Spirit of Expression: the wild spirits behind Poetic License

By the windswept shores of England’s north east coast, one craft distillery is making big, bold gins – and they’ve concocted a bewitching brew just for Craft Gin Club. Meet the wild spirits behind Poetic License.

After decades in the hospitality industry, serving mass produced spirits that could only be described as bland, restaurateur and former chef Mark Hird had a moment of clarity. Why keep bog standard spirits on the shelves of his pubs and restaurants when he could make his own?

Mark knew that the business of brewing and distilling could be done differently. And with a chef’s love of big flavours and a restaurateur’s intricate understanding of high quality spirits, he was just the man to make the leap.

That moment of brilliance led directly to Poetic License Distillery, which has been making beautiful craft gin from its home opposite Sunderland’s landmark Roker Pier since September 2015. With a loyal following in the North East and beyond, Mark’s hunch that gin fans weren’t afraid of trying something different has paid off in spades – and the Craft Gin Club’s spectacular exclusive Spiced Orange and Cranberry Gin is just the latest wonder from these wild spirits.

Distillery Dreams

Mark Hird, founder and owner of Poetic License

Mark Hird, founder and owner of Poetic License

Mark took the first steps towards Poetic License when he launched a micro-brewery in Coxhoe, County Durham; a huge fan of craft beer and ales, it seemed a natural place to start. He named the brewery Sonnet 43 after a local hero: the poet Elizabeth Barret Browning, whose most famous work (an ode to her soon-to-be-husband that begins “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”) seemed a perfect expression of Mark’s feelings for all things craft beer.

As it built a reputation for quality beers, the brewery began picking up accolades fast. That’s when a chance meeting with a talented young distiller helped solidify Mark’s vision of a craft gin distillery that was unafraid to be different.

Luke Smith, now Poetic License’s head distiller, joined Sonnet 43 straight out of school. A keen home brewer, he had got the job after a chance encounter with the sales manager at a farmer’s market. While the majority of his days were spent singing the praises of Sonnet 43 beers to local pubs, one day a week he had access to the brewery.

“They let me run free,” Luke laughs, “and I had lots of fun getting involved in the process. I was working in the brewery during the day and then I’d go home and make my own beers at night – so I started bringing them in for people to try.”

The good feedback from professional brewers was encouraging, and Luke started thinking bigger. One spirit in particular called to him: gin.

He says, “Making beer quickly escalated into buying my own still and making gin on my mum’s hob. I had a go at everything, but gin was the thing I became infatuated with. I just made more and more and more of it.”

Luke revelled in the endless possibilities of gin. A whole world of botanicals had opened up to him, and the relatively short time it took to complete a batch meant he could tweak his recipes or try new things and taste the results right away. It wasn’t long before Luke started bringing in his homemade spirits for the team at Sonnet 43 to try.

Little did he know that Mark already had an idea for a craft gin distillery that would put the North East on the spirits map. And likewise, Mark had no idea that he had the perfect distiller already on the payroll.

With so many of Luke’s ginny creations floating around the brewery, it was only a matter of time before Mark got his hands on a sample. One sip and something became immediately clear: he’d found the right guy to help turn his idea for a daring craft gin distillery into an award-winning reality.

Luke explains: “He knew that if we put our minds to it and made a great gin, we could really make a go of it. Two years of hard work later, the distillery opened.”

Wild Spirits

Poetic License's distiller, Luke

Poetic License's distiller, Luke

With the knowledge of an experienced drinks entrepreneur behind it and an adventurous distiller, Poetic License was always destined to be a distillery less ordinary – and that’s exactly what it is.

“The main thing is breaking tradition – being different and being bold,” as Mark puts it. “Our Northern Dry Gin is certainly the embodiment of that.”

Poetic License Northern Dry gin – a miniature of which is included in this month's Gin of the Month box – is a warm and spicy delight, with a big hit of juniper balanced by the warmth and spice of green cardamom, and the perfume of Persian lime. Beautiful in a Negroni or as the foundation of a classic Gin Sour, it’s a remarkable reimagining of our favourite spirit.

So too is Poetic License’s Old Tom gin, sweet with rose and spicier than the Northern Dry.

