TOAD Oxford Dry Gin
The Oxford Artisan Distillery is a grain to glass gin producer fronted by a trio so rakish they appear as though they’ve stepped right out of the pages of The Wind in the Willows, which makes the company’s shortened name, TOAD, somewhat apt.
There’s Tom Nicolson, an ex-music industry man with a mad energy and a briefcase full of stories so strange you can’t help but wonder what a G&T or two would unearth; there’s Tagore Ramoutar, an entrepreneur with vast experience in launching new brands (and a slight air of the worn-out parent whenever his partners begin to discuss their expensive sounding new ideas) and, finally, there’s Cory Mason, a moustachioed Californian former absinthe bootlegger/speakeasy owner with a boundless enthusiasm for just about anything that crosses his path.
There’s a sense that these men are visiting us form another time, and a quick walk around the distillery in South Park all but confirms this as you take in their alien still, a steampunk-looking, Victoriana inspired affair with huge, square columns and a diving tank appearance. As we stood there, gawping at it, we were half waiting for Houdini to magic himself out of the front window. The still was made by Paul Pridham and his team at South Devon Railway – a company most famous for its restoration of the Flying Scotsman’s boiler.
Nicolson, Mason and Ramoutar’s initial request for Pridham and Co was for a still made from an old steam engine, but given the propensity for using arsenic that our our ancestors had when working with copper, they received a hard no.
Still, Pridham was intrigued by the project, so offered to work on a slightly more palatable alternative. It took two years to make and is an absolute phenomenon to behold, so – quite understandably – the chaps were really keen to fire it up as soon as they got it back to Oxford. Joy quickly descended into panic, though, when they fired up the (thankfully water loaded) still and watched the liquid pour from its every crevice. In a panic they rang Pridham, who informed them – casual as you like – that “they just do that.” The equipment needed time to settle, that was all, so after a few runs the copper softened and melded and became watertight.
If you think a two year wait on the still is a big effort, you should see the effort that the TOAD team went (and continue to go) to when sourcing the wheat from which they make their vodka (and thus the base spirit of their gin). Keen to work with a sustainability model from the off and seeking to create something that has come into contact with no poisons or pesticides whatsoever, Nicolson, Mason and Ramoutar got in touch with archaeo-botanist John Letts.
Letts has spent the best past of two and a half decades researching and farming ancient wheat, barley, oats and rye, which – due to a lack of cloning and uniformity – have the power to stand up to a diverse array of conditions with no need for chemical intervention. Lett’s journey into farming began when he took some grain, dated to around 1400, from the underside of a thatch roof. A study of the straw demonstrated that it was much better than that being grown today, so he began to work on recreating it, yielding crops that were tall (thus stood up to weeds), strong and diverse (therefore protected against an array of issues).
Needless to say, when the TOAD team heard about Lett’s efforts, they were keen to get a slice of the pie. Nicolson explains: “These pre-hybrid grain varieties, common back in Medieval days, were discovered and painstakingly re-cultivated by our archaeo-botanist. It took him over 15 years to build up grain stocks, but we now have around 150 tones of the most genetically diverse crops in Europe.
“These are incredibly hardy, self-reliant crops that have a natural defence against rust, mould, drought and pests. Not only do they thrive without the need for chemicals (unlike intensively farmed cereals), but they form their own eco-systems out in the field. Called ‘landraces,’ these fields can each have 250 different kinds of wheat and thousands of different strains of rye – it’s a little like having an Amazon rainforest in an English field! Every part of a land race sustains life – from micro-organisms in the soil, to insects buzzing and birds flying above. In short, this way of farming helps bring life back to the land. And the grain is delicious.”
The grain, once farmed, is milled onsite, then turned into a beer wash, a low wine and – finally – vodka. The process is long and varied, involving many ill-selected wooden tanks (“looked cool, hard to clean”) and unfeasibly square columns. Just as soon as you taste the vodka, you become aware of just how worth all the effort it is. The flavour is unreal. Huge, chocolatey notes fly up the nose, whilst a rich, nutty vodka, wheat taste takes hold of the tongue.
It’s a rich, textured canvas on which to paint the botanicals, giving TOAD Oxford Dry Gin a killer head start before it’s even thought about going anywhere near a juniper bush. It also allows the team to use a fairly classic recipe without having to resort to any tricks or weird botanicals to fight for attention. With juniper, coriander, angelica (root and seed), orris, bitter orange peel, sweet orange peel, lemon peel, meadowsweet, liquorice root, cubeb and nutmeg in the line-up, it is nothing you haven’t seen before. Except… it is.
