Please note this review was completed using samples generously provided by The Oxford Artisan Distillery. This has in no way affected the critiques of the spirit and distillery and is still entirely the words and thoughts of Somewhiskybloke.
The most amazing thing about sitting down in a pub and having a whisky is the people you meet. People all over the world drink whisky and now, people all over the world make whisky.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking to a sharply dressed gent by the name of Justin in a bar over in Cardiff before all the madness kicked off and we became used to the confines of our houses and minds. As the conversation unfolded, it turned out that he was representing The Oxford Artisan Distillery, also known as TOAD, a distillery I had not had the pleasure of hearing about before. Soon enough, I was badgering him with questions about their curious little distillery in what is considered the Scholarly heart of the UK (I’m foreign).
For this week’s World Whisky Wednesday, I present to you The Oxford Artisan Distillery, TOAD.
A damn happy lot.
Located at the top of South Hill Park, TOAD is a curiosity in itself and a departure from Oxford’s brewing history. I spoke to Brand Ambassador, Justin regarding Toads curious break from history.
‘Oxford has never previously had a legal distillery, TOAD is the first. As a very religious city, it has a history of brewing though distillation has never legally occurred. Our founder, Tom Nicolson is Oxford born and bred. He lives on a boat on the Thames… on hearing an interview with Sipsmiths he toured their distillery and loved the idea. In his research to start his own distillery, he discovered that most distilleries are rectifiers and he decided to produce his product from scratch.’
Wanting to create Oxford’s first legal distillery and run it from grain to glass, Tom (CEO) and co-founders Cory Mason (Master Distiller) and Tagore Ramoutar (Managing Director) came together. It was by serendipity that Cory heard of the distillery through a chance meeting of a friend at a French vineyard in 2013, and it was through a networking event in 2014 that Tom met Tagore. Now that Tom had a Master Distiller and a MD, he needed to find a grain.
‘Tom is a massive rye fan. He spoke with local farmers asking for a grain expert and found an archeo-botanist by the name of John Letts, growing ancient strains of rye, wheat and barley for years’, Justin adds.
‘Studying thatch cottages, he found the base layer would not be changed or removed and discovered these old strains of grains. Analysing these strains, he spoke with farmers and seed banks to cultivate these old strains again and harvest them. Growing the rye, wheat, and barley, John started award winning flours from these old strains, we met with him and asked him to come onboard and help us with the alcohol.’
Behind this spirit is also bio-diverse green farming. Focused on this farming and distillation, TOAD also ensures their product is organic and sustainable. John’s fields represent the most genetically diverse fields in all of Europe, choosing not to use fertilisers or chemicals but instead leaving the grain to grow with plenty of animal and insect life to help promote soil health.
Running through fields of rye.
Justin explains, ‘we have always used organic grain but now [that] our distillery has been certified [as] organic by the Soil Association, we are now the only distillery in Europe, and possibly the world, that are making spirits from organic, genetically diverse strains of ancient heritage grain. Our fields have been recognised as the most bio-diverse in Europe. It’s funny, but every time I’ve spoken about our grain someone asks, “but is the liquid any good?”’
Working with organic farms in a 50-mile radius of the distillery who grow the different grains, TOAD have total provenance from field to glass, focused on sustainable farming and a low carbon footprint. Even the distillery has farming history. The site was once a farm belonging to the Morrel family who also worked as brewers, and the distillery comes complete with an 18th century Threshing barn (the current location of their distillery shop and bar) where, hundreds of years ago, the same grains that they use today may have been threshed.
I love the smell of grain in the morning.
Looking to spread their message of low carbon footprint and green farming, TOAD have not been shy in sharing their expertise with other farms throughout the area, though the process can be slow.
‘The often-asked question is whether farmers can receive the correct yields they need. While they can, it is harder work. It’s a numbers game and the cost is holding a lot back. We are so used to working in a particular way, thinking about the neutral grain commonly used in gin, there’s no craft in there.’
To help spread their belief of sustainability and green farming, TOAD have been approached by various companies looking to offset their carbon footprint and have distilled the likes of grain wastage, fruit wastage and more to make a consumable product that can be enjoyed while also helping to reduce wastage.
