Oxford’s first (legal) distillery is here, and it’s taking a pioneering approach to sustainable spirits. We visited The Oxford Artisan Distillery to find out why the team began distilling gin, whisky, absinthe and more using medieval grains.
Though it officially opened at the end of July, it could be said that the essence of The Oxford Artisan Distillery dates back centuries. Established by former music mogul Tom Nicolson, the “grain-to-glass” operation is the first of its kind to distill spirits using grains that were commonplace in Britain in the Middle Ages – before the rise of industrial agriculture and the monocultures grown today – all hailing from four organic farms within a 50-mile radius of Oxford.
It’s a process that could only be possible with the know-how of Canadian archaeo-botanist John Letts, who set about meticulously reviving these historic crops in 1993 after he was gifted a bag of medieval wheat rescued from a thatched cottage. He started with “a handful, because the seeds were dead”, and initially cultivated the grain to develop high quality straw for thatchers, before turning to flour and finally – after a chance meeting with Nicholson at a farmers’ market – booze.
What’s the difference between medieval wheat and modern-day wheat?
These days, most crops (on both industrial and organic farms) are grown as monocultures; one variety of grain in one field or farming system. Monoculture has its benefits – since they’re identical, the plants require the same maintenance and harvesting, resulting in a larger yield, and in turn higher profits – but it calls for a huge amount of chemical fertilizers, which are highly detrimental to the health of the soil.
Back in the Middle Ages, however, farmers were all about ecological agriculture; that is, growing all manner of crops in one space without using any chemicals. There were “thousands of varieties of wheat growing in a field at any one time, and that biodiversity acted like an ecosystem,” Nicholson explains. “It was a natural defence against drought, blight, insects, rust… Now we spray modern monocultures up to 38 times a year with chemicals and poisons, which destroy the soil underneath.”
So why aren’t more farmers on board? Unfortunately, it’s mostly down to cash money. Prices are low, so farms have to be large to turn a profit. Growing multiple varieties of grain requires more equipment and more labour. Then, of course, you have to find an interested buyer for your fabulously diverse harvest.
“The market for these grains has to grow in tandem, too,” Letts points out. “From a practical farmer’s perspective, it is uneconomic to grow less than 1000-2000 acres of grain. But there’s no shortage of farmers who want to. I make far more per acre than the average farmer, and I’m growing something with a third of the yield.”
He’s keen to point out the contrast between organic and ecological farming. While sustainable in the same sense, “organic farmers grow modern varieties of crops,” he explains. “They’re genetically uniform and designed to grow in high-nitrogen soils. If you don’t add nitrogen, they do really poorly. This is organic farming with bells on.”
All aboard… the stills?
While the use of medieval grain is a huge part of what TOAD are about, it’s not the distillery’s defining feature – as a venture to the stillhouse revealed. Here, under the watchful eye of master distiller Cory Mason, the grain is milled, mashed, fermented and then distilled into what the team dub “pure grain spirit” in a 2,200-litre still named Nautilus: one of two hand-riveted copper stills.
Accompanied by its 500-litre counterpart Nemo (they’re named after Jules Verne’s fictional submarine, and its captain), the bespoke set were handcrafted by steam engine boiler-maker Paul Pridam, and are accompanied by two five-metre tall 40-plate copper distillation columns.
The design was sparked by the work of a bootleg rum distillery spotted by Mason’s brother in Haiti, which makes its spirit in old steam engines. Inspired, Nicholson called South Devon Railways, which owns Pridam’s business, and enquired about repurposing one of their disused steam engine boilers.
“He said, ‘You can, but they put arsenic in copper to make it stronger, so I’m not sure about your repeat business,” Nicholson laughs. Undeterred, the team met Pridham in the rather fitting backdrop of the Brunel Hotel in Paddington (named after Isambard Kingdom Brunel, chief engineer of the Great Western Railway) and set about designing the pair from scratch.
“It’s built like a steam engine back in the turn of the century,” says Mason. “It’s a bit of a tricky still to run, you have to have the whole thing in equilibrium, but when you do it’s extremely efficient.”
From milling to distilling, the entire pure grain spirit production process takes between 10 days and two weeks. The liquid is made up of around 65-70% rye, between 20-25% wheat (which gives it “a really nice sweetness”, says Mason), and approximately 10% barley (“for the enzymes”).