But how do the Poetic License team take their magnificent dreams and turn them into gins that can please any palate? The answer is the kind of technical prowess that comes only from lots of experimentation, and one secret weapon: Gracie.

Gracie is the magical still at Poetic License. Like the gins she creates, Gracie does things a bit differently: she’s a hybrid still, which means she has a rectifying column as well as a pot. The column on a hybrid still – an innovation only made in the last three decades – is what allows Poetic License to make their Graceful Vodka on the same still that they use to make their amazing gins.

“You can pretty much make anything you want on it,” Luke says. “I love the idea of a hybrid still, where you can make gin the classic way in the pot, which is how we make all of our gins, but it will also allow us to try different things – and even change the flavour of the gins.”

For now, the Poetic License production method is a well-oiled machine. The botanicals are hand-selected for their flavour or plucked from an on-site herb garden.

All of these amazing botanicals are hand-crushed, macerated and boiled gently to release their incredible flavours and aromas. Each botanical is added in a specific order, so that Luke and the team can track the distillation by taste. But this isn’t the only way that the Poetic License distillation method ensures spectacular results.

As Luke explains, “As the distilling day goes on, the gin that comes out is less flavoursome. So rather than keeping all of that, we keep a smaller cut made up of only the most flavoursome liquid – the heart cut.”

The heart cut that Poetic License takes is smaller than what many distillers would consider bottleable, as are their batches: at the end of each still run just 400 bottles of spectacularly flavoursome gin will be bottled, labelled and wrapped by hand.

Luke continues, “That way the botanical flavours are discernible, but it also means that the quality of the liquid is always high.”

While labour-intensive and time consuming, the Poetic License production method is unmatched when it comes to producing vibrant flavours. Just one sip of Poetic License Northern Dry or Old Tom gins will tell you that, but the distillery’s spectacular special editions are where their fabulous taste for flavours and carefully designed distillation process really shine.

Just last summer, Poetic License launched an incredible Picnic Gin, thrillingly pink and distilled with real strawberries and cream. Their second seasonal masterpiece is the Craft Gin Club-exclusive Spiced Orange and Cranberry gin in October's Gin of the Month box – the first in a series of Rarity Gins designed to showcase Poetic License’s creativity and talent.

Winter Warmer

Some of the 'warming' botanicals featured in this month's gin

Some of the 'warming' botanicals featured in this month's gin

When Luke and Mark were asked to create a special gin for Craft Gin Club Members, they started by casting their minds forward a few months. They wanted to take inspiration from the season –  this mysterious time of the year when the evenings draw in and the weather turns crisp and cold.

Famous for their spectacular way with flavours and bold special editions, Mark and Luke knew that they had to make more than a run-of-the-mill winter gin. They needed something distinctive, with enough warmth to carry Craft Gin Club members through the darkest parts of the year and the spicy, spectacular taste that has set Poetic License apart from the beginning.

“We wanted winter flavours,” Mark explains. “Things that grow perfectly in the colder months. In this gin we have traditional flavours of that time of year with a bit of a Poetic License twist on them.”

October's gin is a feat of flavour and engineering. It has the classic gin botanicals – coriander, juniper and orris root – but the inclusion of clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and star anise add a deliciously cosy twist. Cubeb pepper, which has made an appearance in every Poetic License gin, is also present. But what’s that special flavour you’re detecting? The gin’s namesakes: the robust flavour of orange peel and, of course, cranberry.

Luke says, “The cranberries give the gin quite a sharp texture along with a fruity flavour, so it makes the gin a little bit different to the usual.”

To preserve the cranberries’ incredible flavour, these bright red wonders are distilled separately. Once they’ve given their best flavour, the result is blended back in with the larger batch — a labour-intensive process that shows how far the team at Poetic License will go to give their fancies a perfect form and their gins a solid foundation of technical excellence.

This spectacular gin is a true expression of their incredible creativity – and also just the beginning.

“The Craft Gin Club exclusive is our first ‘wild’ batch of gin,” Luke says.  “We wanted to do something wild and wonderful. We have a few of these set to come out over the coming months, but I won’t say what they are!”

We certainly can’t wait to find out…

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