Home to some of the UK’s oldest working copper pot stills, and with a century of gin-making under its belt, Langley Distillery creates bespoke recipes for around 75% of the country’s artisanal gin brands – including its very own Palmers Gin. We take five with master distiller Natalie Wallis, whose great-great-great-grandfather founded the business more than 200 years ago…
Incredibly, it’s been over two centuries since the Palmer family first began distilling spirits, and precisely 100 since they started producing gin at Langley Distillery in the Midlands. Today, the Oldbury-based distillery boasts some of the oldest working copper gin stills in the UK; the oldest, McKay, dates back to the mid 19th century.
When she stepped into the business to cover a maternity role a little over 10 years ago, Natalie Wallis became the sixth generation of the Palmer family to work at the distillery. Today, she’s responsible for distilling more than 300 stock gin recipes. Here, she talks stock recipes, surreal stills, and the nation’s love of gin.
Master of Malt: Let’s start with your family’s incredible distilling history. How far back does it go, and what was it like growing up in that environment?
Natalie Wallis: Our family’s distilling journey began in Old Street, London in 1805 with my great, great, great grandfather, who sold chemical sundries and varnishes. Charles Dickens used to pop into his shop to pick up supplies, so we had well-known faces buying our wares from the start! As the business grew, it was moved to East London – where part of our chemical business resides to this day – and to Oldbury, just outside Birmingham, where all of our global distillation happens. As a child, I was lucky enough to occasionally visit the distillery in Oldbury. I remember it being a real treat, full of the most exotic and wonderful aromas. Even from an early age you could feel how special it was.
MoM: When it comes to production, your stills certainly set the distillery apart. Tell us about those – is it surreal to make gin with some of the oldest working copper gin stills in the UK?
NW: Our stills are named after influential women within our family and the company’s history, with some dating back to the very early 1800s. Our distilling method is very traditional and respects the age and style of each individual still – they were all made in the UK and each has its own story to tell. When you consider the people and botanicals those copper stills would’ve seen and the multitude of gins that they have produced, it is very surreal. We are so lucky to have these wonderful works of art, all with their own idiosyncrasies and stories.
MoM: How important is contract production to Langley Distillery? Do you ever say ‘no’ if an idea or concept won’t work?
NW: Contract gin production is integral to what we do; it’s in our veins. The stock recipes have a real story around each of them – some have been created exactly from our old recipe books from the 1800s, others are new-fangled gins influenced by current trends, CBD, for example. They start life in our laboratory on our test still and are continually assessed and adapted to meet customer specific requirements. There are always a few runs before we get the recipe spot on. We spend a great amount of time working closely with our clients – sometimes they come to us with very specific briefs, other times we are given free reign. We’ve never said no – people come to us with their dream, and we guide them on what we think would work in the market and within category definitions.
MoM: People can be dismissive of contract distilling, even though the quality of the liquid is far higher than a gin made by an inexperienced distiller. Do you think drinkers are starting to appreciate that?
NW: One of the great things about the resurgence in gin is that there’s room for everyone to enter the market. Sometimes contract distilling can get a bad rep for being cold and mass produced, but if you think about ‘craft’ gin, that’s still what we do. The recipes are all created by a person – not by some sterile corporate computer – and our stills are loaded with ingredients by hand; the team manually filling the still with up to 60kg of juniper. There is no machinery to do the lifting or weigh it out. One benefit of contract distilling is the benefit of experience and experimentation, so we have the capability to grow with all of our customers. We have kept very true to our roots in our methodology, despite our size. The distillery is 200 years old; there is so much romance and tradition there. We have a minimum order quantity of 5 litres and Jenny, our largest still can distil 250,000 bottles of liquid a day. So we really do work with gin companies of all sizes.
MoM: 2020 is Langley Distillery’s 100th year of producing gin – a remarkable achievement in a hugely busy and diverse category! With your insight, what’s next for gin?
NW: I don’t think the nation’s love for gin is going to change. The category will continue with the great strength it has seen over the last few years, it has such a rich past and such an exciting future. We’re starting to see a move back to classic gin profiles now – moving away from the flavoured gins that reigned supreme in 2019. I love classic gins, especially our own Palmers London Dry. It’s made in a 1,000 litre still from 1903 called Angela, named after my grandmother Angela Palmer who died in 2016 at the age of 91. She loved a classic gin and this was her favourite recipe.
MoM: What’s your favourite gin cocktail and why?
NW: The Bees Knees [made with gin, lemon juice and honey]. It will forever remind me of sitting in my favourite hotel in Hampshire in the sunshine with my husband.
*Interview edited for length and clarity