We headed back to The Oxford Artisan Distillery to see how things had changed since it started releasing whisky, and the results of its unique approach to grains.

There’s some buzzwords you just can’t seem to escape when you’ve been writing about booze long enough: ‘craft’, ‘artisan’, ‘heritage’, ‘innovation’. None of these words are protected by any kind of legal definition, so any distillery can describe themselves as all of the above and there’s nothing we can do about it. Except roll our eyes and write damning articles. That’ll show ’em!

Anyway, these words have been on my mind this week because they’re the kind of terms that I’ve seen being used to describe the methods implemented at The Oxford Artisan Distillery. One of them is even in the name. And yet, it’s one of those rare places where they actually do have some meaning. Because there’s substance behind the slogan. 

At least that was the conclusion I was left with when I visited the folks over at Oxford’s first (legal) distillery recently. We’ve been before, but since then a lot has changed, from key personnel moving on to the first release of whisky, and the continued experimentation with all things grain. That’s why it was time to go back. And taste lots of booze, naturally.

The Oxford Artisan Distillery

John-Letts, head of grain sustainable development

A grain of truth

That booze begins life as a grain and, if you’ve read our previous post, then you’ll know the first thing to grab your attention is the distillery’s use of ancient heritage grains. They’re grown exclusively within 50 miles of Oxford, encouraging biodiversity and imbuing its spirit with a genuine sense of provenance. This is in large part down to John Letts of Heritage Harvest Ltd, who in 1994 discovered over 200 almost perfectly preserved examples of traditional wheat and rye varieties dating from the late mediaeval period (1375-1550 AD). Even more impressively, he also managed to create modern heritage populations that are reliable, adaptable, and produce quality grains.

This is the only distillery in the world to use ancient heritage grains to produce its full range of spirits. There are no commercially-grown, bought-in-bulk seeds here. It’s not economical, but these painstakingly sourced and revived strains of rye, wheat, and barely have a flavour that cannot be achieved from commercial grain, which master distiller Francisco Rosa describes as a signature maltiness with notes of toffee and chocolate. He’s also an agricultural nut (and the only guy allowed into the oldest botanical garden in Britain with his own pair of scissors) who is as proud of the distillery’s commitment to soil quality, land regeneration, community, and the environment as he is the flavour and terroir the unique grain supply provides.

The distillery uses more than just Letts’ grain strains, but also his farming methods. A leading authority in his field (haha), while his grain populations can be grown in standard rotational organic systems, he has developed an alternative method that triples output while also sequestering carbon, maximising biodiversity, and minimising the use of fossil fuels.

There’s a full breakdown here, but it’s all to do with harvesting in a way that requires low intervention, while ensuring grain can be grown in the same field year after year with no reduction in yield or quality. It essentially creates a permanent agro-ecosystem that requires no pesticides, chemical fertilisers or manuring, but delivers low levels of nitrogen and high genetic diversity within the crop, which is resilient and perform particularly well in drought. And with every bottle the distillery sells, more people become interested in his sustainable methods. A lot of farms are already adopting this kind of approach.

The Oxford Artisan Distillery

The 2,200-litre Nautilus. We’re pretty sure this is actually the robot villain from The Incredibles.

From super seeds to stunning stills

All this grain diversity means the distillery is capable of producing single malt, blends, rye whisky, and bourbon-style corn spirits. There’s even wheat whisky to follow, as last harvest the first crop of Einkorn and Emmer wheat was attained and whisky will follow in a few years. For the process of making whisky, so much of it is manual. From the distillation (all cut points are based on flavour) to the stirring of the mash, by hand (!) with big paddles. Long fermentations are favoured and take place in either stainless steel or Hungarian oak vats. For its gin and vodka, the distillery makes its own neutral grain spirit, a rare but admirable approach that demonstrates the need to own the process. Plus it happens in some of the coolest stills you’ll ever see. 

Nautilus and Nemo are real Oxford signatures, commissioned from scratch through a collaboration with Paul Pridham and South Devon Railway Engineering. Traditional casting methods were employed to create connecting rings for the body of the still and 1000 copper rivets hold it all together, while an original porthole salvaged from a ship decommissioned provides an antique diving helmet-atheistic to its brass door which provides access for cleaning and maintenance. 

The labour of love has created short stills with the versatility of having a bubble plate in the cap to increase reflux. A massive coil inside mirrors the job of a cooling jacket, leading to those lovely maillard reactions and encouraging more amino acids and complex sugars to create an array of flavour in a big, robust spirit, from the floral, fruity and herbal to toffee, chocolate, coffee, and some nuttiness. 

