Lone Wolf was one of the most hotly anticipated launches of the year, but since its launch in May 2017 it has remained a shadowy figure of the night, quietly growing in stature and confidence, but not quite revealing all. Yet.
A couple of months on from the launch, we review the giant that didn’t come out of the woods to wreak havoc and take the world by storm as many predicted, but that has taken some rather self assured steps instead.
Lone Wolf as a distillery set its stall out as being different from the offset. They make their spirits from grain to glass, ensure that they are distinct in their character and produce them on a scale that will make them affordable to all. The scale they are working at incidentally, makes them one of the largest distilleries in the UK, and one of the bigger establishments to have launched in the since Adnam’s made its comparable move to extend from brewing into distilling. When one considers it all in context, however, Lone Wolf is not as large as it might at first appear.
In order to produce the spirit to use as a base one has to be on the larger scale of the spectrum, so while they will dwarf some of the smaller names with just a fraction of their apparatus or distillery footprint, when compared like for like with others who distil as well as rectify, Lone Wolf shares much of the same stature. The hard to ignore factor that most are blown away by is that it sits in one of the UK’s largest craft breweries whose warehouses, while irrelevant to the making of their gin, give the impression of being in a production facility the size of Jack Daniels.
The project was no overnight journey, nor was it a hap hazard extension onto an already successful operation. Rather, Lone Wolf is a logical addition to the parent company, BrewDog’s, plans to continue their growth in not just beer, but the wider drinks arena. It took four months just to get the site ready (a mere sliver of their expansive brewery in Aberdeenshire) and speaking to the team as to when their ideas began, it’s clear to see that there were many more months of careful planning before any copper arrived – some two years from start to first bottling we are told.
The spirit begins with a mix of 50% wheat and 50% barley that spends 4 to 5 days fermenting. The team’s experience as brewers doesn’t just comes handy here, but is obvious in each element of the production of their wash, in that they even use a bespoke BrewDog yeast to create the desired alcohol and flavour combination.
This wash travels into what can only be described as a majestic 11 thousand litre “triple bubble” still, to be distilled up to around 60% ABV. At which point it undergoes a second distillation in a separate still where it is sent through their 18 metre high column (possibly the tallest in Europe, if not definitely the tallest in the UK), hitting plate after plate in the process of not just raising ABV up to 97%, but smoothening out and softening up in the act of doing so.
Lone Wolf, in their “unrelenting search for quality” take this one step further. The (now pure) Vodka is sent into a demetheliser column that separates the last of the impurities, further refining the end spirit. It’s impressive and on a scale that few would dare even dream of; this isn’t a foot here or there, this is neck achingly tall and panoramically large.
It needs to be, however, as for every ten thousand littles of wash they create, the yield will be just under two thousand litres of pure spirit. While the size of it is impressive, one of the lesser spoken truths about their operation is that there remains a sense of beauty about it too. Yes it’s industrial, but they have kept a strong look, with glorious copper beaming in front of custom artwork (itself meters wide) and a well considered layout. Compare this to many of the other sites who make their own base and, quite frankly, it’s a lot cooler.
Once the base spirit has been made, the gin begins with a combination of botanicals being steeped for some time ahead of distillation, while others are added in just before the heating begins. The botanicals named are mace, pink pepper, kaffir leaves, grapefruit peel, lemon peel, orris, almond, lemongrass and pine needles (alongside juniper and coriander seed). Given the complexities of brewing, fermenting and distilling are highly technical – if making the gin sounds like the easy part of the process, think again… Around 190 distillations were tested in the creation of this gin, each one trialling botanical variation and refining both the selection and how each botanical came together.
While the team are realistic about long term demand forcing them to scale up production – the gin is currently made via a one shot method using their third still (small for them, but over 400lt in its own right) – one wonders just what a concentrated process might involve, as it takes almost 18 grapefruits per batch as it is!
We’re sure they will find the right answer to scaling up, as they are as uncompromising in their testing of their products as they are in the flavour of them. They use their their sister brewery’s expertise and testing capabilities to evaluate and analyse every element using state of the art equipment that 90% of distilleries do not have in house, from flavour consistency to degradation of compounds through oxidisation… it’s all been looked at, researched, catalogued and mitigated against.
Lone Wolf Gin to taste…
First impressions are of a strong grapefruit peel aroma mixed with pine, but hold it under your nose for a while and there’s also an underlying complexity. It’s not a specific undertone, more like a set of eyes fixing you from the horizon, too far to discern, too close to ignore.
To taste, there’s a massive flush of fresh citrus peel upfront, primarily grapefruit but given some additional bulk by the lemon too. The flavours transition fast and the chase is on, driving you straight into the heart of the gin. Before you know it, juniper has stalked you down, commanding all the attention with its resinous, oily stature. It’s quickly followed by Scottish Pine needles, which go in for the killer blow and leave behind a forest like finish that refuses to dissipate.
It’s remarkably different to the V1 & V2 prototype gins the brand released in the months preceding the launch, but it’s clear to see the thought process that’s gone in from them to this final outcome and overall- it’s a really well assembled Gin. As a flavour structure it has been distilled perfectly to deliver the three main elements, which are all clear and present, arrive in deliberate succession and have a graceful clarity when they do. The secondary citrus elements (coriander seed, lemongrass, kaffir) help add some levity towards the finish, which would otherwise be like getting lashed by pine, while elements like mace, cardamom and pink peppercorns add a little complexity throughout. It’s nice to see almonds being used to add some weight to the mouthfeel too.
