightly so.”
If you start selling it, they’ll [HMRC] come down on you like a ton of bricks, and quite rightly so
Given the popularity of home distilling and an albeit tacit nod of approval – or at least the turning of a blind eye – from the authorities, you have to wonder why it remains illegal.
HMRC told Ferment that “the law does not distinguish between unlicensed home distilling and any other form of illicit alcohol production,” warning that illegal still operators can face criminal prosecution, but adding that its “compliance response” is focused where “operations are likely to have the greatest overall impact.”
It’s true that distilling can produce potentially harmful substances. The ‘heads’ – besides solvent-like off flavours – can contain poisonous methanol alcohol.
In India, 156 people, mostly tea plantation workers, died last year after drinking bootleg liquor containing methanol. In the UK, The National Poisons Information Service estimates two to three people a week are hospitalised with methanol or ethylene glycol poisoning, but it takes a big leap to attribute any of them to home distilling, when these chemicals are common in antifreeze, brake fluid and screenwash. In any case, the volume of methanol distilled from your average 23 litre sugar wash is miniscule.
Tax evasion might be another worry. Duty on spirits nets the Treasury nearly £4bn a year, but with pure alcohol taxed at almost £30 a litre, the average home distilling run costs the government purse between £60-85 a go. HMRC estimates it loses £360m a year in evaded spirit duties and VAT, and say it includes in that figure a percentage lost to home distilling.
“Customs and Excise are very fidgety about it,” says Sacred’s Ian Hart. “But I think maybe the regulations are a bit heavy handed.”
Consultant Alan Powell heads up the British Distillers’ Alliance, but in a previous life – from 1988-1997 – he ran excise policy at what was then Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. During a review of legislation in the mid-90s, the opportunity arose to decriminalise home distilling.
Says Alan: “I decided no. On reflection, it wasn’t a thoroughly thought out decision and I would make it differently now, frankly. It shouldn’t be illegal, but that’s how we felt at the time.
“Part of it was that we didn’t want proliferation of distilling, and it was partly health-driven. The health lobby has a very, very hostile attitude towards alcohol - we just thought there would be criticism from them. You can see them just going bananas.”
Ironically, it was around the same time, 1996, that New Zealand legalised home distilling, becoming one of just a handful of countries worldwide to make hobby moonshining legit. And it’s from their 24-year experience, I think, that the UK can learn.
New Zealander Jesse Wilson, an ex-homebrewer who made the leap to distilling, runs the popular Still It YouTube channel, and believes the hobbyist has much to contribute to the commercial craft distilling industry.
“When everything is forced into the shadows, good information finds it hard to come to the top,” he tells me, detailing a new scheme whereby home distillers will trial base malts, assess their flavour contributions to whiskey, and pool the findings in an open source knowledge base.
“And in my opinion, home distilling also teaches a more responsible appreciation of alcohol.
“Tasting and appreciation of a spirit is a very different thing to drinking. These people end up spending more money on higher-end products with a focus on quality. That’s more tax dollars for the government, and less booze going into people.”
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