Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The *deep breath* Beer, Vodka, Gin, Triple-Sec, Barrel-aged vodka, Barrel-aged Eau de Vie, Absinthe and Whisky Pilgrim. 30th April. Adnams (Copper House) Distillery

Rachel is at a wedding. Greeners is at a wedding. RMJ has Uni finals coming up, Will's in Scotland. Everyone else is busy in some regard. Essentially I've been left unaccompanied for the bank holiday weekend. And when I'm left unaccompanied the 'to visit' distillery list comes out.

Scotland's a bit of a hike for three days, and I'm there in a fortnight anyway. Penderyn's been ticked off and so has St George's. According to my own rules this pilgrimage is for distilleries whose whisky is already available in bottle, so that's London and Cotswolds out (though I await their finished product with great anticipation.) Hicks & Healey also a bit too long of a drive, and I sort of want to leave them until autumn when the apples are being harvested. Which leaves only Adnams.

My abiding memory of Adnams is of doing the merchandising when I worked for Majestic Wine, and beer - due to the various shapes of the boxes - being a pain in the hole. I've also, despite a reasonable degree of effort, never taken to beer; cider's my pint. But since 2010 they've been distilling spirit, winning awards for it too, which means it needs a visit. So, sun beating down – becoming a theme for these trips, long may it continue – I fill up the Corsa and set off for Southwold on the Suffolk Coast.

It’s a pretty simple drive from Reading to Southwold, just M4, M25 and then head Northeast along the A12 until your tyres get wet, but it’s a fair old schlep. Early start in case I got lost, and like 99% of the British workforce I need a coffee before I can properly stitch the day together. True to motorway form that coffee ends up being a disappointing Costa, and then it’s back along the road.

Some time later, the taste of bitter mud-water still dancing around my palate, I find myself in the beautiful seaside town of Southwold, where I am immediately struck by three things. Firstly, it’s an absolute labyrinth. Secondly, parking’s going to be optimistic at best. And thirdly the pavements are either non-existent or thought of by pedestrians as being solely for decorative purposes. My patience in such situations is famously non-existent, but reminding myself that it’s everyone else who’s to blame, and definitely not me, I wind my way through the streets and eventually find a place to park on the seafront. My temper is vastly improved at the sight of a chap trying to park a VW camper van and giving the impression that he’d gambled on parallel parking not being one of his manoeuvres when he took his test.

Imagine the stereotypical English seaside town and you are thinking of Southwold. Actually, if you’re thinking of the stereotypical English seaside town you’re probably thinking of somewhere less pretty than Southwold and with a higher number of children vomiting ice cream. (Admittedly I arrived before lunch, so might have been too early to witness this phenomenon.) There’s a golden beach, a long pier, an array of gaudily painted beach-huts faded by sea-salt and sand-wind, and a selection of shops selling plastic buckets. And yes, a fair number of chaps who haven’t let a lifetime of pies and beer impede their love of taking their top off at the slightest opportunity. This is England. (Who’d change it?)

I’m actually a fair bit early for my tour, so having established where the distillery is (in the process passing by a large 'Pilgrim' labelled truck) I wander down the road to a pub (Adnam’s-owned, appropriately enough) and grab a burger. About two minutes before the burger arrives I notice on the specials board that I could have had swordfish steak for the same price. Idiot. Still, bloody good burger.

Despite having ascertained the location of the distillery/brewery it’s some time before I can figure out where I’m meant to go. This was definitely just me being thick, and I wandered around the outside of some delicious smelling buildings before realising there was a sign on one of them that gave me some pretty thorough directions. Guided by the sign I’m soon in the visitor’s centre and waiting for the tour to start.

Our guide for the day is Johnny, and as it happens this will be his first ever unaccompanied tour. He asks whether any of us are Chemical engineers or biochemists, as he apparently had to lead such a group around last week and was asked some pretty in-depth questions. We’re not – but I bet the sight of my notebook put him right at ease... We watch the introduction video, sign a health and safety form (a distillery first for me) and we’re off.