In a G&T, add a rosemary sprig if you like the domineering nature of the juniper and pine, as doing so makes it go nuclear. While the brand team serve it with a Grapefruit peel, which indeed works well, our preferred garnish would be a sprig of lavender.
The Lone Wolf brand…
The flavour is bold, but the packaging that contains it is brave, not in the use of adventurous materials but in its consciously chosen lack of it. The label is attached with a rubber band and once removed, leaves behind a simple logo or two printed in black directly onto the glass. It’s notably different, but the unfortunate truth is that once the card sleeve is removed, in our opinion, it will be anonymous on a back bar and, because it can be removed and will slide all over the place, there’s a high likelihood of it becoming tatty in a shop. There is no way it would survive a highstreet “on shelf” presence in its current form either. As consumers read the label, they will not replace it under a fiddly band, so our money is on a repackage in a few months time, or whenever Lone Wolf Gin wants to be retailed in supermarkets and non-owned bars / stores alike.
The de-bossing on the base and the rear of the glass itself do add a touch of individuality and while not particularly helpful to stand out on shelf, it is a welcome detail for those who pick up a bottle.
Talking of ballsy, there was a lot of sabre rattling and emotive talk of impending change during the prototyping phase and the release of V1 & V2 of the spirit. Classic Brewdog ideology was harnessed and firmly aimed at tackling the (perceived) perversities of the distilling sector and this seems to have flowed into the wider narrative surrounding the gin.
As they try to balance transparency and inclusive, fan-focused engagement with their inherited Brewdog anti-establishmentarian attitude, it’ll be interesting to watch Lone Wolf develop as a brand in their own right and to see how their identity will be shaped, honed and put into practice. It may be “raised by wolves,” but probably won’t be as controversial once it’s a fully fledged, stand-alone brand.
Having been chastised over their approach to their defending their IP and how Lone Wolf enforces Trade Mark protection just ahead of their launch in May; we’re unsure just how aggressively they will ever be able to push the insurrectionary message either, as it seems that the verdict is split as to whether they, the emerging distilling arm of Brewdog, have a right to so do that anymore. Purists’ feeling that Brewdog were no longer walking the walk was further compounded by the announcement of minority share acquisition by a major private equity firm. The subsequent consumer backlash regarding the perceived hypocrisy of the action was clear to see and mainly directed towards the company’s loud derision of other breweries who accepted similar investments over the years.
Inherited baggage, early rambunctious talk aside and separating Lone Wolf from Brewdog for a minute – It is clear that they as a distillery are bigger, better funded and operating at a scale that very few in the craft sector achieve in their first five years, let alone at the very start. Their route to market is already well established and their fanbase and credibility already seeded. These facts alone actually makes them more of “the establishment” than the majority of new distilleries that have opened since 2012.
Therefore, in our opinion – and even though this commentary is merely four months into what will be a long standing journey – the underdog status is not justified. Based on the consumer and trade backlash from what was a relatively simple dispute and a simple stage of logical growth for the parent company, it seems that they will find little patience with perusing the moniker too far, if at all.
Furthermore, while they may go from grain to glass, so too do William Chase, Adnams, Copper Rivet, Arbike, Dog House and many more. Their process gives them authenticity to command attention and respect, but this does not make them a lone producer, beyond reproach and with the right to cast judgement without expecting to alienate many potential fans as they do so.
Only time will tell what type of stance they settle on. In our opinion, Lone Wolf Gin (its liquid, production and people all considered) is strong enough to achieve greatness in its own right. It does not need to deliberately position off anyone – it has enough to shine on its own merits, rather than through the lack of someone else’s.
The expression tends to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but the irony here may well be that until the controversy has fully quelled and they have found confidence in their voice, they could well choose to a sheep disguised in wolfish attire and fly under the radar for a little longer. Going on Brewdog’s history, though, this seems unlikely.
We hope that with time however, the indignant aggression of the early brand comms is dialled into a honed message that’s both disruptive but respectful. Something that’s self-aware and (even if unspoken) acknowledges that the market they have entered into is very different to the brewing sector that they so successfully dominate.
That message and those brand comms, incidentally, can be seen in all its varying complexity on the back of each label. There are 14 different ones being released over the next few months, so take a look to see the various insight they provide. So far, there no signs of letting off the dogged subversion with quotes of “translucent clarity in a sea of over filtered deceit” marking yet another pop at rival producers.
For under £28, the reality is that Lone Wolf Gin is incredibly well priced. This alone means many will seek it out. It’s made from scratch, which gives it much needed credibility in the craft sector and it has a strong USP. The flavour profile is distinct but juniper-driven enough to achieve a middle ground that will appeal to both bars looking for a workhorse as well as modern gin drinkers. We like it, have a lot of time for what it’s looking to achieve and can see a space for it in many people’s cabinets. We’d go one step further and say that it is worth supporting as more distilling and less rectifying in Gin can only be a good thing.
Love it or hate it, the Wolf has arrived. If it can survive the inevitable initial backlash over aggressively casting negative impressions about much loved products and manages to recalibrate the conversation about what “craft” means – it stands a good chance to become the apex predator many have predicted it will be.
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