It’s worth mentioning that he’s not being deliberately vague here. The mash bill percentages are so varied because a portion of the medieval grain is grown as a ‘maslin’ blend: meaning wheat and rye are grown together. As such, the ratio of wheat to rye varies with each season, and so the recipe needs tinkering.
What’s The Oxford Artisan Distillery making?
So far, TOAD’s core range consists of Oxford Rye Vodka and Oxford Dry Gin, both of which are bottled and hand-labelled on-site; TOAD Absinthe (a speciality of Mason’s) is pipped for release in March next year, and casks of future Oxford Rye Whiskey are currently maturing in an 18th century threshing barn next door.
To make their flagship vodka, the team filter their base spirit through charcoal and cut it with water; nothing else is added. From the heritage grain to the steam engine-inspired stills, it’s almost as though every step on the TOAD journey has led up to this point – after all, when it comes to vodka there’s nowhere to hide – and the result is phenomenal. No wonder Nicolson and his team are so proud.
“It’s one of the things we get the best reaction to, because it’s such an amazing vodka,” ethuses Mason. “It has so much flavour… You get this chocolate note, caramel; it’s got tonnes of sweetness. A little bit of spice at the back from the rye, but it’s not like alcohol spice, it’s different. And the legs on it – you can see it drip down the glass!”
To make Oxford Dry Gin, the pure grain spirit is decanted into Nemo, macerated with 12 botanicals (including meadowsweet and Angelica seed) for 24 hours, redistilled, and, again, diluted with water.
“For me, this gin wasn’t about creating something really weird to make people notice it,” explains Mason. “Our personality is in the fields, it’s in the stills we built, it’s in the base spirit, it’s the fact that we make everything from scratch. This is a classic English gin with lots of juniper and citrus.”
While the team take care to purchase botanicals from organic sources where possible, they have no plans to have their range officially recognised by the Soil Association. It’s tricky to find certified organic juniper, Mason says, “because it’s a wild-harvested product for the most part. We couldn’t be certified organic, because I harvest some of the botanicals by hand at the Botanic Gardens.”
Part of the University of Oxford, the garden is not only Britain’s oldest – it’s one of the oldest scientific gardens in the world. Founded in 1621 as a ‘physic garden’, growing plants for medicinal research, the site is a botanical wonderland in the eyes of a distiller.
TOAD is working with the site to develop Physic Gin, made with “20-something” medicinal botanicals – ranging from original plants to those available to harvest today. For inspiration, the team have been granted access to a 400 year old pocket-sized leather-bound book that dates back to the garden’s early years; a detailed record of the flora and fauna that have graced it.
This book is 400 years old. And yet I break my phone screen after three weeks…“We’re doing experimental small distillations to build the recipe using rue, Asian wormwood, gentians, different almonds, different kinds of Angelica – really bitter, complex flavours,” says Mason.
The collaboration won’t end there. The team plan on following PhySicke Gin with ‘Black Pine’ whisky, named in honour of a tree once beloved by author J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s said that the huge pine, which was felled during a storm in 2014, inspired the tree-like ‘Ent’ characters in his most famous novel, Lord of the Rings. In tribute, the team plan on crafting bottle stoppers from its wood.
Wood, wood and more wood…
Mason’s fervour for experimentation continues with wood. At present, he’s testing new-make rye spirit in a vast array of new and old American and European oak casks. He’s particularly excited about four small barrels in a small on-site lab, which I’m told are made from British oak (specifically, Welsh) and have been charred to four different levels.
“This is an experiment we did with one of England’s only coopers, Alastair Simms,” explains Mason. “They’re small barrels because I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a really good reason people weren’t using a lot of British oak before we made big barrels, but so far it’s been really good.”
At the time of my visit, the team were about to begin crafting brandy from around four tonnes of ancient heritage apples collected from a nearby farm, and revealed plans to make a bourbon-style whisky from ancient black corn in the near future.
Due to the wildly varied nature of the historic grains Letts is working with, the distilling potential is huge. His stocks span bere barley from Turkey, purple barley from Ethiopia, and ‘viking barley’, which he says is the oldest continuously-grown cereal in the UK.
He aspires to see a spirit made from einkorn, the first wheat grown by humans some 10,000 years ago – “it would make an incredible booze of some sort!” – as well as emmer wheat, which dates back to the Bronze Age and, bizarrely, grew in ancient egyptian tombs, including that of King Tutankhamun. Whatever’s next, we’ll be watching out for it with bated breath.
If you’d like to get involved with TOAD and support their spirited adventures, you can buy shares in the distillery here.