Cory took the time to explain the inspiration behind TOAD gin’s flavour profile: “Gin recipes are all about telling a story. The recipe is the way you create a product that represent the story you would like to tell. The story of The Oxford Artisan Distillery is one of classic English heritage.
“We have such a rich and interesting story in our Heritage grain and the creation of our stills. I wanted to continue and represent that story in the recipe for our gin. It is a classic gin, without a lot of odd or exotic botanicals, led by lots of juniper and citrus, and it is tied to our fields and our locality through our meadowsweet and angelica seed. Very often you have to force and spin a story for a gin, but my goal for our recipe is just to let the quality of our spirit and the story of our heritage grain shine through.”
A great deal of the botanicals come directly from Oxford University’s Botanic Garden, with whom TOAD has a 25-year exclusivity deal. The botanic garden – originally created for the study of medicinal plants – is the oldest in England and has been in use for around 400 years. Its current Director, Professor Simon Hiscock, has long been dreaming of a creating a gin with the plants that grow there, but it wasn’t something he quite imagined would get off the ground until a chance meeting with Nicolson, who happened to mention that he was setting up a distillery right there in Oxford.
TOAD Oxford Dry Gin to taste…
Right off the bat, the unrepentant nutty/caramel notes from the base spirit come in, bringing a sweetened cereal note to the nose that doesn’t leave much room for anything else to emerge. There’s a whiff of meadowsweet if you snort at it for a while, but it’s the malty spirit that’s the main stay throughout each revisit. The mouth is a different story, though, with that chocolate vodka sensation giving way quickly to a more prominent green tinge of meadowsweet, which combines with the fire of nutmeg. There is an incredibly fresh taste to the gin – even the juniper tastes as though it were harvested on the day of distilling. You can almost picture the Botanic Garden in your mind’s eye as you taste, as well as the endless rolling fields of wheat dotting the countryside.
With tonic, the base spirit’s sweet, whole nut chocolate bar vibe escalates, though it is quickly swept away by the fizzing greens of the gin. Coriander seeds and nutmeg bring an undeniable heat, while the juniper – understated at times – paints the entire mouth in a waxy pine, albeit one that is only realised when the sip is well and truly supped. The orange duo is given a sharp lift by the quinine, too, with every one of these excellent little elements adding up to a gin that is so much more than the (already considerable) sum of its parts.
The branding, too, is cute, with cool, square bottles and an excellent amount of gold foiling representing not only the unusual columns at work at TOAD, but the stylish nature of the trio behind it. It’s a dapper old chap!
The difficulty TOAD Gin is going to have is that it needs a very specific audience: one who cares not only about what they’re putting into their bodies, but about the sustainability of what they’re drinking. TOAD Gin is great, great stuff, but it’s also a little bit… what’s the word… normal. In a world full of gin brands positively screaming for attention with bizarre botanicals and peculiar production, this is a relatively safe choice. For us, this is exactly why we think the gin is so special, it’s cut with quality that’s all there if you care to look, but it doesn’t shout it at you either. When you consider the ludicrous effort that goes into making it, and the absolute state of saturation in the market today however, we fear it almost needs to be a bit more of a weird one to grab the attention.
It’s an incredibly expensive process to go from grain to glass, but consumers don’t always know this, (nor necessarily place a value on it as it’s hard to comprehend just what that entails and just how few do it). If they are to part with just shy of £40 for a bottle of gin, the reason needs to be immediately clear.
Story aside (fantastic as it is), what makes this stand out? The answers are all there, of course, if you take the time to get to know TOAD, but we think Oxford Dry Gin deserves the very best, so the team really need to push for this to be branded and marketed as a luxury item, rather than just a bloody good gin, and it needs to be marketed as such right from the moment someone locks eyes with the bottle on a busy, busy gin shelf.
We’ll leave the ever ebullient Nicolson to sign off here, who sums up the TOAD ethos succinctly: “We are a small distillery that likes to celebrate and champion the natural world in a big way. We do this by farming our very special grain locally in ways which support the soil and bring wildlife back to the land. We are doing this one field, one glass, one sip at a time.”
For more information about Spirit of Toad, visit the website: spiritoftoad.com
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