When Copper Rivet distillery flung open the doors of Pumphouse No.5 at the tail end of 2016 – unleashing it’s first spirit, Dockyard Gin, upon the world – it did so to rapturous applause, much to the surprise of its founders, Bob Russell and his sons Matthew and Stephen.
The distillery’s location had a great deal to do with this welcome: Built in 1873 and operational until 1984, Pumphouse No.5 used to play a big role in the history of Chatham Dockyard. The dockyard itself was a shipbuilding behemoth and was home to the Royal Navy for centuries, seeing England through many wars, from the Napoleonic to the Falklands.
When it shut in 1984, Medway was devastated – not only for the loss of jobs, but for the end of an era. The pump house tumbled silently into history, cracking at the edges as it fell victim to time and tides. There it stood for thirty years, with the land around being divided into new residential and historic zones yet never quite reaching its door, until happenstance dropped it right into the lives of the Russell family.
“Over the years we considered several different locations to site the distillery,” Matthew told us. “Scotland and London were considered very briefly, but our hearts were always set on establishing a distillery in Kent, and Medway in particular.
“We looked at sites at Fort Amherst, Rochester High Street, old theatres and industrial buildings in Chatham and the Isle of Grain, but due to logistics, scale or security none of them were viable options. One day – by chance – on a family trip to Upnor Castle, I spotted Pumphouse No.5 from across the River Medway. On the following Monday I drove across to Chatham Maritime and discovered it was for sale. Copper Rivet distillery found its home!”
This was back in 2015, though the distillery dream had been building long before that. Bob has been involved in the drinks industry for over 40 years; he opened Medway’s first wine bar, Toppers, in 1979 and founded Beams International, a specialist gift supplier, with Matthew in 1997. Though the third Russell, Stephen, worked in banking, he also shared his family’s interest in opening a distillery – one that would place real craft and provenance above hyperbole and superlatives.
Copper Rivet’s location, though merely found by happenstance, has thoroughly helped to shape and define the distillery. The more the Russells understood the history of the dockyard, the more it inspired them. They wanted to show its heritage by bringing engineering, innovation and industry back to the area. In yesteryear, Chatham was at the epicentre of maritime engineering and of vital importance to the Empire – a history lost to most today but not forgotten locally.
That initial goalpost is immediately obvious upon stepping into the distillery, which is breath taking both in scale and ingenuity. All of the components for distilling are laid out in the order in which they’re used – the mill for the grain, the mash tun, the rectifier, the column (the ten metre column!) and, finally, the gin still. It’s a glorious, shiny space that’s been well considered, carefully planned and which has forecast growth to develop around the infrastructure right from the start. It’s also the real life version of the machine you wanted when you were a kid – the one that would wake you up, pull on your clothes and brush your teeth while frying your eggs.
As a building, the pump house is well suited to distilling with high ceilings and good ventilation – it’s an almost textbook perfect location (if the doors were a little wider) for the team to have overhauled into the modern era. It’s got a fair amount of character left there too and it’s not for nothing that it has grade listed status.
The weird science look hits its crux at the very end – with the distillery’s 300-litre home-made still, Joyce. The still was designed by Copper Rivet’s Master Distiller Abhi Banik, who came on board in 2012, after Stephen met him at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling in Edinburgh. It is something of a masterpiece, with (simplified in layman’s terms here) two pots standing one on top of the other. This helps with heat management, and keeps botanical oil (specifically juniper, which is particularly gloopy) away from the heating coils.
Abhi – who once taught at Heriot Watt University and has worked as a consultant for several gin brands – is passionate about gin, and has an in depth, intuitive knowledge of the distillation process. He realised that no one was researching gin distillation, despite the spirit’s rising popularity, so put five years of effort into designing and overseeing the construction of his own still.
Technophobes beware… we’re going in. In Abhi’s still, neutral spirit sits in the bottom chamber, while macerated spirit sit in the one above. This means that the heated vapour passes up through bubble plates, in turn heating the second chamber. Not only is this a more delicate heating process, the resulting effect on maceration means that there is a much less labour intensive wash and clean out process after each run.
Not content with this geekery – there is also a vapour chamber above this, as well as two side maceration pods, in which the botanicals can be easily loaded and removed. Whether it makes a world of difference or none at all, simply seeing the creative exploration and inventive nature at work is impressive to say the least! Keeping true to the distillery’s desire to bring new life to the area, all of the stills were built in Chatham by a local company. Considering there are two other, much larger stills (to create the neutral spirit from scratch) – this alone represents a huge investment into supporting local industry.
Not as a result of this, but rather unsurprisingly, the support of locals towards Copper Rivet has been overwhelming so far, and the Russells know that honesty is key to this; their standing in the community would collapse beneath big words and promises, so while provenance is often a buzzword, in this circumstance it is something of a business model.
The grains for Dockyard Gin come from the Burden Brothers in Kent – they are milled onsite, before making the slow but steady transformation to spirit. To make his neutral spirit, Abhi uses two types of yeast during the fermentation process; one is slightly spiced, while the other brings a toffee-like quality.
