As we all know Britain’s love of gin is far from fading and with more than 300 distilleries now open across the country the race is on to for competitors to provide a point of difference. One area in particular that’s on the rise is the trend for grain to glass distillation. So, what is grain to glass distillation and does it make a difference to the end product?
All gin is produced by re-distilling a neutral spirit, usually made from grain and commonly called NGS, with botanicals. In most cases the NGS is bought-in by the gin distillery however, in a growing number of distilleries the NGS is produced in-house. There are now 12 such distilleries in the UK including Lone Wolf, Adnams, Williams Chase, Copper Rivet, Doghouse Distillery, Foxhole Spirits, Chapel Down, Arbikie, Ramsbury, Jawbox, Cuckoo and Spirit of Toad. The later was actually featured on Countryfile a few years ago when the owners made a decision to only use heritage grain grown very close to the distillery, at the time I remember thinking it was brave decision, now of course I know that it was a very informed decision and I was very excited to meet the team at this year’s Junipalooza event in London.
Producing gin is an expensive business, the licencing process can be very timely and whatever size of still you purchase is going to set you back then take into the account the duty you’ll be paying on the NGS and it’s going to be a while before you break even. But to produce spirits from grain to glass requires a lot more equipment, not only do you need a copper pot still you also need a column still, mash tuns, mills and fermentation tanks. And of course, all of that equipment means you require a lot of space, you can’t fit all of that in your garden shed or kitchen (which is how many other start-up distilleries operate initially) so it’s no surprise that many of these distilleries aren’t start-up companies. Adnams of course have been brewing beer for centuries and also have vineyards, hotels and pubs, Lonewolf is Brewdog’s spirits arm, Williams Chase are the family behind Tyrells crisps, Chapel Down and Foxhole Spirits have a highly successful vineyards (and actually use the wasted grapes as a base instead of grain) and the family behind Copper Rivet have a very successful wine import business. In the case of Ramsbury, Cuckoo, Jawbox and Arbikie all had large farm estates that were in need of diversification and with the grain, space and some cases water bore holes readily available it’s no surprise that they took this route.
But if you haven’t got the backing of such a large parent company does the investment stack up in an already crowded market space?
On a recent visit to the start-up distillery, Doghouse in Battersea(http://www.doghousedistillery.com/) founder Braden Saunders explained that the reason he decided to make the investment was to ensure he had total control from the beginning to the end of the process, which in his opinion was key to producing a quality product he fully believed in. Their Renegade gin is an incredibly smooth gin with a huge amount of creaminess, which can be attributed to the wheat base, coming through into the final finish. Braden is a perfectionist who spent a lot of time perfecting the recipe before scaling it up for production – each run makes around 3,000 bottles – and this really translates into the final product. But did he need to invest so heavily to get a little extra creaminess or could he have made an equally as good product without the huge upfront cost? And that’s for me where ambition comes in, they are already producing a vodka called Baller and given they have future proofed by installing very large stills I wouldn’t be surprised to see them distil other products in the near future and that’s where the grain to glass philosophy will pay off.
Spirit of Toad relied heavily on crowd funding, and are producing several gins, vodka, whisky and absinthe! They’ve certainly been busy in the last year since they launched. It was great to meet the team at Junipalooza, they were so enthusiastic about their products and the 3 gins I sampled were extremely good. Passion for flavour really shone through and I can’t wait to go and visit them in Oxford soon.
I was also lucky enough to meet the teams from both Brindle (Cuckoo gin) and Ramsbury distilleries at Junipalooza, both of these distilleries are set on working farms making them truly grain to glass! All of the grain comes from the fields and in the case of Ramsbury they also have a water spring on site. For these farms diversification was key and they saw distillation as the way to go, with no rental costs for warehouse space and the raw ingredients at hand it’s no surprise that they have taken this approach. Ramsbury are currently making gin and vodka, I’m not a vodka drinker but they could have converted me! Brindle had 3 different gins on offer, all very different but again the creamy, smoothness came through in all. The pick of the 3 for me was the Sunshine gin, perfect for the lovely weather we’re currently experiencing.
The team behind Lone Wolf also deserve a mention, bringing the same principles of Brewdog with them they are creating some very exciting stuff. Speaking with the team it’s clear that they have a huge desire to create something very special with each batch of spirit and it goes to show that craft can be scaled up if you retain total control over each stage of the process.
Grain to Glass distillation certainly brings out a slightly different smoothness and creaminess to the spirit in the case of the distilleries I’ve focused on above, but others don’t have the same attributes. And of course, there are a number of gins that are equally as good if not better from distilleries who buy in the in NGS. For me the jury is out, if you have the space, funds, access to the raw ingredients and more importantly the ambition to distil more than just one spirit then yes, it’s probably the way to go but if you want to produce just one excellent quality gin then you can achieve this with one still.