In the last year, the UK drinks industry has flourished beyond anyone’s expectations. Whereas formerly, the market was dominated by a select view big-name brands, in the past few years, micro-distilleries, craft breweries and independent vineyards have grown to become, in many cases, UK consumers’ first-choice for tipples.
The news comes as figures from HMRC show that 45 new distilleries were registered in 2016. This is not an entirely new trend - as Beverage Daily explains research by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association proves a 135 per cent increase in the number of distilleries in operation from 2010. But it’s not just the quantity of new drinks brands that is notable, a sea-change is taking place in terms of consumer choice, too. The quality of independent drinks brands is widely perceived to surpass that of established brands, and the unique elements of new drinks products is a major pull for millennials in particular.
As James Simmonds of UHY Hacker Young told The Guardian: “Both the craft spirits and the craft brewery sectors are going through a period of explosive creativity. You can see that in everything from the logos, branding and advertising of these products. The quality of the product is streets ahead of their big brand competitors.”
Chief Executive of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, Miles Beale, told us: “The UK is the biggest spirits exporter in the world, part in thanks to the plethora of new distilleries springing up the length and breadth of the country. A total of 45 new distilleries opened in the UK in 2016, an increase of 17% on the previous year, bringing the total to an estimated 273. The rapid growth of distilleries is yet another positive sign of the UK spirits industry going from strength to strength. From traditional products like Scotch, to the Great British Gin boom and newer products like English and Welsh Whiskey.”
To gain an insight on this increasingly popular subsection of our thriving drinks scene, I spoke to some of the most exciting distilleries and breweries from the UK and Ireland to hit the headlines in 2017.
According to The Guardian, annual gin sales rose by 16 per cent in 2016, leading the drinks industry to dub last year as ‘the year of gin’. 40 million bottles were bought, and a significant number of new distilleries opened in the UK, too. In the past five years, several exciting distillers have begun crafting unique gins, from the historic cities of the north to Cornish fishing towns.
In the UK we might associate gin with London, but its production has spread far and wide throughout the country. One prime example is Durham Distillery, the first and only gin distillery in this beautiful historic city. Distilled by hand in their 400 litre copper pot still affectionately named Lily, bottled and labelled individually, these drinks display a true passion for the spirit. There are now many other distilleries following in the company’s footsteps, creating a budding craft spirits scene in the North East of England, but Durham Gin is particularly notable for their reputation. Founder Jon Chadwick was awarded the title of Warden Rectifier of the prestigious Gin Guild in 2016.
Head distiller Jess Tomlinson was also given the rank of Rectifier, and she explains why Durham’s gin is so unique:
“As a craft spirit, we pride ourselves in making Durham Gin with unique and bold flavours, such as pink peppercorns for warmth, celery seed for a slightly savoury note, and elderflower for a lovely light and sweet finish.
She continues to comment, “As a relatively new UK distillery, we believe it's an extremely exciting time to be in the gin game! We are proud of the fact that we actually produce all of our own high quality spirits in our handmade copper pot still in Durham, and the fact that our branding is absolutely beautiful is simply an added bonus to our great-tasting spirits!”
Durham Distillery not only sell gin with provenance and character, but also their own Durham Vodka, boasting a smooth palate with a hint of sweet vanilla, and a strawberry and pink pepper liqueur, perfect for making their Summer Rose cocktail at home.
Locksley Distilling Co.
Another emerging gin distillery to come out of the north-east area of Britain is Locksley Distilling Co. Forged in Yorkshire, this gin is fiercely individual, in an eye-catching lime green hue, and its notes make just as much of an impression. Juniper announces itself immediately, followed up by delicate aromas of elderflower, with warm cassia undertones and a citrus zing. Its creators say:
“Our small-batch, hand-raised gin is a smooth and truly delicious affair. We lovingly blend traditional botanicals with more delicate infusions of elderflower, dandelion, and pink grapefruit, which makes for a distinctively unique gin.”
This versatile gin owes much to its origins – the name is a tribute to the surrounding area, “named in honour of a favourite Yorkshire lad and local Sheffield legend, Robin Hood.” However, it is distinctive not just for its mythological branding. The gin is also one of the very few – if not the only – true English sipping gins, meaning drinkers can try it neat or chilled, in a delicious G&T, a martini dry or dirty, and in countless fantastic cocktails.
Tarquin’s Cornish Gin
At the other end of Britain, one of the world’s pioneering gins was born. Developed near the coastal town of Padstow in Cornwall, Tarquin’s Gin was nothing short of monumental for the local area, becoming the first gin to be distilled in southwest England for over a century. Inspired by the wild beauty of the Cornish coast, this small-batch spirit is crafted in just 300 bottles at a time, using soft Cornish water, local violets and fresh orange zest to create its iconic flavour.