The spirit is made over a matter of days, moving from the fermentation tanks, to the rectifier, to the column, picking up in ABV as it goes. The wash comes out at somewhere between eight and ten percent ABV, the low wines at about 30% and the GNS at 96.5%.
Copper Rivet vodka isn’t vodka as you know it; creamy, with a sweet undertone and a mild spice from the combined use of barley, wheat and rye grains, it is easy to sip and pleasantly gentle. To make that all important transformation into Dockyard Gin, juniper, coriander, orange peel, lemon peel, cardamom, grains of paradise, angelica, orris and locally sourced elderflower are added to Joyce, along with the vodka. Each botanical has their own place in the still’s various chambers, depending on how it best interacts with the base spirit.
The recipe for Dockyard Gin was created by Abhi and is based on the results of a focus group held by the Russells. They went through 47 gins, gradually identifying what they wanted their spirit to be – something light and moreish, and something they’d definitely want to drink themselves.
While locality is important, it isn’t the be all and end all; bar the elderflower, all of the botanicals come from foreign shores. The Russells made an attempt at harvesting the elderflower themselves, but when we asked Stephen about it his face took on a somewhat ashen expression. “I… harvested some,” he said. “Enough to last us about half an hour,” Bob confirmed.
Dockyard Gin to taste…
There is a deliciously floral hit to the nose, with elderflower and orris tumbling together close to the surface. Sugary sweet, with a subtle, almost woody juniper and a mystery vanilla hint, Dockyard Gin smells intriguing and surprisingly progressive, given its relatively classic botanical line up.
Juniper and grains of paradise rush the tongue first, though the experience is aromatic, rather than spiced. Dockyard Gin has a strong citrus stance, with a fresh, zesty lemon at the front and a warm, slightly spiced coriander at the heel. Green, sweet elderflower comes in quickly, supported by sweet, sticky angelica and orris, both of which bring a sugar hit and real viscosity.
Tonic is bittersweet, so the sugary qualities are naturally highlighted in a G&T, but actually in diluting the gin with tonic other elements emerge – juniper in particular. It’s as if with more space, the botanicals have evolved and grown. Grains of paradise and lemon take on a bitter quality, aided by the quinine. The citrus is loud enough so as not to need any support garnish wise, so you could go one or two ways in a G&T: a sprig of rosemary to highlight the herbal notes, or a grapefruit peel to add some zing to the ensemble.
Dockyard Gin comes packaged in two sizes – 20cl and 50cl. The bottles are identical: elegant, clear cut glass in a rectangular shape with rounded edges. The copper colour is played with well – the gin’s name is drawn in foil, as are three coins towards the bottom of the label. The coins, Bob told us, “represent the strengths and values which inspired us and best describe our ethos. They symbolise home, heritage and honesty.”
Dockyard Gin’s home makes itself known towards the base of the bottle, where eight square patterns, each representing an international maritime signal flag, spell out ‘dockyard.’ It’s a cute nod and would certainly appeal to those who’ve spent time at sea.
Talking of appeal… Dockyard Gin launched in October 2016. The launch was quiet, with the team keen to build up supply ahead of demand. Quite accidentally, though, they started to gain local attention, even having people show up to their door keen to buy the spirit.
The Russells are quick to emphasise that they aren’t a branding team, but the product – for now at least – seems to be doing a lot talking for them. People are keen to try the spirit and locals are thrilled that the pump house is up and running again, albeit in an altogether different capacity. The fact that they are grain to glass is impressive, but more so is the family background. These are people who love where they’re from and who want to keep their community thriving.
Copper Rivet has an open door policy, with tours already being extended due to demand (and this after only a couple of months). Bob, Matthew and Stephen host the tours, and do so with joy. As Bob explains: “We’re very proud of and pleased with what we’re doing.”
While the distillery has a small bar for now – the full-day experience side is coming. While one half of Pumphouse No.5 contains the distillery and bar, the rest is currently being converted into a deli/restaurant, and lounge/board room area. There’s also a lot out the back which – should they get a spare minute – the Russells would like to turn into a kitchen garden.
There are many factors that go into creating a successful gin brand: liquid (of course), packaging, presence, provenance and human story. In our opinion – and we don’t say this lightly – Copper Rivet distillery and their flagship Dockyard Gin has all that it needs to become a huge name in years to come. Everything has been considered and every detail is carried out with high integrity. It’s early days of course, but this is the whole package, the entire toolbox and has everything that a gin needs to become a recognised name. It reminds us of the early days at Chase farms and NY Distilling, and with some careful stewardship, good things will come. The Russells are people who care about their products from the first details to the last, and who want their name to be known for ingenuity, enterprising and engineering.
As their tagline goes: time may change, but the dockyard spirit endures.
For more information about Copper Rivet Distillery, visit their website: copperrivetdistillery.com
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