Brewing has been going on in Southwold for hundreds of years, but the Adnams brothers weren’t in possession of the brewery until 1872, and Adnams & Co. wasn’t an established company until 1890. These days they make a dizzying array of beers, helmed by their flagship bitter, and since 2010 a no less impressive selection of spirits. The headline acts, as far as I can tell, are their Gin and Vodka; certainly these seem to be the focal spirits of the tour. Whisky, naturally, has only been feasible in the last couple of years in compliance with the 3 years and a day of ageing rule, and at present they make one single malt, and one ‘Triple Grain’ which is essentially the same makeup of a Blended Scotch Whisky (malted barley, wheat and oats) but created in just one distillery. A Single Blend? Oh who cares, you get the picture.

I’m just doing the distillery tour, which at Adnams means that you don’t see the washbacks or mash tun, but head straight for the sharp end and the stills. The first room we’re shown is the one in which the company’s ‘blend your own gin’ masterclass takes place. (Johnny’s mother is one of the leaders of this masterclass.) Alas, no gin-blending for us today, but it looks well worth a punt; you start with a bottle of Adnam’s Vodka, then make your selection from their wide range of botanicals and watch as the Vodka is fed through some tiny, almost archaic alembic stills. You then create your own label and take the bottle home. Great fun. (The room also smells lovely – cloves were the standout smell for me, but basically a herbalist’s wet dream!)

And then into the still room, and I have to say I’m taken aback. I’ve seen a fair few assemblies of stills in the last 9 months, but none like these. The best way I can think of describing the selection is to say that if Willy Wonka branched out into spirit alcohol, his factory would be based on the Adnams still room. It’s not just that you’ve got column stills next to pot stills, it’s the crazy, almost steam-punk look of them all – proper alchemist’s apparatus! First you have the giant continuous still, or beer condenser, into which the wash is fed to produce the low wines. Then there’s a purple pot still, but not a pot-still as you might have seen them in Scotland, more a Penderyn-esque hybrid of pot and column. Then last of the three in the first room you have the rectifier, for creating the final spirit. Traditionally this is one giant column, but Adnams couldn’t get the required planning permission to accommodate such a column’s height, so it’s split into two, with the second fed by a pipe from the first.

Beyond this first still room are two more pot stills, and once again they’re a world away from the norm. The first is another Penderyn-style pot-column crossbreed, and the second has an almost mushroom-like stem emerging from the pot – as if the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland should be sitting on top of it, smoking his Hookah!

A brief look at the certificate room, walls creaking with accolades for Gin and Vodka, and a couple in the corner for whisky, and then we’re back out of the still room, via a peek at the finishing tank where the spirits are diluted to bring them down to the appropriate strength. Then on to the cask room, not a warehouse as you might see elsewhere, but a cool underground cellar beneath the distillery complex. Johnny explains that the majority of casks are kept in a cottage somewhere along the road from the distillery, so we just see a selection of what Adnams have maturing at the moment.

Very unusually for a British distillery, Adnams use only virgin oak, though I gather a planned expansion will see them bring in some ex-Jack Daniels casks, and it’ll be interesting to see what that does to their spirit. In the meantime their Single Malt is matured in French oak, their Triple Grain in American oak, and to the best of my recollection their barrel-aged eau-de-vie ‘The Spirit of Broadside’ (which has a nose to die for!) goes into casks from Central-Eastern Europe. In line with other distilleries Adnams char the insides of their barrels before filling them, and the barrels have the char level recorded on their lids. (L = light, M = medium, H = heavy.) It’s also interesting (yes, interesting!) to note that in the cool, constant temperature of the cellar, Adnams’ Angels’ Share is just 1% per year – less than that of many Scottish distilleries.

