Although only really making headlines for it in the past couple of years, Sussex is one of the longest-established wine regions in England and has been producing world-class still and sparkling wines since the 2000s.
Those of you sharpening your pitchforks to prong us with the fact that successful production within the region’s wineries began way back in 1970’s, need to pause and note the words ‘world class’ in the above statement. We understand why there are so many keen to defend the region though – there have always been naysayers who say it was unmanageable to make great wine in England (and impossible for that great wine to be red). We’re not one of these people but, we can also see why such a preconception was formed: In the 30 years of early production, not much was happening to change the general consensus, bar the occasional rule-proving exception.
Thankfully, time and numerous international awards have answered the doubters however, and for the best part of the last two decades English wine making has undergone something of a revolution, propelling itself high up the connoisseur echelons. Core to that, in their own quiet way, has been the forward-thinking vintners based down in Sussex.
This thinking took a step towards Gin in 2013, when during the grape harvest of that year, James Oag-Cooper MD of Foxhole Spirits and Sam Linter, the Head Winemaker at Bolney Wine Estate, made the decision to try and distil their leftover wine.
Explaining their logic, Oag-Cooper said: “We had both independently been thinking about what could be done with the surplus grape material, and realised that we could work on the idea together.”
But why undertake such a mad endeavour? Well, partly – we’re told – because of a real love for the Gin category, partly because nobody else had really made a Gin fully from English grapes and they wondered whether it could be done.
Mad, mental or onto something brilliant? The only way to find out was to try. They decided to take on the challenge and set about figuring out what could be achieved, not entirely sure of the road it would take them down. The challenge, it transpired, was a long winded one, taking three full years to produce (with the first batch of Foxhole Gin launching in September 2016).
The Foxhole process begins at the vineyard pressing, where Sussex grapes are reduced to a pulpy mass of skins, flesh and pips. Known by its French name, marc, it’s a waste product, and every year, the industry throws away literally tonnes of the stuff.
This means that around a third of each harvest’s precious grape juice ends up on the compost pile. An inglorious fate for a resource so rare and so potentially valuable.
So, instead of just binning it, where Foxhole is concerned the marc is sent back for a second pressing. The formerly lost juice is carefully collected and fermented over a period of around three months. The team make the fermentation process long and cool to preserve the aromatic compounds in the wine, which translate into great flavour in the grape spirit.
What grapes and from where you ask? It’s a blend of everything that has been processed over the harvest in one tank, known in the wine trade as an ‘assemblage,’ or a field blend. “We use everything we can get our hands on,” said Oag Cooper. “We are lucky that here in the UK we tend to grow quite aromatic grape varieties such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Bacchus.”
This wine is then shipped to Silent Pool distillery, where it goes through two stripping runs, in which it transforms from wine to a pure grape spirit.
It’s worth noting they do not make it into a vodka here, nor do they claim to. This is not the same idea as going grape to glass and it is an important distinction to make. “We make sure to distill to an ABV lower than the 96% you would get to create a neutral spirit. It tends to sit around 85%, leaving a lot of amazing flavour in the spirit”.
This much lower ABV makes a huge difference – it’s the flavour difference between Brandy and Vodka. Between an un-aged Armagnac and something like Ciroc. Not driving it up to 96% allows so much of the agricultural origin to shine through.
Unfortunately, when it comes to making gin, this is way too much flavour for a base spirit (and, actually, makes the product illegal, as to call it gin the base alcohol can only be derived from spirit distilled to 96%). The work around for this is a pretty simple one though; Foxhole blend their grape spirit with neutral grain alcohol, thus diluting the intense grape spirit flavour down, almost as if the grape spirit was in itself a “liquid botanical” rather than the base itself. They want the grape to shine, but they also want their gin to be a gin.
Before we move on to the gin, we were curious to find out more about just how scaleable the concept was. Surely it would be limiting in the long run. After all, using the by-product of a seasonal activity is in essence having a defined window in which to gather, as well as a very defined quantity to be able to use each year.
“We don’t expect to be limited by the performance of the grape harvests, mostly due to their being as much as a third of the juice inside the grapes that is unused. Considering how many vineyards there are in the UK (over 500) there is plenty of grape material that needs to be used up instead of being thrown away. In terms of volumes produced each year we have the ability to adapt and scale up to demand, holding a year’s wine in reserve as well as growing alongside the English wine industry’s growth.”
From Eau de Vie to Gin…
To create the Foxhole Gin recipe, the team distilled a number of small one litre batches over a period of a year and a half, tasting and refining each one until they had three distinct and clear favourites. From here, they worked to make the final call on the winning concept to go to full scale trial.
“We went through significant amounts of recipe development, using all kinds of different botanicals and recipes to see what worked best. We ended up settling on a fairly traditional botanical recipe as it became clear to us that the flavour characteristics that were most unique and delicious were those that come directly from the grape spirit.”
The final line up is English grape spirit (again just to clarify, used as a botanical – not the base), juniper, coriander, angelica seed, orris root, liquorice root, bitter orange, fresh lemon and grapefruit zest.
To make it, the Foxhole team work in partnership with Silent Pool Distillery. “They are an amazing partner due to their incredible expertise and knowledge, as well as allowing us to be integral to the process” said Oag Cooper.
