Drink in the spirit: English Spirit Distillery
PUBLISHED: 10:05 03 April 2018 | UPDATED: 11:35 03 April 2018
What does a biochemist looking for a new challenge in life do? Set up a high-end, bespoke distillery of course. Linda Duffin went to meet Dr John Walters at the English Spirit Distillery
It is illegal to own a still, right? Wrong, says Dr John Walters, founder and managing director of the English Spirit Distillery. “Buried deep in some misty part of HM Revenue and Customs website is a statement saying saying you can own a still for personal use, up to four litres in size, provided you go onto a register.”
This arcane fact, coupled with an inspiring feature about French eaux de vie on BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme, launched John onto a new trajectory. Having owned and sold several businesses, latterly a pharmaceutical company, the former Oxford biochemist was looking for a new challenge.
“I filled the form in and sent it off and built a still, badly,” says John. “At that stage we had some grapes growing on the side of the house so we kicked off with a brandy. We made a grape wine, fermented it and distilled it twice and tried it. At that stage we were drinking a cognac we’d bought, and ours was better.
And I thought hmmn, that’s £140 a bottle, that’s . . . not a lot. So we made other things, an elderberry eau de vie and some vodka and they were better than you can find [commercially]. I looked at the numbers and thought ‘this will work, there’s plenty of scope here for making superb spirits, but offering them at a price people can afford’.”
Five years on and with all of HMRC’s boxes correctly ticked, the English Spirit Distillery currently operates from two sites, just over the borders at Great Yeldham in Essex and Dullingham in Cambridgeshire. For a company that at present only employs around a dozen people, it makes a surprisingly wide range of high-end booze. There is vodka made from East Anglian sugar beet, gin, rum, single malt, apple brandy, grappa and a series of fruit-based drinks.
“We make close to 30 different items, some of which are substantially seasonal, because they might be spirits or eaux de vie made from seasonal fruit. We’ve got fantastic damsons, greengages, nine or 10 apple varieties and four or five different varieties of pear in our orchard on site, so we’re very fortunate in that.”
The bulk of the business, 85%, comes from making bespoke alcohols for commercial clients.
“I really do see ourselves as the only Michelin-star-equivalent contract producer for anyone in the world who wants that service. Last year we won 18 international gold medals for our customers, this year 11 or 12. So people come to us knowing that whatever they conceive of, that we will produce the best version that’s possibly to make of that,” John says. He makes it sound deceptively easy.
“Vodka [which is double distilled to make gin etc] can be made from any agrarian source – quinoa in South America, bulgar wheat, potatoes, wheat, barley, sugar beet here in East Anglia, pretty much what’s available where the distillery is. It’s a simple process – grind it up so you can get access to the starch, turn the starch into gloopy wallpaper-pasty-stuff, add enzymes, turn the starch into sugars. Cool it down, bung in the yeast and wait about four days. Distil. Bob’s your uncle.”
If it was that easy we would all be doing it, but John is passionate about quality. Each of the stills was built on site because John believes commercially available stills are too big to guarantee a quality product.
“You’ve got to take immense care and attention over everything, and the critical thing with distilling is – follow the clue in the name – you’re distilling, so throw away the bits that aren’t good and do it absolutely rigorously, just revise it, improve it, revise it, improve it.
“You’re looking for a spirit that’s flawless. There should be no fire in the mouth, it should have a delicate touch. We’re talking about a 40-45% spirit but it should be perfectly sippable. You should have none of that ‘deep breath before the plunge’ feeling. So that’s the key thing – no abrasion, no fire, no chemical off-notes but a wholesome, natural, rounded initial feeling.
You don’t want tannins, that bitterness that you might associate with teas, or rancid notes that you might have if you have components called fusel oils. They’re what yeast makes if you try to be over-generous in your extraction of alcohol and leave the still on for too long. They can bomb the taste and are usually a sign that people have pushed too far for money’s sake.” Fusel is the German word for rot-gut, so he’s got a point. And John refuses to sell to the big supermarket chains.
“The supermarkets, in my belief, have done themselves in by being so aggressive on their profit margins. When you take more, you have to buy for less. And buying for less is no strategy for decent products, because it’s a race to the bottom.
“People’s expectations of where they buy goods and the quality of goods they get has totally changed from where it was 10 years ago. People in my age group, and I’m in my late 40s, generally become slightly more affluent with age so they are interested in better things less often, I think. And locality is very important to people now. They like to know where things come from and who’s doing it, if they can.”
With the company’s value expected to grow by around 40% this year, he is planning to expand the Great Yeldham site to include a visitor centre, café and shop and as the village population expands, to increase the workforce.
“The game for us is a long one,” says John. “It’s a family business. We’ve got five kids in the family so fingers crossed one or more of them will want to take it on.”