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SB Voices: From grain to glass

As the demand for ‘craft’ stretches into spirits, Nicola Carruthers takes a look at the grain-to-glass distillers leading the way in innovation.

The Oxford Artisan Distillery distills spirits using ancient heritage grains
The Oxford Artisan Distillery distills spirits using ancient heritage grains

In recent years, the concept of terroir has seeped into the world of spirits with the rise of this phenomenon, as more producers create bottlings that offer a “taste of the land” on which they were created.

While not officially defined by the industry, grain-to-glass spirits are generally understood to be products created using most, if not all, ingredients sourced from a single area of land.

Single­-estate distilleries, such as Chase and Arbikie, conduct almost all stages of production on site, including growing, fermenting, malting, distilling, maturing, bottling and labelling.

Arbikie recently announced the release of Scotland’s first whiskies made using rye in 200 years. The distiller will launch a Scottish rye whisky, consisting of over 51% rye and odyssey malted barley, both grown on their farms, and water from its estate, and an American version said to be in line with techniques typically used in the US.

Similarily, Spirit of Yorkshire, which will launch England’s first single malt, will eventually offer full traceability of its products, with plans to list the number of the field from where the base barley ingredient was grown.

Just this week, I visited The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD) for the launch of the distillery’s new Physic Gin, created in collaboration with the University of Oxford Botanical Garden. The gin, which joins Oxford Rye Vodka and Oxford Rye Gin in the range, is made with 25 botanicals grown and foraged in the garden, including wormwood, rue and sweet woodruff.

TOAD, founded by music industry veteran Tom Nicholson, uses genetically diverse populations of rye, wheat and barley grown exclusively for the distillery on four organic farms within a 50-mile radius of Oxford.

The ancient heritage grains were revived by archaeo-botanist John Letts and grown sustainably in ways last used in the 19th century in 150 acres of bio-diverse fields, known as land races, close to Oxford.

The grain is farmed sustainability in ways once common to medieval times, and along with the distillery’s other spirits are hand bottled on site.

It is milled, mashed, fermented and then distilled into pure grain spirit in a 2,200-litre still called Nautilus, named in honour of Jules Verne’s fictional submarine. According to the distillery, the entire pure grain spirit production process takes up to two weeks.

The team also plan on launching a black pine whisky, an absinthe, a brandy – and casks of future Oxford Rye Whiskey are currently maturing.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing what kind of experimentation will come from grass-to-glass distillers in the near future.

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