21 December 2011

Artisan Distilling Revoltuions - So what exactly is Artisan Distilling all about?

Written by and in collaboration with Jamie Baxter. Jamie was a master distiller at Chase Distillery where he was responsible for designing, installing, commissioning, running and then developing products. He now works as a consultant, working around the UK and South America aiding in start up small scale artisan distilleries.

If you are lucky enough to be shown around the Beefeater Distillery in South London, you will see some huge great pot stills that have been mothballed. These were originally used to clean up the alcohol coming in to the distillery as it was not of a good enough quality to make their wonderful gin. Nowadays however, the base spirit that they buy is excellent, and this is just one other ingredient that they purchase in addition to juniper berries, coriander seeds and all the rest of the botanicals. You see, Beefeater, in common with virtually every other gin distiller in the country, do not make their own base alcohol, but ship it in from elsewhere before re-distilling it with the botanicals to convert the neutral alcohol into gin.

EU Regulation 110/2008 sets out the legal definition of all spirit types within Europe, and gin (and indeed vodka) has to be made from “ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin”. This in turn is defined as ethanol with no flavour other than that of the raw material and at a minimum of 96.0% ABV. (The regulation also sets out maximum levels of certain residues, but I won’t bore you with that other than to say that these maximum allowed levels are lower in the finished product for London Gin than for other distilled gins). Every gin distiller therefore has to decide whether to make their own base ethyl alcohol, or to buy it in.

If you have read this far, you will be wondering why on earth I am telling you all this. The reason is that I have recently been drawn into a transatlantic discussion as to what artisan distilling is all about, and the point of view was very forcibly put across that a distiller who buys in neutral spirit rather than making it themselves is somehow cheating. Now, my gut feeling was to disagree with this, but it did start me wondering why I felt that way, and what therefore I would think is the defining characteristic of an artisan distillery. Most of us could probably write a list of artisan distillers in the UK and not argue too much over those distilleries on it. For example, I don’t think that anyone would argue that Ian Hart, the wonderful distiller of Sacred Gin, is not an artisan distiller, and he uses bought-in alcohol in his tiny still. But it is more difficult to decide why these names are on the list.

So if it is not making your own base alcohol, is it the size of the still? Again the answer is no, this is too simplistic. Different products and different methodologies require different sized stills. When Sipsmith Distillery started up they advertised their beautiful pot still as being 300 litres. The fantastic Chase Distillery pot that I know so well is 2300 litres, and yet Sipsmith could produce more bottles of finished product than Chase at that time because they were using bought-in alcohol whereas at Chase we were making it all from potatoes and apples.

Is it the use of a pot still rather than a continuous still? Again no. The thing about designing stills is that there are many different ways of getting to the same point. Pretty much every still is unique, and the distiller must decide what system best meets his requirements (see my earlier blog). Now this might be a continuous still, or a pot still, or various combinations of the two - and this is without considering vacuum distillation and other more esoteric methods. I would argue that a pot still is generally “more artisan” than a continuous still, but this has rather more to do with the way it is run rather than the still itself. With continuous stills it is important to keep the flow rates, temperature profiles, steam pressures, refux etc. relatively even. Pot stills are more forgiving, and so continuous stills would tend to have rather more sophisticated control systems, which nowadays means a computer. Plc controls take the craftsmanship out of running the still – indeed these stills are usually run without an operator even being there, and the dictionary definition of an artisan is “a skilled workman” or “a handicraftsman”. At the risk of alienating computer programmers it is hard to see how this definition can apply to a computer controlled still. So it is not the continuous still itself that moves it away from the realm of the artisan, but the control systems often (but not always) associated with it.

So if I haven’t yet nailed down what defines an artisan distiller, what might disqualify a distillery from being one? Obviously big industrial scale plants are out, and so too are small plants owned by a large organisation – they should be privately owned and independent. This allows for greater risk taking and sheer bloody-mindedness.

The truth is that although everyone is talking about the new wave of artisan distilleries, they have been around for a while. They almost died out with tight excise controls, but the Somerset Cider Brandy Company has now been going for over 20 years. Edradour in Perthshire is capable of producing 2500 bottles a week. Their spirit is produced by just 3 men without automation and claims a history going back 170 years. But it is very true that this is relatively rare in this country. Scotland has around 100 distilleries of various sizes. By contrast, Austria has a similar population and 20,000 registered distilleries, including my cousin who has a tiny still in the shed in his garden where he distils a wonderful Zwetschken Schnapps from the half dozen plum trees there. Every now and again he produces something that he is incredibly proud of, and rightly too. I have come to realise that this is one of the defining characteristics of an artisan distiller for me. Every distiller perfects his recipe and strives to make each batch identical, however variation is inevitable and some batches are better than others. In a larger distillery these variations are blended away to maintain consistency, but the artisan distiller embraces the variability and indeed celebrates it by putting batch numbers on bottles. What is the point of that if each batch is identical?

So celebrate the difference with us. Keep close to the distiller, ask what’s new, what’s recommended, how the runs are going and buy direct if possible. In short, treat your distiller just like your local butcher. It’s a little time-consuming but worth it to get the best drop, and if the distiller can’t make time to talk to you, then that’s not an artisan distillery.

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