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It’s Not Just Any Old Hooch

It’s Not Just Any Old Hooch
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Ten years ago, you would expect to find one or two brands of gin on offer at the golf club and, if you were lucky, a slice of lemon from a jar.

Only a teetotal hermit could fail to notice gin is everywhere. There are gin parties, ginemas (gin and a film night), ginvent calendars and gin-flavoured spa treatments. Even Burton-on-Trent, the spiritual home of beer, hosted a Gin and Rum Festival in the market hall in May this year.

It’s not just any old hooch. Ten years ago, you would expect to find one or two brands of gin on offer at the golf club and, if you were lucky, a slice of lemon from a jar. These days, the clubhouse is likely to have a gin menu featuring artisan and craft gins laced with exotic ingredients like buckthorn, loganberry and peppercorns. It all adds up to an industry which is worth £1.2 billion a year according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association.

Since gin shook off its Mother’s Ruin image, quaint cafes and farm shops are getting in on the act. Whereas the strongest thing on offer may once have been a cup of English Breakfast, The Apple Tree tea house, Ockbrook is offering gin tasting evenings hosted by a be-suited booze raconteur.

Considering we are in the grip of a revolution, it is still a big surprise to find there is a new craft gin being produced in the Derbyshire woods.

Shining Cliff Woods at Ambergate may be on the map with local ramblers and people who have a thing about bluebells, but it is completely unexpected to stumble across a ‘proper’ distillery business (as opposed to one man in his shed) occupying 11,000 square feet in the former Johnson & Nephew wire works in the woods.

White Peak Distillery has risen from the ashes of the old wire industry thanks to one man – Max Vaughan of Quarndon – driven by his long-term dream to make whisky. But it was the hiring of a talented head distiller, Shaun Smith, which led Max to consider producing an artisan gin packed with flavours found in the local woodland.    

“If we put our name on the bottle, we have to be proud of it. We love being in the Peak District and the area around us and we wanted our gin to be an expression of this,” explains Max as he stands by the distillery gates through which you can glimpse acres of verdant woodland.

“Shaun had previously made a successful gin and he was determined to create something authentic and different. Shining Cliff gin was inspired by the flowers and herbs we found in the wood like rosehip, elderberry and Mayflower.”

The pair spent many months in the wonderfully aromatic ‘research and development bunker’ where – with only a 30 litre still at his disposal – Shaun began to perfect the inaugural gin.

“It meant lots of trips out and about the woods on my bike looking at the plants and the hedgerows to find things suitable for Shining Cliff gin,” Shaun recalls.

“We had around ten styles of gin initially which we narrowed down to six, then to three that we were really happy with. We also discarded a few flavour combinations along the way. Like wild garlic, even though we have lots in the wood, we’ll never see a wild garlic or spruce needle gin coming to market.”

The months of tinkering can be seen by counting the glass bottles on a large unit of pigeon holes; each contains single flavour distillations used while devising the prefect blend. The final Shining Cliff gin really is stunning testimony to all Shaun’s chemistry, if not alchemy skills and features 13 different flavourings or botanicals; many evocative of the woodland setting around the distillery.

“We had a lot of positive feed-back on the gin – people even saying it’s the best they’ve tried which is a huge compliment,” Max adds.

“Our goal was to make a gin which, like whisky, is good enough to be served neat. I call it a sipping gin. It’s got flavours of citrus so it doesn’t really need anything added except, perhaps, a slice of orange peel.”

Shining Cliff gin may have gathered a loyal fan-base but it’s actually a delicious warm-up act to the star of the show. At the end of  April  Max and Shaun took delivery of 18 tonnes of barley; the first stage in the development of a single malt whisky. It will be the first ever commercially produced in Derbyshire. White Peak will be one of only 15 other distilleries making, or developing, whisky in England.

“It will be twelve months before the first tasting and three years before it can be officially called whisky,” Max explains.

“We’re currently inviting people to join our Temperance Club, so-called because they will have to wait. But their patience will be rewarded with a limited-edition bottle once a year for the next decade. In addition, the members’ names – 1876 of them in honour of the date of the factory opening – will be etched onto bricks and built into the distillery wall.”

As Max describes it – surrounded by the bespoke gleaming copper still built in Scotland and stainless steel-work made by Musk Engineering at Swadlincote – you can almost taste the light peaty, slightly floral malt which will be housed in bourbon casks shipped over from America and wine casks from Portugal.

“I am a whisky fan,” says Max when asked why he is so passionate to develop a whisky when he has a ‘hit’ gin product on his hands.

“My dad Barrie introduced me to whisky and to the Scotch Whisky Society. It’s there I heard about a guy who worked behind the member’s bar who had started a small whisky distillery in Battersea. Something about this story really resonated with me. I did a lot of research over three years, visiting distilleries and talking to experts.”

Max, an accountant by profession, may have thrashed out a good business plan on paper but he’s the first to admit he had very little else.

“When I launched the business, in early 2016, I had no premises, partners, staff permits or consents, nowhere near enough funding and no track record in the drinks and spirits industry,” he explains.

