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Distillery Roadtrip

Written by Gin Foundry

We’ve just launched a new section to the website, where we’ll be amalgamating distillery tours that people book onto. The scales of these operations are as varied as the products that flow from them, and while we get plenty of opportunity to speak to distillers back at Gin Foundry HQ, to hear their stories and to taste their spirits, it is impossible for us to capture the true graft and heart that goes into every single bottle of gin without making the occasional trip out ourselves. It’s something that we would encourage every person to do at least a couple of times a year, and now that there’s a distillery in every corner, it’s easier than ever.

With that in mind, last year, we embarked on a two day, 350-mile road trip taking in six distilleries across five counties. The aim was to meet our Gin kin; to see those who form the beating heart of Britain’s artisanal scene in their own spaces and to understand the provenance and sense of place that is distilled into each drop of the gins that they make.  This was our journey…

As a team, we have a definite penchant for French 75’s, while terrible, terrible music is the glue that holds us together, so with Jason Derulo in our ears and a full tank of petrol, we set off on an adventure that would see us knock on the doors of Campfire Gin, The Oxford Artisan Distillery, the Cotswolds Distillery, Garden Swift Gin, Ramsbury Brewing & Distilling, Bramley & Gage and, finally, the home of Gin Austen herself, Bath Gin.

Puddingstone Distillery in Tring, Hertfordshire was our first stop. The distillery is based in a modest sized barn in the middle of the countryside, sharing its space with a farm shop and an infinite world of fields. We arrived at around 10am, a little too early for gin, so we took in the sights and smells as owners Ben and Kate Marston welcomed us in with big smiles. 

Everything at Puddingstone Distillery happens in one room, so the cute little Still Dragon stills that make Campfire Gin gleam away in the corner, while the bottling station – stacked to the brim – sits alongside it. The tasting-room-come-shop is a warm wooden space and the distillery beyond it, separated by a counter, is a clean, clinical area, with only a stash of waterproof barrels, the white sort with propeller lids, giving any indication as to what serves as the Marstons’ true inspiration. 

Ben and Kate are both outdoor people and theit gin was specifically designed for drinking with good people in great places - at parties, in forests, up mountains…

Since launching their distillery in late 2016, the duo has seen great success in their collaborations; they’ve hosted gin pairing supper clubs and have teamed up with the Hertfordshire & Middlesex Wildlife Trust to make a pink gin, helping to control the invasive Himalayan balsam species by picking it without mercy and infusing it into a vat of specially made Gin, this one with a lime heavy recipe. 

Ben was wildly enthusiastic as he showed us around, opening vats of quietly ageing spirits and handing over labels that Kate, in her capacity as Graphic Designer, has been working on, some of which were printed on Birch and all of which were different to anything we’d seen before. 

At one point, he walked over to a bell jar and opened it to take out a rock so ugly it looked bewitched, like the fossilised remains of a handsome prince who’d swiped left on a cruel and haggard witch. The rock was puddingstone, a cluster of pebbles so named for their plum pudding-red interiors. The several-million-years-old lump of stone is incredibly rare (though less so in Hertfordshire, where it crops up everywhere, including in church walls), and has its links to Stone Age culture, wherein circles of rock were laid down for ritual worship. Even now, some locals leave lumps of it propped up against their cottage doors to ward off evil. 

This little demonstration brought Ben onto another pudding; a far more seasonal variety. He has spent the last couple of months working on a Christmas Pudding Gin and has been putting the festive desserts through the ringer, macerating and distilling them, vapour infusing them and mellowing the spirits to see how they come up. “We were going to call it PUD Gin” Ben said. “But then we Googled it, and we realised it stood for Peptic Ulcer Disease, so we’re going for Pud Pud,” he said, casting a cautious look towards Kate, who revealed – with a wry smile – that the Googling occurred after the label was initially created… 

Off to the Hall

Our next stop was TOAD, or, if you like, The Oxford Artisan Distillery. Set in Oxford’s South Park and based in an 18th Century Grade II listed Threshing Barn, TOAD is a grain to glass operation that goes all out. Not since Iron Age farmers started sacrificing each other atop mounds of barren earth has anyone cared this much about grain. 

