You might not be aware of the importance Maidstone has in the history of booze in this country, but a new distillery is determined to ensure that story is told. And also make delicious gin.
When you enter Maidstone Distillery your eyes are immediately drawn to two things. A towering, shiny 450-litre copper still and a colourful James Gillray caricature. Painted at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, ‘The Hand-Writing upon the Wall’ depicts Napoleon and his wife feasting on England’s assets, including the Bank of England and the Tower of London. Oh, and Maidstone Gin.
“It’s a painting that features the best of what England had to offer. Clearly, Maidstone Gin made its mark throughout Europe. When people see the painting they say ‘wow!’ Because they didn’t know that history existed,” says Darren Graves, co-founder of the Maidstone Distillery.
Who can blame them? I grew up in Maidstone and live there now. I’m a drinks writer. And even I only recently discovered that Maidstone is home to one of the most defining spirits of its age.
Darren and Sam, co-founder and wife, were first alerted to this remarkable history after finding a document written in 1951 which described as a forgotten legacy. “Distilling has been in the lifeblood of the town for hundreds of years,” Sam explains. Further digging led them to George Bishop, a native of Maidstone born around 1730 who would go on to be mayor and, more importantly, found the first Maidstone distillery in 1785. “It was a huge success, producing some 5,000 gallons a week of gin, brandy, rum and more. By 1803, it was renowned for producing one of the finest gins in all of Europe, referred to as Maidstone Gin or Maidstone geneva. He even had a warehouse in Queenhithe Dock, the oldest dock or wharf in London,” Darren says. Sadly, after Bishop’s death in 1793 family mismanagement soon bankrupted the distillery and it was closed by 1818.
But the story doesn’t end there. In nearby Dover, the Grant family had already been making its own Maidstone gin, capitalising on its status. When their distillery was destroyed in 1850 after parts of the white cliffs collapsed onto it, they seized an opportunity. “They moved the whole operation and built a distillery in Maidstone. It also was home to imported French cognac and Scotch whisky as well as Grant’s Morello Cherry Brandy, which was distributed all around the world and dubbed ‘the national liqueur’,” Darren explains. “The distillery was even dubbed ‘Queen’s Distillery’ because Queen Victoria was such a fan and her image was eventually embossed on the bottle”.
The duo realised while uncovering this legacy the size of the role Maidstone played in the nation’s distilling history and that felt it was a story that needed to be told. “This history took what was a daydream and made us feel like we could build something together here,” Sam says. Now, just over 200 years after the Bishop distillery closed, Maidstone gin is back in the spotlight.
The new Maidstone Distillery isn’t simply an enterprise in retelling a forgotten story, however. The Graves’ are keen to make their own mark. “We didn’t want our distillery to be about reimagining a historic recipe. The legacy informed storytelling rather than the process,” Sam says. “In a modern setting, the gin needed refining. We thought ‘what would Maidstone Gin have done?’ It wouldn’t have sat still, it would have bettered itself.” The result was George Bishop London Dry Gin, a bold, rich and decidedly modern expression crafted using a single-shot distillation method, pure Kentish water and fifteen different botanicals including coriander, angelica root, three different citrus peels, English Camomile, Indian cardamom, tellicherry pepper and three types of juniper.
The Graves’ are keen for the new Maidstone Distillery to also represent the local area and support progressive causes. The fact that the distillery runs on 100% renewable energy and that every bottle uses recyclable Flexi-Hex packaging is one aspect that demonstrates this, as is the brand’s second expression, the floral and complex Ranscombe Wild. Working with Plantlife, the duo created a gin with wild foraged botanicals, like calamint, poppy seeds and red clover from Ranscombe Farm .“It’s a celebration of wild plants and a donation from every bottle sold is given to Plantlife to help its valuable conservation work,” Darren says.
For Maidstone Distillery’s first liqueur, Sharp’s Toffee, the founders were keen to champion another Maidstone legacy, the toffee empire Sharp’s of Maidstone, once one of the largest manufacturers of toffee in the world. “Every spirit we make tells a story and we are immensely proud of that,” Darren explained. The liqueur begins life as a distilled spirit made with select botanicals which are blended with a top-secret toffee recipe, resulting in an expression that tastes like homemade fudge and is lovely over ice and can be used to great effect in cocktails and cooking.
Like many during the pandemic, the Graves’ turned their hands to producing hand sanitiser but that hasn’t slowed down product development, with vodka and whisky in their sights. “I’m a whisky drinker by heart and I would love to make one,” Darren explains. “We’ve been approached by quite a significant brewery about making another spirit with a story. There are lots of exciting things in the pipeline”.
For now, the duo is looking forward to the end of lockdown so they can welcome visitors back to the distillery. It sits in the heart of town in the historic Market Buildings and, as a Maidstone native, it feels like an appropriate place to learn about the legacy of its once-famous spirit and celebrate its return.
“These are very challenging times but this is a positive story,” Sam says, sitting in front of the bar at the distillery’s entrance. On it is the distillery’s logo, a representation of the man who started it all: George Bishop, tipping his hat. “We love this image. We always think it’s like him being welcomed back into the present day. To the third Maidstone Distillery”.
You can purchase all of Maidstone Distillery’s booze right here. Below are the full tasting notes for each expression.
Nose: Through gingerbread, piney juniper and floral notes there’s dried citrus peel and coriander seed as well as tropical fruit, angelica, cardamom and a little fresh mint leaves.
Palate: There’s a lot more citrus (lemon zest) on the palate along with another helping of that warming baking spice, some liquorice, spicy juniper, clove, hints of Earl Grey tea and a little cardamom.
Finish: There are some lingering floral notes and piney juniper in a dry, peppery finish.
Nose: Through touches of rich spice, bright juniper and exotic citrus there’s a floral medley of mint, oregano, rocket, dry grass and a little nuttiness.
Palate: The palate is herbaceous and earthy at its core with mellow and sweet floral notes providing a nice contrast alongside some more citrus warmth and mint.
Finish: Long, peppery and delicately sweet.
Tasting note: A big, decadent slab of chewy toffee is joined by molasses, creamy vanilla ice cream, a little condensed milk and Cadbury Eclairs.