Wednesday 25 April 2018

From grain to glass in the city of dreaming spires

Tom with the TOAD, Physic and Ashmolean gins
I was lucky enough to be given a tour of The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD) last Sunday by none other than Tom Nicolson, founder, chairman and CEO. After a successful career in the music business managing artists and running a recording studio, Tom was looking for a new challenge and cast back to his ancestors, who were involved in the wine and whisky business in Scotland, for inspiration. His former career must have left him with the experience, and presumably capital, to do things properly from the beginning, and everything about the project oozes careful consideration and long-term planning, from the ingredients he uses to the intricate symbology of the logo.

The distillery is located in a former council depot by Oxford’s South Park, part of which is Grade II listed. The Oxford Preservation Trust holds a legal covenant of the site which actually prohibited the sale and production of alcohol—something that Tom managed to persuade them to change. Distillery tours were clearly part of the business plan from the beginning (for which they charge £20 or £50 a head) and he has now been given permission to add a restaurant and gin garden. I get the impression that Tom is a shrewd operator and it seems that his application was oiled by the fact that the garden and toilet facilities will be made available to all park users, whether they buy anything or not.

Above and below: some of the botanicals in the gin-recipe lab

In keeping with a lot of “artisan” food and drink, there is a strong emphasis on locality: their Physic Gin takes its cue of Oxford’s Botanic Garden, founded in 1621, and the gin’s 25 botanicals are all taken from the stock list made in 1648 by the keeper Jacob Bobart, some of them actually foraged from the garden itself. The 17 botanicals in their Ashmolean Gin are inspired by the exotic contents of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, including jara lemon, rose, jasmine and spices from the Middle East and Asia. Like many small-batch gins they have started by getting into local bars and restaurants (though the scope of their plans is global). Oxford is a shrewd place to try this: it’s a well-heeled area (and TOAD products are not cheap) which is also flooded with tourists sucking up the local character and looking for touristy activities, such as a visit to a local distillery. TOAD even have a couple of distinctive minibuses for fetching and returning visitors from the city centre.

But the concept behind TOAD is much more sophisticated than that. Tom wanted to emphasise not just locality but sustainability and traceability too. Most gin-makers in this country, whether large or small, simply buy in neutral grain spirit as the base for their product. This is usually made from intensively-farmed wheat grown in some other part of the world, such as Ukraine, and there is no way to know what has really gone into it. Tom is taking a long view here, as he believes that ten years from now traceability will have become mandatory and he thinks it’s good business to get ahead of the game.

Tom with some of the rye plants, showing how much taller they are than intensively-farmed wheat

TOAD have worked with archeo-botanist and local farmer John Letts, who has spent his career rediscovering ancient grain varieties and sustainable farming methods. Modern grain tends to be a monoculture, with every plant in the field a clone of the others, making them more susceptible to disease and pests than a genetically diverse field as it would have been farmed in medieval times. The modern solution is to nurture the monoculture with chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, which depletes biodiversity all the more. Tom showed us some of the heritage rye plants of the kind from which TOAD source their grain—they grow up to six feet tall, overshadowing competing weeds and creating a sheltered environment for animals, birds and insects. As many as a thousand different strains of grain go into the distillery’s spirits.

Tom with the big pot still, named Nautilus,
and the two column stills
Producing their own base spirit means that TOAD have not only a large pot still for gin-making but a pair of column stills for turning the fermented rye into 96.5% ABV spirit. Rather than buying an off-the-shelf still from Germany like most people, Tom wanted to try something a little different and keep this part of the process as local as possible too. He approached the South Devon Railway’s engineering team, originally in the hope that they could actually convert a steam engine into a still. Engineer Paul Pridham pointed out that this might not be a great idea, given the use of arsenic in the manufacturing process, but being industrial coppersmiths they did end up making bespoke stills for TOAD, including some design flourishes such as a porthole salvaged from a decommissioned ship.

So what does the end product taste like? I’m pleased to report that all the products I tried were very impressive. They make a vodka by filtering the rye spirit through coconut charcoal—OK, so the “local” emphasis goes a bit out of the window at that point, but there must be a reason why it has to be coconut. It’s a good vodka, smooth and unctuous with a pronounced flavour of cocoa nib and butterscotch.

They also make a whiskey, though they aren’t allowed to call it that yet as it isn’t old enough. It’s becoming increasingly common for English (and, in the case of Penderyn, Welsh) distillers to make Scotch-style whisky, but again Tom wanted to try something more off the beaten track, so the whiskey that Master Distiller Cory Mason produces is modelled more on an American rye whiskey (Cory himself is American). At the moment they are bottling a Pure Rye Spirit that has had just two months in a barrel and it too is remarkably smooth, with a pronounced new-wood flavour. I’d be interested in trying a Manhattan made from this.

The basic TOAD gin is Tom’s favourite for a G&T (served with Fever-Tree Light* and a wedge of lime that he squeezes into the drink, James Bond style).** It is juniper-forward with immediate citrus flavours followed by a rising floral note. The Physic Gin is the only one that I took away a bottle of, so I’ve been able to give it a bit more attention.*** And it merits that attention: it’s a complex spirit (Tom prefers to sip it neat as an after-dinner drink). Uncorking the bottle releases a waft of lemon and gingernut biscuit. In a glass I get aromas of butterscotch again, followed by a gentle floral note, sweet citrus and sappy, savoury herbal elements. It is quite light and savoury on the tongue with a peppery finish that hints at cumin. Adding water seems to bring out more pungent herbaceous notes on the nose and a suggestion of liquorice on the palate.

I make a Martini with the Physic Gin and Noilly Prat vermouth: it produces an initial stab of coriander seed, which almost immediately melts away to be replaced by violets and again an angle of liquorice. I still get rushes of butterscotch and also an abiding suggestion of absinthe—I gather there is wormwood among the botanicals, along with rue and sweet woodruff.****

Tom has no end of plans for TOAD. They are gathering barrels previously used for various wines for use in barrel ageing (I saw racks of Muscat and port barrels). They are planning to work with local orchards to make an apple brandy.

And what about the symbology of the label? I learned that the sideways O in TOAD is meant to be the toad’s eye, as is the overall elliptical shape of the label as well. The symbols at the top of the T-shirt design are alchemical symbols for the Philosopher’s Stone and creation; in the middle is an inverted all-seeing eye or Eye of Providence. The Latin motto means “spirit of toad”. I’m sure there are more layers of meaning, but that knowledge is forbidden to novices…

Oxford Dry Gin (47% ABV) is £39.50 for 70cl; Oxford Rye Vodka (40% ABV) is £34.95 for 70cl; Oxford Pure Rye Spirit (40% ABV) is £39.95 for 70cl; Physic Gin (42.1% ABV) is £34.95 for 50cl; Ashmolean Gin (% ABV) is £39.50 for 70cl. All are available from the online shop.

* I, too, have discovered the joys of Fever-Tree Light. I would normally avoid diet tonics, which frequently use artificial sweeteners, but Fevertree Light just uses less sugar than the regular version. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I find it has an appealing juiciness and makes a good palette to appreciate the gin.

** I did get to try the Ashmolean Gin too, but all I can remember was that it seemed botanically intense with warm, mid-range spice flavours. The online shop describes it as full-flavoured with notes of cardamom and myrrh, finishing with orris and lemongrass.

*** See

**** Intriguing, according to the TOAD website the distillery also makes an absinthe, though I didn’t see any evidence of one while I was there and it isn't for sale in their online shop.

The TOAD-mobiles, ready to whisk you to a distillery tour

No comments:

Post a Comment