Tarquin Leadbetter founder of the gin and self-taught distiller, says he was drawn to the craft through his background in cooking, by a love for food, flavours and creative ingredient combinations. He says:
“I learned how to make gin from trial and error on a tiny copper pot still on my kitchen cooker, while scouring the internet for home distilling advice and forums. Using grain vodka I bought from a local Cash and Carry, and any botanical I could get my hands on - from the exotic herbs and spices I bought online, to the foraged flowers and leaves of Cornwall.”
He explains that tradition and innovation are balanced in equal measure in the creation of Tarquin’s Gin:
“To make our Tarquin's Cornish Gin we steep our unique recipe of twelve botanicals overnight in wheat spirit inside our copper pot stills to extract out their lovely flavours. Our copper pot still is handmade by coppersmiths, and even sealed with dough made fresh every morning, based on an ancient technique.
Tarquin sold the first bottle out of the boot of his car in July 2013, and has grown impressively since, creating two other spirits, one of which - Tarquin’s Cornish Navy Seadog Gin – won Best Gin at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2017. The bottles themselves make an impression, with coloured wax dripping artfully down the necks, and sophisticated labels featuring elegant illustrations of the ingredients in the spirit. From the design to the flavour, this gin truly is a prime example of localism and unbounded inspiration in perfect creative harmony.
The UK and Ireland’s craft brewing scene has been burgeoning for many years now, going from strength to strength and countless beer festivals have been founded to celebrate the industry, and several craft ales and lagers have even become so popular as to be stocked in mainstream supermarkets. But which companies are the ones to watch for 2017?
Shindigger Brewing Co.
One new drinks creative that understands the power of providing an experience beyond the product is Shindigger Brewing Company. Founded in 2012 with nothing more than a home-brew kit and plastic bucket in their Manchester student halls of residence, Shindigger Beer is the invention of young brewers George Grant and Paul Delamere who have taken a hobby and made it into a game-changing new beer concept.
George and Paul began creating their beers during university, selling them at local parties to their peers. It soon took off, however, and the business took note, with the Start of Loans Company awarding them a £10,000 loan to develop their novel approach. George explains that their brewing process is based on shadow brewing – developing new recipes and taking them to a partner brewery to brew them on an industrial scale. Today, Shindigger create about 50,000 prints per month of their ten different craft beers, which have been sold all across the country and even as far abroad as Hong Kong.
The beer itself is unique in providing a product young drinkers can identify. With big, hoppy flavours, the beers are sub-5 ABV, fostering a culture based on enjoying the moment and socialising with friends. George explains that freshness, a local focus and travel inspiration are all vital in the brand’s appeal. Indeed, their hops are sourced from countries such as Australia, and the beer is heavily influenced by the liberal U.S. brewing culture. He explains:
“In the U.S., the Prohibition meant that home brewing was historically more popular, allowing more experimentation and massive flavours. Contrastingly, in the UK, regulations by organisations such as CAMRA mean that real ale must be in casks and on draughts. This is part of the reason why we chose to create American-style beers.”
According to George, the microbrewery scene is five times as large in the US compared to the UK, but on a national scale, the UK beer scene is absolutely thriving. In Manchester, more bars are serving craft beers because more people are taking a real interest in the taste and flavours of what they drink. A large part of this development is the growth of social drinking, which is an area Shindigger have tapped into with their Shindigger sessions. These are their way of pushing the boundaries beyond the product, hosting parties with local musicians, street food, creatives – the vibe is holistic, youthful and creative.
George explains why craft brewing is so exciting for the drinks industry, and for consumers:
“In small-scale brewing, the beer tastes better as it is fresh and not so far travelled. The flexibility of micro brewing also allows the creation of new styles using the best ingredients and brewing processes, as creators are not trying to keep costs down as larger breweries might.”
For the future of UK brewing, George predicts that new trends will include the rise in popularity of murky, hoppy IPAs with fruity flavours and less bitter, and more experimental techniques including oats in malt grist, dry-hopping and lactose in stouts for creaminess.
Another craft beer company that comes highly recommended by experts is Fierce Beer brewing company. Beers of Europe is a website that sells fine beers, ciders, wine, spirits and home brews from across the continent, so it’s safe to say that they know a good beer when they find it. Matthew from the company admits that Beers of Europe to tend to stock established breweries that they know people are looking for, and that have good reviews. This is because, he explains, “when stocking near 3000 different beers, you cannot afford for a brewery to simply disappear into the shelves, as it were.”
“However”, he continues, “this does have its exceptions. Breweries and the people that run them can and do catch our attention. One that we have recently acquired is Fierce Beer, who have only been up and running the past year. They are a brewery in Scotland who are really following a passion for the craft, and are creating new beers that really push the limits when it comes to new styles and bold flavours.”
