Adnams Distillery: Spirits from the coast

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Related tags: Adnams, Jonathan adnams, Malt, Whisky, Distillation

Trying to interview Jonathan Adnams in one of his own pubs is a challenge. Not least after he has just treated selected guests to some brand new...

Trying to interview Jonathan Adnams in one of his own pubs is a challenge. Not least after he has just treated selected guests to some brand new handcrafted, artisan products the Suffolk brewer is putting its name to: two types of gin and three different vodkas. Whisky will follow in three years' time.

The reaction is so positive that departing guests keep interrupting us to thank Jonathan and tell him how much they like the new range.

Spirits production may sound like an unlikely folly for the Suffolk brewer, but Adnams is deadly serious about the project. He describes the move which makes it England's first brewer to produce spirits as one that is "a normal, natural progression".

Evolving process

And it's clear from the amount of time and money Adnams has spent on the venture, it is a long-term vision.

But where did the seed of the idea come from? Was there a eureka moment? "I'm not certain it was a eureka moment, it was much more of a sort of evolving process," he says.

"I'd always been interested, as a brewing engineer, in the process of distilling. And about three years ago I was starting to see articles about micro distilling bubbling up in the US. That got me looking at the niche premium spirits market."

Amazingly, there are 55 micro-distilleries in Michigan state alone.

Jonathan explains this new trend set the idea in motion. But he knew there could be a problem with getting a licence, until he spotted an advert saying "Tyrrells vodka: coming soon".

"I knew of Tyrrells' crisps, and I thought, what's that all about?" he says. "And lo and behold there was William Chase, who had got himself a distillery licence in the UK. I thought, aha, there's a definite change in the wind with Customs & Excise here."

The Norfolk-based English Whisky Company had also popped up at the same time.

Next, it was time to have a chat with the local customs officer. Jonathan was keen to find out if there was still a ban on brewers being distillers. The answer from the customs official came back as "don't know".

"He said there's only one way to find out: make an application, put your design plans in and we'll run the process and see what comes out," he explains.

The application went in around November 2009 and by April this year, Adnams had a licence to distill. "That was a far faster timescale than I had imagined," says Jonathan. "So I said to the board: we know what we want engineering-wise and how much it costs, and they said, yeah, do it."

No objections from the board at all? "No, no objections," he says. "I think everyone saw it as quite a natural extension to what we do, selling alcoholic drinks."

Hectic six months

What followed, according to Jonathan, was a "hectic six months" with staff "burning the candle at both ends" to help set up the distillery. This involved stripping Adnams' Copper House building at its Sole Bay Brewery in Southwold, getting all the engineering contracts placed and the kit made and shipped.

But eventually, with the building finished by mid-August, the stills arriving in mid-September and, the tanks from Lithuania being installed, Adnams near enough hit its target.

This included installing what is believed to be the UK's only "beer stripping" column still, allowing it to carry out the whole process from grain to glass.

"We set ourselves a date to make our first vodka by Monday October 10 - and we slipped four days. That's not bad," says Jonathan.

And it was all "near enough" on the budget of £650K, apart from "a few extras" after customs asked for some more pipes and valves to be fitted.

Over the next year, Adnams is planning to produce between 10-12,000 litres of gin and vodka, and 20,000 litres of whisky is about to go down for maturation for three years.

"Obviously we'll be waiting for that, but the gin and vodka will give us some nice cashflow and keep it going," says Jonathan.

And in terms of sales projections? He admits "it is a bit of an unknown", but points to the success of Tyrrells vodka and the English Whisky Company. "What drives trends is what consumers want and that's what consumers want," he says.

"All those other guys who have gone into it from a standing start seem to be doing well. We started with a raft of things they could only dream of, so I think we should do okay."

A lot of interest

Jonathan also says there has been a lot of interest already - and the company has even had an order for the whisky. For pubs, he admits it won't be for everybody, but offers "something a bit special to go on the backshelf". But it's "available to anyone who wants it", he stresses.

This all sounds a lovely rosy concept, in the comfortable surroundings of Southwold. But with Adnams having suffered from the economic chill over the past couple of years, it could be argued this is a stretch too far.

"No," responds Jonathan. "I think you could argue one or two of the other things are a further stretch. This product range is very suitable for our Cellar & Kitchen concept - this makes a nice starting point.

"We also have 1,500 business customers, in terms of pubs and restaurants. We have all those building blocks, a bonded warehouse, a distribution fleet, an internet business. Not all brewers have all those things."

And as we wrap up, Jonathan reveals a certain dash of patriotism, that might have partly inspired the spirits venture.

"In England we had lost our culture of craft distilling, we'd left it to the preserve of the global producer," he remarks.

But with Adnams it looks to be more of a case of quality over quantity. We'll drink to that.

Capturing the spirit

After studying distilling at Michigan State University, with Jonathan Adnams, master distiller John McCarthy started experimenting to hone the recipes for the new products. "Like any recipe, we've taken many attempts to get it right. We've held many blind tastings, and combined different botanicals in varying quantities until we've come up with something our tasting panel all love," says John.

The new Adnams range

• Distilled Gin (40 per cent ABV - 70cl, £23.99). Made using 100 per cent East Anglian malted barley and a blend of juniper berries, orris root, coriander seed, cardamom pod, sweet orange peel and hibiscus flower.

• First Rate Gin (48 per cent ABV - 50cl, £24.99). Produced with a blend of East Anglian wheat, rye and barley, this gin has 13 botanicals including juniper berries, coriander seed, cardamom pod, sweet orange peel and liquorice root.

• Barley Vodka (40 per cent ABV - 70cl, £22.99). Using 100 per cent East Anglian malted barley - this is produced in a copper still to create a "clean and pure product".

• Longshore Premium Vodka (48 per cent ABV - 50cl £23.99). A handcrafted vodka using "only the finest cut from the distilling process" and East Anglian malted wheat, barley and rye.

• North Cove oak-aged vodka (50 per cent ABV - not yet available). An oaked vodka matured in French oak barrels in cellars below the Copper House distillery. Amber in colour with aromas of vanilla and spice with a butterscotch finish.

Related topics: Spirits & Cocktails

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