David Boyd-Armstrong – Shortcross Gin
Distiller of the first premium craft gin in Northern Ireland, David Boyd-Armstrong founded Shortcross Gin in 2012 with his wife and business partner Fiona. 3 years on, their gin has found an audience across the UK, with retailers and awards growing in numbers each month. We caught up with David to see what life behinds the scenes was like at the end of 2015.
Gin Foundry – Hi David, thanks for talking to us! Looking back, what made you want begin distilling and to set up a craft distillery 3 years ago?
David Boyd-Armstrong – The credit sits firmly with my wife Fiona on this one. Fiona had always wanted to set up a distillery here at Rademon Estate and had floated the idea several times in the past long before we met but the timing just wasn’t right. That changed in 2011 when we got married and began to look at ideas for own business, and the distillery came sharply into focus.
Having spoken to you in the past, you mentioned you did quite a lot research before even starting – what was journey to get it all started like and how long did it take?
We started off by asking ourselves the exam question “How do you build a distillery?”. It amazes me that for all is written about the spirits industry that this is one area where next to no information exists. Not coming from the spirits industry we believed we needed to educate ourselves and there was no better place to start by doing some training and exams with the great folk at the Institute of Brewing & Distilling.
It was an enlightening time and we got to meet some great people who we have become good friends with, including Jon Hillgren of Hernö who was part of our cohort. From there we spent every weekend and holiday visiting distilleries around the world as we tried to learn as much as we could. Ironically the last distilleries we visited where in Ireland, after travelling from Seattle in the North West Pacific through to Seoul in Korea. Everywhere we went we could see the passion and care people put into creating their spirits, and we fell in love with the craft spirits industry.
How did you go about choosing your still and the equipment for the distillery? From the outside, there seems to be hundreds of decisions you have to make!
Anyone looking at buying stills and associated distillery equipment cannot fail but be impressed by the sheer quality and variety of equipment available from suppliers across the world. We researched what equipment existing distilleries were using, and several names kept coming back to the fore in terms of quality and reputation.
Eventually, after discussion with several suppliers, we chose to proceed with Carl GMBH of Eislingen, Germany. We had our first site visit with Nic Haase of CARL in late 2012, to discuss and finalise our requirement. We made sure our still was not only suited to the production of gin, but could also produce a wide variety of other spirits.
While Shortcross Gin is technically a London Dry in terms of production methods, it isn’t “classic” or “traditional” from a flavour perspective so ill fitting of the term; What made you choose the style of gin that you’ve created?
When we began to explore what type or style of gin to distill we decided very quickly that we didn’t want to make a London Dry Gin – we aren’t in London after all! We instead focused on making something that reminded us of home, with a view of redefining what an Irish Gin could be.
Distillers and owners come from different starting points when they build a flavour profile. With the idea of Irish Gin in mind, did you have a specific aim when you created Shortcross Gin or was it more of an evolving process when it came to creating flavour?
With Shortcross Gin we wanted to create something that was reminiscent of our surroundings. We are very fortunate here at Rademon Estate as we an abundance of botanicals growing. We forage our Elderflower, Elderberries and Wild Clover, along with apples from our walled garden which all enable us to capture the scents and aromas of the gardens and forest at Rademon and really give Shortcross Gin a sense of origin and place, pretty much as winemakers say the terroir.
What’s a typical day for you – could you describe how you distill your gin? What’s the process like?
A typical days starts with Fiona and I holding our daily stand up meeting with our small team here at the distillery then its off to the Still house for me. Right now in December we are at peak production so pretty much every day we are distilling, bottling and labelling.
To distill Shortcross Gin we use our bespoke Carl Pot-Column Still. The Still has a capacity of 450lt and we use two seven plate enhance columns to build flavour and aroma enrichment in the spirit. To start with we take water from an aquifer at the distillery and blend this with neutral spirit base to create the perfect canvas for us to the pain the flavours and aromas of Shortcross Gin on.
