Max Chater – Victory Gin
VICTORY Gin founder Max Chater is an Orwell geek with a passion for gin that extended far beyond just drinking the spirit. We caught up with the barman-turned-distiller to hear what inspired him and to find out his plans for the future.
So, from behind the bar to behind a brand, what triggered your interest in gin?
I was working – as an 18-year-old student – in Leeds at my first cocktail bar. It was rum focused and quite the party place. The owner used to like to drink a Vodka (!) Martini, super dry and with a twist. Now at the time I knew nothing of the complexities and finesse of flavours that could exist in the combination of simply two liquids (vermouth and gin), so I happily mixed a Martini to the boss’ preference, meticulously trimming my lemon zest. I questioned that the drink was bland and asked why you wouldn’t add more of the ‘wine stuff ’ as that seemed far more interesting to me.
I set about creating something just for him, my expression of a Martini. I took a bottle of Stoli off the back bar and infused it for two days with bay leaf and lemon. When it was ready I proudly mixed a Vodka Martini with a touch more vermouth and my custom vodka. The boss loved it and said I should really start drinking Gin. “What, that old fashioned stuff in the rail?!” But I did, and I never looked back.
My love of Gin started that day with a Beefeater Martini mixed with Martini Dry and garnished with a lemon peel. Next up was a Negroni, also mixed with Beefeater… I guess I owe a lot to James Burrough!
Once you start to open your mind to different flavours, cocktails, gins, vermouths and amari you are kind of lost forever. The history of alcohol, distillation and the social science behind distilleries and the nations changing palate really interests me, and Gin is the embodiment of all of this. So rich in history but also changing the world again now.
Where did you learn to distil?
I would say I taught myself through trial and error. I actually started to learn to distil on a Rotavap at the Whistling Shop in London with Fluid Movement. VICTORY Gin came about when I opened a cocktail bar for The Draft House. We opened BUMP CAVES in Tower Bridge, where the VICTORY distillery still sits.
The concept was to produce one-off, interesting flavoured distillates to pair with craft beer, somewhat like a modern day ‘Boilermaker’. I got myself a Buchi Rotavap and would distil flavour pairings in spirit form for beers. When you have a cocktail bar and a rotavap it doesn’t take long for a Gin lover like myself to start playing around with juniper.
The recipe for VICTORY was always pretty much set in my head, but the progress to what it is today took about two years.
VICTORY Gin is a strong name with huge literary connotations. Are you an Orwell fan, or was it something of a coincidence?
The naming was completely by design. I am indeed a big Orwell fan. In fact I was re-reading 1984 when we were designing BUMP. The gin is meant to be a classically styled spirit but made in a completely modern way. I wanted VICTORY Gin to be our house pour and used in most of our cocktails – a sort of utilitarian gin, applicable to any drink. Quite Big Brother: you are drinking VICTORY and VICTORY is all you need. I couldn’t believe we got the trademark!
You’ve gone juniper heavy and pretty classic on the taste – how did you settle on your recipe?
As I said the recipe was always set in my mind; I wanted a classic style taste but a completely modern process. The botanicals all combine to express the taste of VICTORY – I didn’t want any crazy or different flavours in there. We use chestnut, black pepper and cardamom, but not for the forefront. VICTORY Gin is a 10 botanical recipe but all of the components come together and bring out the juniper. That’s what I believe gin should be. That isn’t to say that other modern gins with prominent flavours from stranger or less used botanicals aren’t great, they just aren’t VICTORY.
You use your spent botanicals to create a water-based distillate. This obviously adds hours onto the production process – what does this step add to the overall product?
Water distillates, or hydrosols, take on completely different characters than just grain. Certain aromatics infuse better in water and some better in alcohol. In fact some are better infused in oils, but that’s a whole other experiment.
We were experiencing a loss in both alcohol and aroma in our spirit infusion. After chatting about this with a few industry friends, I decided to experiment with getting the loss back. By re-infusing the ‘spent’ botanicals in water you displace the alcohol infused into the botanicals. The water penetrates the botanicals and releases otherwise lost aromatics and alcohol. Our hydrosol comes of the still at about 30% ABV and has prominent aromas of cassia, roots and juniper spice. The first time we blended these two distillates was a fantastic day.
What prompted you to take VICTORY Gin to the wider consumer market?
We started just supplying Draft House Bars, but then other people started asking for VICTORY. We still self distribute completely. Either by courier or personally on my bike! I wanted to build the brand organically and focus where possible on reducing emissions and our impact. We are now in talks with a few suppliers who have asked if they can take on our products; they soon will be supplying, alongside us, at the same price point.
The reception from people, both consumer and in the trade has been brilliant, especially considering the somewhat crowded market. I think the fact that we are a ‘real’ gin with a classic style has really helped us.
That and our commitment to reducing our energy usage and trying to be eco-friendly. We distribute in four bottle Gin Pouches, somewhat like a wine pouch, so essentially a case of VICTORY Gin is one Pouch and two full bottles. The bars refill their glass bottles and if they get tatty we replace them. This has reduced our waste packaging by over 80%. People love it – I mean come on, A BAG OF GIN!
Are you tempted to take on a copper still, or are you happy with your rotavap?
You know people often ask that. I don’t see moving over to hot or traditional distillation as progressing really. Don’t get me wrong, I love a gleaming copper still and have the upmost respect for traditional distillers, but our process is cold and will continue to be.
We tried making a hot version of VICTORY Gin in a large distillery and the resulting gin was great but it wasn’t VICTORY. We’ll certainly have to look at a way of expanding, but I’ll do this by adding more Rotavaps to the process. Maybe I will get myself a 20-liter RV! A boy can dream…
We’re huge fans of the gin, having tried it at Draft House Old Street. It was served up with Fever- Tree Tonic and a wedge of pink grapefruit – how else would you serve VICTORY Gin?
Why, thank you! Draft House has been so good to us and I owe a lot to the team and Charlie for all their help making VICTORY Gin popular. I love the simple serve of a slice of pink grapefruit in any classic styled gin; aromatically grapefruit and juniper have a lot of similarities and I find grapefruit brings out so much in a G&T.
At the distillery we serve a V&T quite short (1:2 VICTORY: Fever- Tree) with a zest of orange and a thin slice of pink grapefruit. I also particularly like the Mediterranean tonic from FT too. I would like to say I’m not much of a G&T dictator, if you like a V&T with lemon or lime or black pepper and strawberries then go for it, just let me know so I can try it!
Do you plan to create any variants?
Oh that would be telling. I will say we’ve been playing an awful lot. I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to release a Navy. We’ve been distilling different sorts of coniferae (trees) at the moment; I love how this group of plants including Douglas-firs, cedars, spruces and even junipers all have wildly different aromas – some smell like citrus, some like pineapple.
It’s a complex experiment but one I’m loving. Shall we say coming soon? We have produced a few specials as well for particular bars, like a rosemary distillate gin for autumn. With our scale being so small we have so much playtime and for that we are lucky.
Read our review of VICTORY Gin HERE.
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