The founding trio – Tom Nicolson, Cory Mason and Tagore Ramoutar – are passionate indeed, having teamed up with archaeo-botanist John Letts to plant a mixture of genetically diverse ancient crops, the cumulative nature of which will survive droughts, diseases, pests… It’s all incredibly sustainable, too, as the plants grow tall with deep roots, thus supporting and feeding back into the eco-system. There are no nasties included, no pesticides at all. “There is no poison in our poison,” Cory said, and then laughed, loudly, at his own joke.

The grain is picked, fermented and turned into the most luxuriously caramelised, chocolate-y vodka you’re ever likely to taste using TOAD’s monstrously cool, utterly unique still, Nautilus (pictured p49). It’s one of those ‘you have to see it to believe it’ contraptions, with square columns straddling a bashed copper pot. It’s a truly breath taking, beautiful feat of engineering that filled us Gin nerds with a level of wonderment akin to that which a five-year-old feels upon entering the gates of Disneyland. 

The stills, most unusually, were made by South Devon Railway, a steam engine building firm that were, at first, understandably reluctant to build them on account of the arsenic they tend to add to copper to make it stronger. The TOAD team were persistent though, and the railway team eventually gave in, spending two years (and in those years, 3,000 hours) crafting them. Joy quickly turned to panic when Tom, Cory and Tagore got them up to Oxford, plugged them in and watched, helplessly, as steam and water started pouring out every which way. They rang designer Paul Pridham to ask what in the blue hell had just happened and were informed, most casually, that “they just do that.” After a few runs, thankfully, the equipment settled. The heat helped everything fall into place and the still became watertight, preventing that delicious spirit from disinfecting the floor on a daily basis. 

Tom, in his capacity as PR man, led us on the tour, twiddling his moustache the whole time and flitting between a hyper-posh, borderline vaudevillian accent and his Oxford brogue as he fired anecdotes at us; many about the gin, others about that time his dad got a donkey arrested for selling Kahlua in a London park.

In the botanicals room, however, Cory took over, showing off tinctures and strange experiments he’d been running, and even given us a preview of the whisky that’s been ageing away in his mini casks. He spoke faster and faster as he delved into his pile of bottles and flasks, revealing his plans to get weirder and weirder with the whisky which, due to its decidedly English nature, is not bound by the laws of Scottish or American production. At this, Tagore piped up. “Hey,” he said, reigning Cory in. “I’m the Commercial Director. We’re not doing that.”

As a trio they bounce off each other well, all sparking with loud, bright, mad ideas that will result, in years to come, in some great, from-the-heart expressions. 

Our third stop of the day was the Cotswolds Distillery. We arrived at around 3pm, when the low slung sun had cast everything in a marigold glow. That, coupled with a piercingly blue sky, made us want to pitch a tent and abandon our London lives forever. We changed our minds almost instantly, of course, once we noticed the absence of 4G.

Having begun the day at distilleries run by just two and three people respectively, arriving at the bustling hub that is Cotswolds Distillery was a shock to the system. Everywhere you look there are people: tour guides buzzing around wide-eyed visitors, construction workers hammering away in the distance, men in white coats muttering behind closed doors, distillers, distillers everywhere, and a glorious amount to drink…

Cotswolds founder Dan Szor created his distillery with Whisky in mind, but there’s now an incredible amount of spirits to his name: a gin, a summer cup, an absinthe, a cream liqueur, a sherry. All of these and more are available in the shop, which is the point of entry to the distillery tour. The ‘and more’ is the operative part, here; Szor has a real appreciation for those that make the journey to the distillery, so he keeps back exclusives - fun little experiments for sale exclusively on site. 

The tours, of which there are three a day, are almost always full, with an average of 24,000 gin enthusiasts making it through the doors each year. They’re invited to gawp at the huge whisky stills, to peer into the tanks and take in the aromas of slowly fermenting grain that eventually becomes new make spirit. 