“I couldn’t bear the thought of looking back on my dream after twenty years of working for someone else.”

Max, 48, realised he must get beyond the planning stage.  “I’d been to a couple of funerals of guys around my age and it really focussed my mind,” he says.

“There’s a saying that ‘now is as good a time as any’ and I’d reached my now. It also helped that my wife Claire was so supportive.”

In January 2016, Max flew out to Texas to meet Chip Tate, founder of the Tate & Company Distillery; a self-confessed maverick who succeeded in putting his multi-award-winning brand of ‘Texas whisky’ in the forefront of the nation’s craft whisky boom.

“We met on the business networking site Linkedin. We exchanged a few emails and he invited me to stay with him and his wife,” Max explained.

“He gave me such good advice like ‘plan for success’. He told me to build a still with the biggest capacity our budget would allow. He’d made the mistake of playing safe by starting small and had to close the operation down for months in order to expand. But while capacity is important, we also agreed that you should never put productivity ahead of flavour so our process remains low on automation – the valves and levers will be operated by hand.”

Chip also encouraged Max to find some backers. “I’d heard of a couple of entrepreneurs through mutual friends and asked if I could meet them for lunch in order to talk to them about the project,” Max says.

“I didn’t ask for money, I asked for their thoughts. I made a presentation and they were really enthusiastic. I left the business plan with them asking for advice about any thing I’d missed. This was on the Friday. On the Sunday one of the guys rang to say he loved the plan, he thought I was the right person to develop it and, best of all, he wanted to invest.”

Spurred on by this support, Max approached 17 friends and family members asking for an investment towards the seven-figure start-up. Incredibly, 15 agreed.

“By May 2016, I’d found the site and I’d been in touch with a tutor on a distillery degree course who recommended Shaun. Finally, I was in a position to offer him a job,” Max says.

“Shaun was working down south and I knew he was really keen to re-locate to the Peak District. He comes from Macclesfield but has a friend in Belper and, as keen cyclists, they’d been on bike rides through the woods.  Like me, he was really inspired by working in such a unique location.”

It’s easy to see why Max and Shaun are so passionate about their surroundings. Max was not only aware of the potential of harnessing the natural resources – he will use water from the River Derwent in his cooling processes – but he’s thrilled about regenerating every part of the massive industrial site.

“In addition to installing new power supplies, we’ve had to replace a couple of leaking roofs but the large rooms with their high, beamed ceilings are perfect for housing the equipment. The store rooms alone can hold up to 1,000 whisky barrels per year.” Max explains.

“We’ve also taken down partition walls to make a shop and tasting area. It’s  where we’ll start our distillery tours. Thanks to the lay-out of the site, it’s easy for people to see what we’re doing here. Hopefully they’ll go away with an understanding of what goes into making our spirits.”

Looking at the pictures of the dilapidated factory buildings, once used for maintenance and storage at the wire works, it’s clear the task has been a labour of love.

“I’m really fired-up by the heritage of the site,” Max admits.

“We’ve reclaimed and restored windows and even planned to turn an old compressor into a table by adding a glass top –  I just couldn’t bear to take it to the scrap-yard.”

The celebration of history can even be witnessed in the main still room. Max proudly reveals that the bespoke still has been named ‘Betty’ in honour of local wood-dweller Betty Kenny, whose habit of getting her baby to sleep in a cradle hanging from a tree branch was immortalised in the rhyme Rock-a-Bye Baby.

Betty will be kept very much in business. When the whisky is set down to begin it’s graceful ageing process, Shaun and Max have plans to develop yet more artisan spirits which, like gin, do not need a period of time to age.

“We can make gin one week, rum the next, while the whisky matures in the barrel rooms,” Max explains.

“We’ve also got plans to make absinthe using wormwood from the Swiss-French border where the liquor is traditionally made.”

Throughout the interview, Max’s friends and family – some of them investors – keep popping in to check on developments and take photographs of a gleaming Betty. He’s grateful for the interest as, without a big publicity budget, he is going to be reliant on word of mouth and social media.

So far, so good – the reaction to the gin with ‘laboratory’ style labels designed by interior designer wife Claire, has been overwhelmingly positive. On White Peak Distilleries’ social media page, one commentator described the Shining Cliff gin as ‘Smooth, mellow and flavoursome – it reminds me of the woods I see from my home in Ambergate.’  Max is confident his whisky will open to equally rave reviews.

But, for now at least, he’s playing the waiting game.

“It’s taken years to get to this stage but it’s all part of the science, art and romance of whisky making,” Max says with a smile of contentment.

“Getting to this point has been a seven day a week commitment but it will be worth it when we open the gates to our first visitors. We’re developing something for people who care about the provenance and tradition of their craft spirits. Hopefully people will want to come and see what we are all about. We’ll even offer to refill their bottles so our customers can enjoy a drink and do their bit for the environment.”

As for the man whose love of whisky inspired all this passion, Max says dad Barrie is very proud of his son.

“He couldn’t have been more supportive,” Max says.

“I thought he’d say it was a crazy idea but he actually said I’d be crazy not to give it a go.”

The distillery shop will be open from June 2018.

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