“It’ll be an interesting challenge in years to come as no two grape vintages are the same, our raw material changes from year to year, too. So we work with our distillers to achieve the perfect flavour balance and ensure consistent quality.”
The botanicals are steep in NGS for 24 hours before being pumped through the still. Around four runs are performed to create a 2000-bottle-strong batch, with the four separate spirit runs blended together and diluted with natural spring water before being hand bottled.
Foxhole Gin to taste…
We’re tasting version three, although understand that at the time of writing in April 2018, version 4 (or marc 4) is about to land on shelves.
There’s a soft acidity to the nose (apples and grapes), with a touch of citrus that is underpinned by a spice reminiscent of black pepper. Other than the spice, the nose shares some similarities with the aroma intensity of Prossecco – it’s not full blown acidic grape, nor is it in the realms of an oaked Chardonnay – with a light acidity that teases the senses as to what’s to come. For something that on paper is botanically laden with citrus, the expected zing does not come across on the aroma.
To taste, the initial impact is soft and the spirit has a rounded feel with a luscious textural quality. Floral almost violet-like grape tones play a dashing cameo, interrupting where juniper would have taken centre stage on its own, with both being quickly joined by spice (coriander seed) towards the finish. Overall, Foxhole remains smooth, but it has a certain kick to it, and so, for something that allegedly doesn’t have any notably spiced botanicals, one can only assume it’s the grape spirit pairing up with coriander seed that’s the cause of the brutality, and that that the peppery finish is not all botanically induced but due to the spirit burn from that grape spirit.
So just how grapey is it? Neat, it isn’t overwhelming as a botanical, but both in the initial rounded oiliness of the profile and the piquant nip to finish it is clear to discern in the way the gin presents itself. Perhaps more unexpectedly (and a testament to how confined the grape is), for something that’s distinctly so different conceptually, Foxhole is not that weird a gin neat and is still very much in the realms of Contemporary Gin and not a New Wave weirdo.
In a G&T, the gin opens up and more of the grape tones emerge, yet Foxhole once again stays true to the tag of being a gin, not a hybridised spirit. Juniper and coriander are once more up front, complimented by the grape spirit but not overwhelmed by it. We’d recommend a citrus garnish to add some lift, although the idea of a chunky wedge of pear wouldn’t go amiss.
“We tend to use Pink Grapefruit zest as it works beautifully with the bitter orange we use as a botanical” said Oag Cooper and we’d agree – it’s a simple serve that delivers.
Quite elegant looking, the Foxhole bottle is an homage to the winemaker’s art. Presenting the product in a Burgundy-style wine bottle is a brilliant nod to vinters and to the product’s terroir. We think it looks great and is conceptually lovely, but it’s hard not wonder if the transparent nature of the bottle and artwork, unfortunately, means the bottle is lost on a shelf. It certainly would have stood out far more had it been a tinted bottle.
Nevertheless, each bottle is screen printed by hand with a precious metal ink, which is fired at a precise high temperature and transformed into copper. This is joined by a white ceramic ink, which emphasises the detail in the design. In hand it feels great and looks the part and our comments about shelf presence are a minor blemish on an otherwise great looking piece of design work, worthy of the effort that went into the spirit it contains.
Many will hail the sustainability around up-cycling waste products as a big differentiator for Foxhole and rightly so, it’s both inventive and admirable. To us however, it’s the truly vintage nature of Foxhole Gin that’s the most exciting aspect of what is to come.
Each batch will be different, with marc 4 already having notably different tasting notes attached to it compared with what we enjoyed in the third edition. It’s so unusual to have a genuine reason for deliberate year on year differences and it’s why we’re left with the feeling of appreciative anticipation rather than fan boy admiration with Foxhole.
It feels like there’s a lot left to tease out yet, a lot more potential to show from the brand. Why is there not so much more being said and marketed around the finite yearly amount available, as there is with the likes of Ferdinand’s Saar Gold Cap? Why are there not more collaborations with other British Vinters? Barrel ageing in wine casks, or limited edition grape infusions Bloody Shiraz style? Why are there not more signature serves that link the gap between gin and wine and an emphasis on classics (or even collaborations with British vermouth makers, or even signs of such experimentation on social media)? How big a difference will there be year to year (how much of that comes from grape? and how much is being nullified during the production?)? It’s all happening a little slowly for a brand that’s 18months old, and it seems that it’s all still left to play for in the future, rather than already visibly happening. At the brutally fast rate at which gin is growing, slow and steady may be too safe a strategy but – and it’s a big but – it’s also what makes it intriguing to watch and to follow as a journey.
The difference between year on year batches should give you a reason to return to Foxhole and rediscover it (and to try and compare it to a previous year, as you might with a vertical wine tasting). As a product and as a concept, it’s a fascinating bolt on to the burgeoning British wine industry that if harnessed to full effect, could capture the imagination of both wine enthusiasts and gin aficionados alike. We certainly hope it will.
There’s lots of potential here, lots fermenting away, soon to be transformed into liquid elixir to engage with. There’s certainly lots of craft going into each bottle too, and as fans of the both the distillers art and the winemaker’s touch, we’ll doff our cap to the sheer effort of making it.
We’ll happily raise a glass or two of it too, and toast their early (and, hopefully, ongoing) successes, and urge you to do the same as we all look ahead to what happens next…
For more information about Foxhole Gin, visit the website: FoxholeSpirits.com
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