The 2,200-litre and 500-litre stills respectively are accompanied by two five-metre tall 40-plate copper distillation columns, meaning Rosa distils in pot and column stills in an approach that almost mirrors bourbon production. This had the advantage of giving him flexibility and creating spirit that matures quickly. Head of whisky Charlie Echlin explains: “We attain different styles of whisky through different ways of distilling. We always pot distil our mash. Afterwards, we may pot distil the low wines again or distil low wines through the columns with different reflux ratios. Crucially we don’t go above 92% in the columns at all times”. 

Maturation occurs in two locations – some on-site to monitor, while the majority goes to an underground facility in Liverpool. There’s an absolutely incredible range of casks varieties here, from virgin oak to ex-bourbon, ex-Port, more sherry varieties than you’d find in a drinks cabinet from the 1970s, and even experiments with British oak that are currently maturing. 

The Oxford Artisan Distillery

Master distiller Francisco Rosa

The spirit of Oxford

The range consists of interesting white spirits like the Rye Organic Dry Gin or its Botanic Garden Physic Gin (remember Rosa and his scissor privileges?), as well as experimental releases like its Pure Rye Spirit, a without-definition gateway dram that converts sceptics by being so belligerently brilliant. It’s a great example of the distillery’s house character and is full of nutty, chocolatey goodness as well as some rich fruitiness. But for today we’re going to focus on the whisky, as this is Master of Malt, after all.

To start, I tried the Heritage Corn Whisky, the first in a series called Grain Stories which celebrates the diversity of all those English-grown heritage grains. For this beauty, Letts collected samples of both ‘flint’ and ‘sweet’ corn seeds and cross-pollinated them to produce unique and genetically diverse seeds. Half of the grain was dry, but the other half germinated (malted) on the barn floor as it was being cleaned. Once harvested (by hand), the maize was flaked and crushed before being distilled as part of a mashbill consisting of 51% corn, 34% rye, 10% wheat and 5% malted barley. New American oak casks then housed the spirit until it was bottled at 50.4%. It’s got a delicate floral and herbal profile with notes of buttery biscuit, aniseed, raw almonds, and foam bananas, as well as vanilla and baking spice, and is unlike almost anything you’ll find at another English distillery.

Its main run of whisky has been the star of the show since its first release, however, and they’ve all been based on rye, which has become Oxford signature. Echlin says this is down to two reasons: one, rye’s biodiversity and its ability to cross-pollinate. “All heritage grains are genetically diverse and thus better suited to a changing climate. Rye, further to that, cross-pollinates and adapts with a changing climate and place, meaning it’s excellent for expressing terroir”. And reason number two? “Rye whisky is awesome – and we want to make Oxford Manhattans.” I’m sold.

Each batch has had its own distinct process. For example with Batch 4, the organic heritage grain was grown in sandy soils just seven miles from the distillery and harvested in the autumn of 2017. It was a diverse maslin grain harvest, including multiple ancient heritage rye strains, wheat strains, and even a few oats and a few thistles. This spirit was matured in six American oak casks with different origins, toasts, sizes (both 130L and 225L), from in different microclimates from several cooperages. All this led to an impressive young whisky that is beautifully complex and full of notes like sweet vanilla, toffee, and toasty sourdough smokiness.

The Oxford Artisan Distillery

Oxford is becoming one of the most interesting producers of rye whisky around

Substance in the slogans

All in all, touring The Oxford Artisan Distillery was a very rewarding experience. Its geeky, green approach is supported by a warm, inclusive staff who genuinely love and care about what they do. Echlin and Rosa answered every question on the tour, including tricky subjects like pricing, which they say is going to decrease in the future as the distillery continues to find its feet. Both also agree that there’s one other key ingredient that makes it all come together: Oxford.

Echlin tells the story of a distillery made from the collaboration of an original founder with a background in the music biz (Tom Nicholson, who isn’t involved day-to-day anymore) who saw the potential in making booze with these grains developed by a dedicated environmentalist from Canada (Letts), and a former master distiller from California (Cory Mason) who realised it would create unique whisky. All of them came together in Oxford to make something different, and now every step of the process occurs in Oxfordshire. There’s a reason why they don’t really go by the acronym TOAD anymore. It’s because you’re not saying where it all happens.

During one point of the tour, Echlin says to me that you’ll be asking why nobody is doing the same kind of intensive, thoughtful, and sustainable grain production. And he’s right. Especially as the early spirits being made are rich, distinctive, and diverse, but with a tell-tale distillery character of orchard fruit, hazelnut, toffee, and chocolate in every sip. 

Craft? Artisan? Heritage? Innovation? You bet. This distillery has managed to own every step of the process and make those words mean something.