There be Gin in Deepest Leicestershire…
Operating out of an unassuming farm complex, Jamie Baxter and 45 West produce the rather decent Burleighs gin – and are now running a gin school… and a bar…
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
New craft distilleries are springing up constantly. In certain parts of London you appear to not be able to throw a brick without hitting the latest hipster manned still. Jamie Baxter though is well versed in the alcoholic beverages. Having worked for Chase vodka and extensively consulted round the industry, including the City of London Distillery, Jamie is now bringing all of his experience to bear at the small set of farm buildings in deepest rural Leicestershire housing the 45 West Distillery.
Jamie dates the explosion in all things juniper related to 2006 when Customs & Excise relaxed the rules on small scale distilling. Alongside that, clever marketing by the early craft brands – especially people such as Martin Millar, Bombay and Sipsmith – created a vibe around gin that had been missing prior to this. The increase in the popularity and inventiveness of cocktails over the past 12 years, coupled with bartenders becoming ever more taken with the range and depth of gin, has further fuelled its rise. “The internet as well has hugely driven interest in the super premium end of the market,” Jamie notes.
45 West Distillers have been in operation for two years now. Despite the proliferation of new UK distillers, the manufacture of the stills is more frequently found on the continent. Jamie and his partners obtained a 450 litre copper still from the German company, Holstein. Choosing the right still is important because, as he points out, the shape of the still and the size all affect the final result. A smaller still makes a better quality gin; the botanicals get boiled for longer so the taste, depth and balance of the spirit changes.
Those who believe the 12 to 13 hour distillation process 45 West use leads to a relaxed working day, be under no illusion. Once heated, the still has to be constantly monitored to ensure a consistent distillation flow. The various botanicals oils boil at differing temperatures, so the first part of any gin batch tends to be very light with strong citrus hints. As the process continues, the juniper notes come through. Finally, the last part of the batch is heavy with the more earthy root-based botanicals 45 West use. The distillate is then cut with distilled water; Jamie uses a reverse osmosis system and de-ioniser to ensure his water is a pure as possible. It takes another 12 hours to blend the two parts together to create the final bottling strength gin.
Gin is the sum of its varied botanicals; yet only one – juniper – has to legally be there. Some well-known brands have as few as four. 45 West’s Burleighs gin has 11 – giving it wonderful depth and complexity. Jamie sources his juniper from Macedonia. Popular gin botanicals also present include coriander, sourced from Sussex, giving a citrus hint; angelica root, giving earthiness; and cassia and orris root which add a floral note. Slightly more unusual ones are fresh orange peel and cardamom seeds. Unique to Burleighs is burdock root, dandelion, sliver birch chippings and elderberries, all of which “were inspired by a walk through the local Burleigh woods,” explains Jamie – hence the gin’s name.
As a company, 45 West doubled in size over the past year, and are currently producing 60,000 bottles per annum, though Jamie aspires to double this capacity again over the coming 12 to 15 months. During the second year of their existence he has seen substantial growth in Spain. That country’s passion for gin means that Burleighs is already served in 50 bars across Valencia. The brand has sales as far afield as Australia and are currently in the process of breaking into the East Coast US market.
45 West has also developed an innovative way to broaden their appeal back in the UK. As well as supplying an increasing number of high end London bars (this writer saw it at Simpson’s in the Strand), the distillery also operates a shop in Leicester, which in the evening transforms into a bar where the standard G’n’T is of course a Burleighs. Jamie smiles when he comments; “we’re literally having to send crates of fresh supplies there daily – Burleighs is flying off the shelves and proving somewhat popular in the evenings!!” As an added bonus, the 45 West bar also stocks over 100 bourbons.
Now the distillery has added another string to its bow, with the opening of its gin school. After a two hour tour, visitors are sat down in front of their own miniature still to create their very own bottle of the stuff. “Most people leave with a very drinkable gin,” Jamie remarks, “usually better than any[thing] off the shelf. We’ve only had a few disasters”, he smiles – “usually when people do not follow advice and use botanicals they know they might not like.” Such is the popularity of the gin school, people are coming from across the country to the farm and their Saturday sessions are proving so popular (booked up two months out), 45 West is pondering a second period on those days.
Afterwards, should you want to take away a bottle of Burleighs in addition to your own creation, you have a choice of the 40 per cent London Dry Gin, 47 per cent Export Strength or the 47 per cent Distillers Cut. As Jamie explains, the London Dry is the most popular, accounting for three quarters of sales and is the distillery’s gin and tonic option. The Export Strength is made to be used in cocktails – especially martinis – whilst the Distiller Cut has the botanicals in differing ratios; more orange, orris root and cassia, to soften the spirit and give it a more contemporary edge.
With these varied business arenas, 45 West is thriving and gin as a whole continues to do well – Jamie does not reckon the market has peaked yet. But Jamie notes that “distilleries have to know their limits and what size they’re pitching for”. As firms grow it is easy to miscalculate your core market segment and appeal. Some distillers may find themselves in a tricky position over time if they are unable to diversify as they grow. That said, it is equally possible to continue existing on a small scale. Jamie tells the story of a friend of his in North Wales. Operating a 30 litre still, the resulting 25/30 bottles produced each week are sold each weekend at the local farmer’s market. The friend has yet to return home with any unsold and turns a tidy sum.
On a final note, before leaving, as a man steeped in gin, I ask Jamie about the perfect garnish – given the current obsession for lime or cucumber with Hendricks and so forth. “The garnish should complement or accentuate a botanical in the gin”, he sagely points out. This gives leeway for much experimentation – it calls for a couple of G’n’Ts in fact. Those after a complex and good gin to experiment with should definitely hunt down Burleighs.
Enquiries: 45West Distillery, Collection Yard, Bawdon Lodge Farm, Charley Road, Nanpantan, Leicestershire LE12 9YE / www.45westdistillers.com/45-west-distillers–spirits-of-adventure.html / www.burleighsgin.com/