Fierce Beer, like Shindigger, favour strong, bold flavours. They identify four key elements as essential to their style – hoppy pale ales and IPAs, fruity pale ales loaded with fruit purees and sour beers, dark stouts and porters with notes of spice, coffee and nutty flavours, and seasonal ales with unusual ingredients such as ginger and habanero.
Matthew comments, “Their distinctive bottles help them stand out but if they don’t give you a wow factor, the beer will. Peanut Porters and Fruit Fuelled Pale Ales are taken in their stride and we are loving it as much as the customers do. We look forward to seeing what they come out with next and we are sure they will continue to ride the wave of craft beer right to the top.”
Whisky is a drink that has always been synonymous with Scotland and Ireland, with famous names such as Jameson’s, Bell’s and Glenmorangie propping up bars for decades. However, of late, the industry has begun to regenerate, with fourteen Scotch distilleries opening since 2013, eight set to start producing in 2017, and at least forty new products are in development, according to Beverage Daily. Irish whiskey exports are also projected to double by 2020. Where should we be looking, then, for our newest hot toddy contenders?
Connacht Whiskey Distillery
Opening its doors in 2015, Connacht Whiskey Distillery is one of the newest whiskey distilleries to be founded in the Republic of Ireland. Set on the charming banks of the River Moy in Ballina, County Mayo, Connacht’s pride themselves on mashing, fermenting, stilling, ageing and bottling their spirits all on site in a building that used to be a family bakery – having “moved from one classic use of fine Irish grains to another.” Also distilling vodka, poitin and gin, this distillery is dynamic, and whilst it is rooted in the local area, the product is thoroughly modern and forward-thinking.
Lyndsey Harkins, distillery manager, spoke to us, and explained:
“Each step in the production process, from grain to glass, is monitored by our expert distillers who have a hands-on approach at every stage. As an independent, craft spirit producer in Ireland we are focused on creating distinctive spirits using both traditional and innovative techniques. Our bespoke copper pot stills were designed by our master distiller ensuring Connacht Whiskey spirits are unique and full of character.
“The barley used for our Connacht Whiskey comes from local Irish farms and the type of barley we use creates a sweet full-bodied whiskey with hints of banana and pineapple, while the ex-bourbon barrels used for maturation allows caramel and custard notes to come through. Our whiskey filled barrels remain onsite to mature, soaking in the west of Ireland coastal air giving each batch more depth of flavour.”
Not only do Connacht’s sell delicious whiskeys of distinction, they also offer guests in-depth guided tours of the site, where visitors can watch the distilling process take place. Lyndsey says, “Guests are taken into the heart of our spirit production and can see up close how we make our spirits, they can then partake in a sampling of the spirits in our tasting room.”
When you think of whisky, you might not immediately think of Wales, but that is all being changed thanks to Penderyn Distillery. Creating award-winning whiskies and spirits at their distillery located right at the foothills of the Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales, Penderyn has made a name for itself with exquisite single malt whiskies.
Although Penderyn were founded in the 1990s, the past year has seen worldwide expansion of the brand, winning two gold awards in the World Whisky Masters competition – their Portwood 46 won Gold in the ‘Europe Single Malt Super Premium’ and Penderyn Celt won Gold in the ‘Europe Single Malt Premium’ category. The secret of their success is a unique still, which produces fresh clean spirit at a very high alcohol level. Another factor is the use of spring water from their own supply. Penderyn now exports to over 25 countries and can be found on the shelves of major stores across the UK and beyond.
Jon Treganna from Penderyn Distillery explain that, in an era when many distilleries are owned by global corporations, their independence means they can be creative and adventurous when developing new products. Penderyn also recently announced the building of a second distillery in Swansea, so we can expect to see a lot more of these exciting whiskies in the future!
As the whisky game widens, so do the opportunities it provides for distillers of all different backgrounds. No more is whisky the sole purview of middle-aged men – now, anyone can begin their own spirits business. One of the most exciting Scotch whisky initiatives to be forged in 2017 is a testament to just this.
Toulvaddie is a brand new micro whisky distillery currently being developed in the Highlands of Scotland, creating unique single malt whiskies. However, it is not just the product that is promising - Toulvaddie Distillery is a momentous development for the industry in that it is set to be the first Scotch whisky distillery founded by a woman in almost 200 years. Founder and distiller Heather Nelson takes on this impressive title, having spent several years designing, developing and curating her distinctive whisky, now is in the process of building Toulvaddie Distillery.
Much is yet to be announced about the whisky itself, but we do know that the spirits will be created in Toulvaddie’s “big work horse Wash Still Milly” and their “smaller, slow and steady Spirit Still, Nelly”. The stills are named after the horse and cow emblem of the brand, as a homage to two beloved animals that lived at Heather’s family smallholding for many years.
Currently, Toulvaddie are celebrating their opening with the sale of their limited-edition inaugural first year casks.
Image credits: Durham Gin / Shindigger Brewing Co. / Connacht Whiskey