Next up are the botanicals. We take juniper, citrus fruits peels, cinnamon, cassia and coriander, along with the Elderflower, Elderberries and Wild Clover which are foraged on the estate and also some local apples. Everything botanical is fully macerated in the Pot allowing us to extract the maximum flavours, aromas and oils that we can. Next it’s time to turn the steam and start distilling the spirit. Throughout the distillation process we are always nosing and tasting the spirit to ensure we make the cut points as consistently as possible and also the flavour and aroma enrichments is correct, this is the key part to ensuring the quality of our spirit. It takes us a day to distill each batch of gin.
Along side distilling we are also bottling, labelling and wax dipping each bottle by hand, and lets not forget that each bottle is also signed with the batch and bottle number. Each day is pretty packed, and that means there is always something happening at the distillery.
That’s a lot to do each day! For those who haven’t tasted it, how would you describe your gin?
Shortcross Gin is a complex juniper lead gin with a sweet, floral bouquet and an exceptionally long and smooth finish. The nose of the gin is like summer meadow and captures the forest and gardens of Rademon perfectly. Taste-wise you get the hit of juniper upfront then behind that, you get the citrus fruits and a hint of apple before giving way to a big sweet oily mouthfeel as the elderberries really pop out. Finally there is a long smooth finish that matches the complexity of the spirit.
In terms of Gins, you’ve focused your attention on creating Shortcross and have consolidated its position in the market. There are other spirits in the making but are you looking to release sister gins in the future?
Aside from our Irish Malt Whiskey which is gently resting as it matures at the moment we have some exciting plans for on the gin horizon for 2016 but I cant let them out of the bag just yet…!
The hot topic within the industry has been “craft”, especially in the gin world. You guys have / do all the things most people regard to be craft gin. Do you think it’s important that there is some way of defining what craft means and perhaps more personally, what does the term mean to you?
I think the craft term has really become distorted by the drinks industry in general, and to be fair it’s not something that we really get into.
What I would like to see is the protection of the terms “distillery” and “distiller”, both terms are used liberally by many brands, who in reality do not operate a distillery and do not own a still to distil (and do not produce their own final spirit); this not only misleads the consumer but devalues the hard work of operational distilleries across the board.
We’re always reminded that when something is being created and it’s a person’s passion the old adage “it’s not personal it’s business” is redundant. It’s clearly personal to them and rightly so. However, for you this is true on a few more levels too, you are married to your business partner Fiona. What’s it like working together?
Its a lot of fun and a lot of hard work but I just couldn’t imagine having it any other way. We balance each other out and that I think makes the business a better place for us all.
We’ve noticed is that you have cleverly designed packaging all the way down the line, from the labels, the wax tops, to the boxes the gin travels in that no-one really sees but makes a huge difference to the guys in stock rooms. What was the process like for you creating it initially and is a part of being an bringing a spirit to life that you enjoy?
The design process is a lot of pressure both for the client and designer but I think when it works together it delivers a great result.
We put in a lot of time from personally visiting the glass factory to review and select our bottle options through to creating a label design that whilst fabulous on paper just didn’t work when transitioned from the designers screen. Personally I really enjoyed the design phase and seeing our vision for Shortcross Gin being realized. Paul Malone and his team at Paperjam Design done a fantastic job and we have built a really good relationship with them.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
That’s an easy one, it has to be distilling Shortcross Gin!
There were so many creative serves that emerged from the bartender competition in early 2015, so it might be a tough question to finish on but… what’s your favourite way to drink Shortcross Gin?
That is definitely not an easy one! I love Shortcross Gin in a martini with an orange twist, but l have to say the two winning Shortcross Signature Serves of either Michael Brown’s Merchant Hotel Nine Hour Bill or Stuart Podmore’s Muriel’s Signature Serve G&T are definitely my favourite ways to enjoy Shortcross Gin!
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