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John McCarthy – Adnams Gin

John McCarthy Adnams 3
John McCarthy Adnams 1
blackwater distillery
Written by Gin Foundry

Continuing on with our Meet the Maker series, we head to Southwold to talk to Adnams Gin maker, John McCarthy. Having made two gins and a whole range of other spirits for the distillery already, John is fast becoming a highly respected and established presence in the British distilling scene.

Gin Foundry – You’ve been distilling for around 5 years having made the transition from Brewer to Ginsmith. What got you into spirits, was it just an organic move and how did it come about?

John McCarthy – I started with Adnams as one of the engineering team in 2001, my speciality being electrical control systems of all things! Very soon after starting, I became very interested in brewing and sat some brewing exams. Then, as an engineer, we are given projects to run, and in 2010 I was chosen as the best engineer to run the new project to install a Distillery.

We knew of the legislation that prevented a Brewery and Distillery being operated from the same site, so that could have been a massive stumbling block at the beginning. Luckily, that law no longer exists and our licence application was accepted. We travelled to Michigan to experience distilling with Christian Carl, the still manufacturer, all things were “go” from that point. I have subsequently, achieved the Diploma in Distilling from the IBD, which I would like to think is the end of my life doing exams, although my Head Brewer thinks otherwise!

Every day’s a school day no…?! The distillery produces two gins as well as a whole range of other spirits. How long did it take to create the flagship Copper House Gin and did you set out to achieve something in particular when you began?

I started creating the recipe before we even had the stills. We had a small lab still and I used that. I made 28 different gins before coming up with the recipes of the 2 gins we still make today! The first ones were not very good, but as time went on I started to get a feel for what I thought worked and what didn’t.

Five years on from when you started, do you look back at any particular moments and think – we’ve come a long way since then?

Copper House Gin winning the Gin Trophy at the IWSC in 2013 was a defining moment. It made me realise I was doing something right!

Winning “World’s Best Gin” is quite the achievement indeed! Your still is about a mile high and hugely impressive, could you describe how you distil Adnams Gin?

The first part for us is to make a Wash, (basically a beer with no hops) which is made in our brewhouse and fermented using Adnams 80 year old yeast. This is then pumped into the distillery and, using a Beer Stripping Column, is converted to what we call Low Wines.

This is around 80% ABV, but still contains all the higher alcohols and fusel oils which need to be separated out. The next stage is to do this, this time using our pot still, in conjunction with rectifying columns and a polishing column. The rectifying columns, use 40 plates to get the spirit to above 96% and allow us to separate into Heads, Hearts and Tails.

The Polishing Column, removes any Methanol in the spirit, another legal requirement. After all this, we get to making Gin. We use the one shot method, soaking the botanicals in our Vodka overnight before distilling the next day.

There’s a lot of technical elements to life as a distiller but also lots of creative moments too. What’s the best part of your job?

Developing a new recipe is always enjoyable, which I do on a small 2.5 litre still. I’ve made lots of fun things, although some of them never leave the distillery!

Distillers labs are always littered with fun experiments! For those who haven’t tasted them yet, could you describe your two gins?

The first is our Copper House Gin, a 40% ABV fruity and floral 6 botanical gin, a great gin for a Gin & Tonic. The second, First Rate Gin, is a more complex, 48% ABV 13 botanical gin. This I would describe as perfect for cocktails, especially a well stirred Martini. Both our gins are made from different vodka bases.

The Copper House from a 100% Malted Barley Vodka, the First Rate from a vodka which is a made from a 3 grain mash. Malted barley, wheat and oats. I consider the vodka as an additional botanical.

Interesting to hear you say that, as we’ve always thought that the base spirit has a huge impact on flavour and mouthfeel too. In your opinion, what do you think makes Copper House Gin unique?

Probably the hibiscus flowers we use as one of the botanicals, along with the unique vodka base. It would be hard for anyone to re-create.

We all love a tipple or two so other than your own, what other gins do you enjoy? Are there any that you particularly like?

There are so many good gins out there I wouldn’t like to pick just a few. I do also drink lots of other spirits. Lately I have been drinking heavily peated Islay whiskies and Mescals. I guess it’s wanting what you can’t make! I still drink lots of gin too!

The grass is always greener eh… As the distiller, do you get to be involved in some of the consumer tastings and events? (Incidentally, the refreshed bottle design looks fantastic).

I like the new bottle too, the old design was a little regressive. The new one shouts from the shelf, which, when amongst so much competition in a supermarket, must help. I get to go to a few of the consumer events, and its always good to meet gin loving customers and talk about what goes into making the products. There are great places to catch up with other distilling friends too.

And lastly – what’s your favourite way to enjoy Adnams Copper House?

I’m more of a cocktail drinker than a gin and tonic drinker. I love a Martini, 5:1 stirred. I’m also partial to a Gimlet!

Adnams Copper House Gin