‘A local vineyard had a wine they were not happy with, so we distilled it and aged it in acacia. They were delighted.’
Innovation in grain is not the only area that TOAD differ from other distilleries. Their curious still shape has prompted many questions and has its own intriguing history. Cory Mason has a history of distilling with multiple rums and has always wanted to be involved in distilling from grain to glass. With the team deciding on still styles, a family member mentioned a trip to the Dominican Republic during which they had tried rum distilled from a re-purposed steam engine. Fascinated with the idea and electing for a different style of still, TOAD spoke with Paul Pridham, chief engineer and designer at South Devon railways in Buckfastleigh.
Nautilus (left) and Nemo (right) are not your standard stills.
Justin talked me through the process to adopting this style. ‘We phoned South Devon Railways up and explained our story, asking to repurpose a steam engine boiler. Unfortunately, they harden their copper boiler with arsenic so instead became involved to build a design a still from scratch, they’re very traditional coppersmiths and have a massive workshop. While they had never built a still before they jumped at the challenge. Teaming up with Paul Pridham to build the stills, they modelled them on Victorian design and HG Wells style steam punk. It took 5 years prior to opening, but everyone uses the same stills, and we wanted to be a little different.’
South Devon Railways thoroughly enjoyed the design as well, quoted on the website as saying, ‘We had never built anything of this nature before, but I can honestly say every single one of us enjoyed the challenge… It truly was a labour of love and one we’d jump at doing again.’
Jumping into the equipment is heady. Paul, Cory and Tom began the design in April, 2015 and Nautilus and Nemo were installed in February, 2017, taking a total of over 3,000 hours to build. Nautilus stands three metres tall, weighing 940kg when unladened and, when full, triples to 3140kg when in use with a total capacity of 2200 litres. Nemo is a touch smaller, reaching 1.6 metres tall, and its column contains five stainless steel plates, each with 16 valves. An empty Nemo weighs 380kg, and, when filled, weighs 880kg with a capacity of 500 litres.
The two towers reach 4.8 metres tall, each with 20 perforated stainless steel plates, 213 perforations in each plate and weigh a decent 920kg. The total amount of copper needed to make these stills and columns? Four tonnes. That’s pretty punk.
‘Steam’ punk. Cause of the steam? Right?
While this design is indeed unique, both creating it and entering the market have not been without challenges.
‘I wish we had pressure tested the stills before they left the workshop properly. That’s something we had to find out the hard way… Tom and I were really new to the booze trade while Corey is an old hand. He is always busy distilling… people were initially resistant to the idea of people creating gin from grain to glass, even in the industry but eventually they accept us. When we launched there was, and still is, so much gin, and some people will say they need a new gin like they need a hole in the head.’
Currently TOAD produces a range of spirits and liquors, most notably their aged rye spirit, rye gin, and rye vodka. However, they experiment daily with how to innovate their products. From absinthe waiting for bottling, to a long-term project for their own aperitif in the vein of vermouth, they have also been experimenting with different cask styles. While the predominate maturation utilises new American Oak, you will also find madeira, port, sherry and wine casks in their warehouse.
‘We are always making our Grain Neutral Spirit (GNS) from rye, so our gins, vodka, absinthe and liqueurs are all organic heritage rye based. This makes us totally unique in the industry… As well as ageing predominantly in new American Oak, we are also creating different expressions using madeira, port, sherry and wine casks.’
A lovely little set up.
Perhaps helped by this, TOAD have already seen the sale of a sauterne cask aged rye spirit to Master of Malts renowned independent bottler, That Boutique-y Whisky Company and look forward to the day it becomes available.
The company is currently ramping up to release their three-year-old whisky towards the end of this year. While TOAD will age stock for longer, many of their aged rye spirits have focused more on a bottle when ready approach, with the addition of single cask whiskies to come as they become ready. While there will one day be a ten and a twelve-year-old expression, they taste consistently and bottle when they believe the spirit is at its best.
Advancing on many fronts, TOAD see rye as essential to their brand, continuing to lay down casks at a rate of up to 16 per month. They are expanding and the distillery are considering adding another mash tun as well as another still for stripping runs, and have recently added a mash tun with a built in agitator, previously stirring the mash by hand with an oar. TOAD is not shying away from becoming the world’s leading organic distillery.