It’s a short walk from the distillery to the Adnams shop where the tasting takes place. I mostly chat to Johnny during that time – he questions the notebook and I explain. He’s not been the only one to notice it, and for probably the ninth or tenth time on my pilgrimage I field a question along the lines of ‘are you doing homework’ from an elderly tourist who has mistaken me for a schoolboy. (What sort of homework got set in the 40s/50s???) The shop is big, but absolutely filled to bursting, and we huddle around a tasting table as Johnny produces some bottles to sample, sporadically wafting away shoppers who fancy nabbing a few cheeky tastes themselves.

Christ there are a lot of them! As at St George’s distillery we are each given a plastic shot glass, into which a drop of each spirit is poured. As I’m driving I have to content myself with simply sniffing each of them (hence I couldn’t comment earlier on the taste of Spirit of Broadside!) but I seem to be the only person pouring anything out, so some of my fellow tourists must have had a smashing afternoon! We try two different vodkas, as well as two different gins. The second gin is described by Johnny as including 13 different botanicals, at which point the ‘are you doing homework’ bloke challenges him to name them all – he rattles them off in no time. We then move on to an oak aged Vodka followed by Spirit of Broadside, then the No.1 Single Malt Whisky, Sloe Gin, Triple Sec and Limoncello. Oh, and distilled cider. Like I say – those other guys must have had quite a time in the next few hours!

I thank Johnny, and congratulate him on nailing his first solo tour, then wander back out into the sunshine. Having only had a tiny sniff of the Single Malt, and needing to write a proper tasting note, I pop back into the Adnams pub and order a single, before tucking myself into a quiet and more or less smell-free corner to do my scribbling.

Adnams No.1 Single Malt Whisky – That’s quite some oak for three years old! European, so it’s not as overt as American would be, and in this instance that’s probably to the good. Big spirit notes behind fruit and cloves – there’s quite a lot of clamouring for attention, even out of the tumbler this measure’s poured into. Palate more or less follows suit – if you’ve ever been into a racked warehouse you’ll recognise the notes immediately. Lots and lots of that oak influence. Some vanilla has also started to poke its nose through now; and to its credit, whilst the spirit character is certainly still very loud, it’s also very pure – no feinty esters here. Perhaps not the most harmonious whisky in the world, but full of character and creamy flavour. Finish weirdly reminds me of Bulleit 95 Rye’s – oak wrapped in granny smith peel. Nice. Possibly too much of a premium on rarity to tempt me to buy a whole bottle though... 43%ABV

I make my way back to the car, half expecting to see the VW guy still trying to park, and after four or five wrong turns I’m back out of Southwold and on the three hour journey home, reflecting as I go. Such a large portion of my heart belongs, and will always belong, to Scotland and Scotch whisky, but it’s so fantastically special to visit a place making whisky in England, and whilst I’ve made my reservations clear about the huge number of small distilleries popping up all over Britain it’s nonetheless exciting that English whisky is on the rise and gaining proper recognition. And backed by the financial power of the Adnams brewery, with a history of awards for its spirit already established, this is one distillery I feel certain will survive and thrive.

It struck me that this was the first time I’ve ever visited a place which makes whisky, but at which whisky making is not the primary concern. It’s still early days yet for Adnams whisky, and whilst they have clearly found success and rhythm with their gin and vodka, I think their malt will continue to evolve and improve from its already impressive beginnings. It’s a stunningly exciting distillery – I can’t get over those amazing stills! – and as they experiment with cuts and casks and maturation periods I think we’re going to see some equally exciting whiskies.

It did occur to me on tasting it that here was one unpeated malt that might be absolutely smashing with a seam of smoke to tame and balance some of the louder flavours and add an extra dimension – and I don’t say that very often. That being said, their whisky is already very decent – better than many, and far better than the reviews on Master of Malt would suggest. (Seemingly written mostly by people prejudiced against anything which isn’t Scotch.) Whatever they do, I will be excited to try it, and I’m longing for a taste of their Triple Grain, which sadly didn’t feature in Johnny’s prodigious line-up!        

Oh, and by the way – a traditional beer brewery which is also a distillery and from which Sutton Hoo is a short drive away. Dad, Neville, Justin – my answer is yes. Just let me know when suits you!


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