The gin still is a wonder, too, running twice a day, seven days a week and churning out upwards of 100,000 bottles a year. This, incidentally, is a far greater number than anticipated by the team and that speed of success, though fantastic, has brought its own difficulties; in the launch year Cotswolds Distillery expected to sell 7,000 bottles. In total, they sold 28,000. There was no time to research efficiency or scale up experimental recipes and for that very reason the still runs at two-thirds capacity, an early error in judgement that results in far more work than is necessary. That should all change with the addition of a 1200-litre still, which arrived to the distillery on the same day as us, all pretty in plastic wrap. 

Everything – every mistake, every success – is taken with a good dose of Dan’s brash, American humour. Discussing the failed timing around the launch of their Summer Cup, Zoë Rutherford, a distiller turned marketer, said they’d not bother relaunching the product as a Winter Cup, or even a Cotswolds Cup. “We’ll just embrace it,” she said, with a look that suggested it was going to get a good push smack bang in the middle of winter.

The construction work going on at the distillery was almost entirely related to building space for visitors. At present there’s no café, nor anywhere for the poor old designated driver to get a cup of tea. With such a huge amount of heads popping in and out of the place each year – not to mention passing Cotswolds traffic – an onsite restaurant would do wonders to spread the Cotswolds Distillery name far and wide.

And off the beaten bath…

Our very last stop of the day is not open to the public: Capreolus Distillery, the home of Garden Swift Gin. We were welcomed by very enthusiastic founder and distiller Barney Wilczak and his even more enthusiastic puppy and taken to the bottom of the garden, where the gorgeous still lives in a lean-to shed that is filled to the brim with steel containers and glimpses of copper. 

The garden is like something out of a fairy tale, with fruit falling from the sky and bind weed sneaking in through the cracks. There are strange jars of booze macerating in the corners and obscure farming implements, like an elderberry de-stalker, propped up against the house. 

Barney is genuinely one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet and was thrilled to have us at his distillery, inviting us to try fresh-off-the-still Garden Tiger Gin and reaching his hand into the just-cooked vapour basket to show the faded nature of the fruit. We were invited to taste the spent botanicals and handed glasses and glasses of the distillery’s other products: Mulberry Aged Garden Swift Gin, Elderberry Eau de Vie…

The products Barney offers are vast and mad, not for their content but for the sheer graft that goes into making them. Each spirit has weeks of preparation, of maceration, of ageing and blending and bottling and labelling to its name. Barney oversees all of this with a gentle patience; he is slow in his manner, deliberate and detailed. He loves his surroundings and he loves making spirits. This was never about commerce and only about art, yet it seems to be taking off. At the time of our visit, there was a stacked pallet in the garage ready to be shipped off to Australia, with drinkers thirsty in particular for the exquisite eaux de vie range.

The size of this operation belies its scale in every way. Capreolus Distillery is a giant using a matchbox for a bed, a feat that is only possible with a little bit of magic. 

At about 10am the next day we pulled into Ramsbury Brewing & Distilling in Wiltshire and were greeted by Tibor Horvath, a friendly giant of a man with a practical side so stern it borders on aggression. To Tibor, gin is not art. It is not a whimsical expression of the land that surrounds it, it’s just something that he follows a recipe to make, and a product that he doesn’t really like that much, it seems…

The distillery is huge; amongst the biggest we’ve seen. In the distance there’s a pile of woodchips (to heat the boiler) big enough to earn mountain status, and the farmland surrounding the distillery stretches on much farther than the eye can see, blending into infinity as it meets the horizon. The Ramsbury Estate is a 25,000-acre slice of countryside, and everything (bar hops) that the company uses to make its beer and vodka comes from the land. Even the water comes from a 195-metre borehole on site.

There’s a great sense of environmental responsibility and an impressive cyclical nature to the production, though this loses any sense of romance when told in Tibor’s candid tone: “We use the spent grains to feed the Highland cattle,” he said. “Then we eat the cows.” Talking us through the recycling process, Tibor explained that the waste water is poured into settlement tanks, then pumped into a lagoon on site. “The lagoon has lots of ducks. We shoot the ducks. And then we eat them.” 