But, ‘is the liquid any good?’
I took a dive into their vodka, their 6-month-old aged rye and their two-year-old aged rye. Let’s look at what an organic heritage rye spirit can do…
Oxford Rye Vodka
Using heritage grain rye, TOAD have distilled their vodka through their stills, both Nautilus and Nemo, and have won World’s Best Varietal Vodka in both 2018 and 2019.
A confession here, I’m not one for vodka. It’s not that I don’t like it, rather that whisky takes up most of my day. But, I stuck my nose into the glass anyway to try and see what I could find.
It’s a subtle nose, very clean and crisp with some touches of pepper, toasted macadamia nuts and some coffee, the rye shines through very confidently. A little further and some sultanas dipped in brown sugar before a final hint of rye biscuits.
The palate is a hint metallic, a bit of iron coming through on the first sip but soon joined by grapefruit, coffee and nuts once again and then some light distillery fumes in the back of the mouth, but its nice and smooth. There’s a bit of chilli in there, that rye giving a great base and then a final hint of floral notes finishing the palate and leading all through the finish.
The Six-Month-Old Rye
This bottle here comes from cask 101, a six-month-old rye aged in new American oak casks with a heavy char, assembled in Portugal and dropped down to 45% from cask strength.
Lots of little grains fall off the nose. The young rye spirit and the rye shine through in the form of hot biscuits straight out of the oven with a bit of oats and almonds mixed into the batch. A bit chocolate-y as well, with easy vanilla sweetness and strong with toffee and coffee before a wonderful little spiced chai latte and a good backing of soft gingerbread.
The palate is very full on and those little cereal pieces come straight back in, and it gets surprisingly nutty. After that it turns to smooth spicy nutmeg and a touch of heat with some cayenne pepper, with some citrus coming in too, a little bit of grapefruit zest hiding amongst the grain fields. For a young spirit its quite smooth, and the flavour of those grains really shines through.
Lastly, the finish is subtle on spirit fire, but big on the flavour with that grapefruit resurging with a hint of salted liquorice.
Oxford Rye, Very Special Inaugural Edition
This comes from cask number three, a bottling from the first casks laid down in November 2017 and specially selected for bottling for TOAD’s second anniversary. While an unknown number of bottles were bottled, this here is number 130, a cask strength offering at 53.4%.
The nose starts with spicy tannins laying it on thick, a whollop of dried old oak, sandalwood, followed by thick grains and a handful of paprika, but it all fits together damn well. Gets thick and sugary, a whole lot of tar like molasses seeping in and running its course, then the almonds come in, lovely and toasted with a little bit of a burn here and there but adding to the flavour. Then grandma comes out of nowhere and starts pelting you in the face with cinnamon, pepper, paprika, saffron and black spices. Good golly miss molly.
The palate is prickling and plucking at the tongue, it pulls the moisture from the cheeks, places it to one side and washes out the mouth with that heavy molasses before black pepper and honey of all things. Slices of dark rye bread work their way into the mix and are blending with dark tropical mango and plums. Extremely moreish. It then gets to the wood once again, some old spicy oak that’s had sugar burnt into it with a light sprinkle of coconut. A touch of lime juice that’s been left to ferment in a container for a few days, nice fruity spice.
And the finish, oh it’s long and takes its time, but not in a dragging way. Sugar, almonds, burnt spice and lime juice, a big ride that takes the taste buds for a ride. In the end it just goes for ages and you don’t want it to stop. I recommend taking another sip.
What did I think of the spirits?
Good. Damn good, in fact. They had the flavour I was expecting with youthful spirit, though both, especially the two-year-old, showed more finesse than I was expecting, more finesse than I have seen in some whiskies currently on the market. Most importantly the spirits hold up the promise that The Oxford Artisan Distillery has made, good quality spirit from good, eco-friendly farming practises.
So, if you’re having a drop of this in a bar or telling someone the story of TOAD and they ask that much-repeated question that seems to plague Justin and all the TOAD employees, ‘but is the liquid any good?’
Yes. Yes, it bloody well is.