Centrepiece of the Copper Rivet Distillery at Chatham Historic Dockyard in Kent is the gleaming 10-metre still, which soars into the heights of the brick building, lit by delightful round windows near roof level.
The rest of the equipment for producing distinctive vodka, gin and English grain spirit – known in the trendy mixology community as “moonshine” – has been tailor made for the Russell family which runs the distillery.
Head of the clan is Bob, a former Gillingham borough councillor, who has been involved in the drinks industry for many years and opened the first wine bar in Rainham, Kent. One son, Matthew, also has extensive experience in the field, the other, Stephen, retains his job in the world of banking while lending a hand with marketing and other roles.
The distillery has been operating only since October 2016, but its Vela vodka has already made a mark on the industry, earning a double gold award at the 17th World Spirits competition in San Fransisco in April.
Developing the distillery has been a lengthy process. Bob and his sons first began thinking about the idea in 2012 and looked into the possibility of setting up in nearby Fort Amherst – a Napoleonic fortification which has been developed as a tourist attraction. Two major factors dissuaded them, said Stephen – there was no water and it was on a hill.
After hearing that the old dockyard boiler house was on the market, Bob and his sons went to take a look.
Bob explained what they found: “It was in a pretty awful state. Outside was a quagmire, there was no floor, almost every window and large chunks of the walls had been vandalised. But we could see it was a beautiful building and we decided to take a chance.”
Extensive restoration work followed. Bob won’t be drawn on the amount they’ve spent on the project so far, simply saying it “runs into seven figures”. A new floor had to be laid with the ability to cope with the movement of the tidal River Medway which runs alongside.
The building, completed in 1873, used to house equipment to pump out the navy’s dry docks in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After the dockyard closed in 1984 – a victim of Margaret Thatcher’s defence cuts – it was used as an apprentice centre for a few years, then fell derelict.
The Russells have set themselves high production standards, as Bob explained: “We are the only distillery in England to bring in grains to mill to our specification, rather than buy in neutral grain spirit and flavour it. We complete the entire process on one site.”
Stephen added: “We intend making amazing English spirits and we’ve taken on the best distiller in the business.” He introduces Abhi Banik, originally from India, but trained at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh.
Abhi designed the stills, which were then made in the Medway Towns. He speaks passionately about the distilling process carried out at Chatham, before handing out samples to taste.
Purely in the course of research, I tasted each one and can report the gin has a distinctive floral, citrus, spicy flavour, the vodka gives a hint of the pink peppercorns used in its production and the grain spirit offers tropical fruits and vanilla. A barrel-aged whisky will be available in 2020.
Tours of the distillery are run at 4pm on Wednesdays, 6pm on Thursdays and Fridays, 2, 4 and 6pm on Saturdays and 1 and 2.30pm on Sundays. They cost £12, including tasting, and last about an hour. Light meals are available in the café next door. See website for details.