Tibor’s forthright nature makes for a very honest tour. You’re able to delve amongst the botanicals, eye up the stills, even the method for gin making sits on a laminated piece of paper nearby, this a pragmatic, step-by-step approach to distilling. As a result of all this, the tour is quite fantastic: no storytelling, no bluff, just facts set to the backdrop of one of the UK’s best kitted out production facilities. 

The kit itself is well worth a mention. It’s huge, like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; there are gargantuan mash tuns, and a neck-achingly tall beer stripper that shoots up metres into the sky.

After checking out the kit we were invited into the shop to taste the booze. Now, you’ll remember what we said about Puddingstone Distillery and their 10am attitude towards tasting gin? This was not the case with Tibor, who was fast becoming one of our favourite people. He started pouring from various bottles: the gin, the vodka, the winter vodka, the sloe vodka, the raspberry vodka… We drank, as our good manners insisted, and we absolutely enjoyed everything we imbibed.

And if that wasn’t enough…

Our final stop was at the Canary Bar in Bath. No prizes for guessing that this is the home of Bath Gin, a delightfully smooth, recently in-house product that is made in the basement of a rickety Georgian pub, the sort in which the stairs shout “crrriiiick” as you make your way towards the basement. It’s a dimly lit little cavern with rich red walls and paintings that follow you not just across the room but around the building. If Harry Potter made pubs… 

The basement has a somewhat explosive feel about it, with its dark, cool subterranean caves crammed to the brim with tubs of neat spirit. Next to this is a labelling room, and next to this the distillery. It’s an amazing space, cosily lit with shelves of spices and bottles of tinctures everywhere and a secret-laden chalk board on the wall, this filled with recipes, ideas and formulas. It’s a fantastic space, and a very obvious playground, allowing the Bath Gin team – Bar Manager Tom, Brand Ambassador Paul and Distiller Sam, who initially came to work at Canary as a barman following a brief stint at Dodd’s Distillery – plenty of room to experiment. 

The still sits in the corner – a wood clad moonshine maker that’s quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. It’s small, no bigger than fifty litres, but it’s big enough for now, with 400 – 500 bottles leaving the bar each week. 

The Canary Bar is a Gin specialist, with its 220-bottle-strong back bar organised from top to bottom and left to right by palate. Citrus gins, sweet gins, classic gins…  this structure helps to create an informed and empowered consumer. If they like Hendrick’s, they know where else to look. Education is a key part of what the team do here, even if some of the newly imparted wisdom might be ground to a fine, hungover dust by morning. 

Upstairs is where the real magic happens. The rooms are an eccentric, hickledy-pickledy mesh, as though the architect had studied Quentin Blake illustrations when designing the building, rather than… you know… physics. 

Here is where the Gin School takes place: students are given small amounts of a base juniper spirit to work with, then set loose on pipettes of distillates, from rosemary to lavender to lime leaves to sweet orange, fennel and pink peppercorn. They add droplets in, noting down the ratios, and then head back downstairs for a G&T whilst the team use the recipes to create full sized bottles of the self-designed gins to take away. The sessions are almost always booked out, but should you see the opportunity to make a booking, seize it. This is one of the best make your own gin experiences going. 

So from Capreolus tiny to Puddingstone small to TOAD big to Ramsbury huge, we caught a glimpse of the modern Gin scene in the UK. We saw a passion to create, a passion to preserve and a passion to look after the world we live in. We saw makers inspired by their surroundings, equally as eager to pluck fruits from nearby hedgerows as they are to sow the seeds that grow them. We tried dozens of gins, we met families, we met colleagues, we met pets. 

The key thing that all of these distillery’s and makers shared, despite their enormous differences, was a genuine appreciation for the eventual drinker that goes far beyond lining their pockets. Their faces, when you raise a glass of their proudly produced gin to your lips, is one of quiet anticipation. They want you to love what they make because they love it too. Their gins, vodkas and fruit liqueurs are extensions of their imaginations, their homes and their lives. When you take a sip and smile, their sheer joy at your joy is palpable. 

Road Trip