From Grass to Glass
Looking to manufacture English whisky, Copper Rivet Distillery have taken a thorough route to market producing their own neutral grain spirit, along with some Medway inspired gin and vodka too…
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
In the 19th century, Chatham was one of the largest industrial sites in the world. If Portsmouth has been the heart of the Royal Navy for centuries, this Medway town has a strong claim to have been its most critical artery with over 400 of the Navy’s ships being built there between the 1500s and the 1900s. HMS Victory was built there in 1765; Lord Nelson conducted some of his training there; even the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office was made on the site. Tucked away in the Georgian dockyard, where once artisans worked on the ships, now lies a group of modern day spirit successors at Copper Rivet Distillery.
Occupying one of the old pump houses, number five, which dates back to 1873, Copper Rivet is the result of many annual chats between Steve Russell and his brother Matthew. “Every year we’d think ‘wouldn’t it be great if…’” he recalls smiling. With their father having worked in the drinks industry for over 40 years, they decided sooner rather than later to put their money where their mouth is.
They had the rather unusual idea of creating English whisky. They considered various options in Scotland before dismissing them for cost-related reasons. Steve remarks that having grown up in Chatham, they both felt it would be the most authentic option to site themselves in their local area. Taking inspiration from the scale of history behind the dockyard site, “we wanted to be true craft distillers and do things differently; the history we unearthed just reinforced our belief in wanting to do things properly.” They came across the pump house by chance and, despite difficulties in procuring the site off HMG it has been Copper Rivet’s rather handsome base since 2016.
From the very beginning, Steve comments they wanted to be a true “grain to glass” producer, crafting their own neutral grain spirit. “The ultimate plan has always been for whisky, but clearly that takes time. The gin and vodka production is to fill the gaps whilst the whisky matures,” he notes. Given the local connection Steve and Matthew began to nurture relationships with farmers in the area so the distillery could get exactly the strains of grain they needed. As these connections have matured they are now, in consultation, even able to select the field their raw materials are grown in. “How can you be a craft offering if you don’t look at every aspect?” queries Steve rhetorically.
Barley, rye and wheat, all taken from farms within 20 miles – make up the ingredients for the base spirit Copper Rivet run a seven day fermentation at one end of the airy and high ceilinged boiler room. “We’re actually at heart still using this room for what it was built for in the first place – heating liquid” Steve points out with a touch of pride, “our spent grain is given back to the farmers for cattle feed.”
The resulting base spirit is then ready to go into one of three stills; Sandy” for whisky. “Joyce” for vodka and “Janet” for gin.” “Janet” was actually designed by Copper Rivet’s chief distiller Abhi Banik, who was a lecturer at Herriott Watt University before jumping at the opportunity and heading south to Kent. The stills were made by local craftsmen and Copper Rivet’s gin still remains patent pending, Abhi uniquely designing it for maceration and vapour infusion dependant on which botanical responds best to which method.
Of the nine botanicals in Copper Rivet’s Chatham Gin, the vast majority are macerated in the still. The end beverage is fruity with a nice peppery edge to it, which comes from the rye in the base spirit and the grains of paradise. The team sat down with Abhi to develop their Dockyard Gin, conducting numerous tastings of other gins and trying 23 iterations until alighting on the perfect one. “We always wanted to keep things very simple,” recalls Steve, “and offer a top notch everyday gin.” The more unusual botanicals in their gin are elderflower (very nice on the palette drinking the gin neat) and green cardamom. The name is a clear reference to the area’s nautical history,
Whilst the first batches of both malt and grain whisky should be ready in 2020, Copper Rivet has bought out a very unusual offering to whet the appetite. Son of a Gun is what Steve dubs their grain spirit, “a three-month expression of what our grain whisky will be like; a statement of intent for us as it were.” Filtered just prior to bottling, it has already made its mark amongst London’s mixologists. Somewhat unusual on the palette with a rather floral nose, plus strong barley and rye notes on this writer’s palette it certainly indicates the distillery may have something rather drinkable up its sleeve in two years’ time. Copper Rivet’s vodka, charcoal filtered, also won double gold at the 2017 San Francisco Spirit Awards so regardless of your tipple, this craft distillery on the banks of the River Medway should have something up your street.
Throughout the process there have been some hairy moments. “More than once we thought is there any point in worrying about our own neutral grain,” Steve remembers with a laugh, “but we always wanted to be that very genuine craft distillery, caring about all aspects of production and we always hope to be in the future.” Unsurprisingly, given Chatham’s naval heritage there are one or two navy connections. Through service connections, Copper Rivet produced a small, specially-printed run for the wardroom of the Albion-class assault ship HMS Bulwark, and on the 20th October 2017, a bottle of Dockyard gin was used at the naming ceremony of the River-class patrol vessel HMS Medway, the first time in the history of the Royal Navy that gin has been used when commissioning a ship.
Given the site’s historical appeal, local heritage and people’s passion for gin, it is no surprise that, since opening, they have had 10,000 distillery tour visitors. Copper Rivet actually own the entire building; the pump room next door leased to a local delicatessen. With the gin stocked in a growing number of the capital’s more discreet bars, such as upstairs at Rules and Merchant House, as well as plans to enlarge “Janet” and “Sandy” – and the whisky to come – the future is bright on the shores of the Medway. To quote Steve, “it’s about building a lasting craft brand, a new legacy for the area – this is for our children, not us.”
Enquires: Copper Rivet Distillery, Pump Room No5, Leviathan Way, Chatham Dockyard, Chatham, Kent ME4 4LP / 01634 931122 / www.copperrivetdistillery.com/