Below is an excerpt from GINNED! Magazine about Blackwater Distillery's Nº 5 London Dry Gin. Every month, Craft Gin Club members receive a bottle of amazing small-batch gins accompanied by GINNED! Magazine which is full of features about the gin, the distillery and loads of fascinating features.
If you’re walking through the Blackwater River Valley passing through the local food festivals and visiting the castles on its banks that granted the region the nickname, “The Irish Rhine”, keep an eye out for another local attraction: the heron. You may have noticed that the good folk at the Blackwater Distillery chose the heron to as the focal point of their logo. This wasn’t a coincidence.
What was a coincidence, however, was how the heron invaded another area of the business, a crucial aspect of any distillery - the still’s name.
Perhaps before arriving to this point on the page you attempted to no avail to decipher the Irish title above. These words were uttered around Peter’s still by a friend before a name was chosen. The words technically mean “heron” in Irish, but the literal translation is “Sally of the Bog”. And that’s how the Blackwater Distillery’s gin still came to be known as “Sally”.
If Peter is a self-taught distiller, he’s also a self-taught Sally architect. After experimenting with and finding the recipe for his gin on a two-litre still at home, he realized what kind of still he sought: a copper pot bain marie alembic. He toyed with the idea of sourcing one from Spain or Portugal where small alembics have been around for centuries but ultimately decided to go the pure distiller’s route and design one himself.
With the soon-to-be-known-as-Sally’s design finished, Peter needed to find someone to build it for him. He looked Westward and Eastward to the States and China, quickly discovering that it can be difficult to ship things over on a boat from the US but from China he could easily have the still delivered in 30 days. So, as spices from the Far East used to voyage to Ireland, some of which were used in gin distillation, Peter made the reverse voyage to get the primary tool needed for that distillation. So by birth, Sally is Chinese.
Peter traveled to Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, a city of three million people, to meet with engineering companies finding one in particular with which he got along and who “put the engineering where the art was and made it sing.” Blackwater’s founder stayed on during the construction of the still to make sure that it fit all European Community standards and caught a plane back home while the still traveled by container ship to Ireland. “There’s a boat that leaves Ningbo Port every Monday for Ireland. You can track the ship as it floats up the Suez Canal,” marveled Peter. Even after all of this, the Blackwater Distillery’s bain marie Sally cost less than she would have to produce in the States.
The bain marie pot still provides a “very gentle way of distilling”. Traditionally, the pot sits in a bain marie full of water heated by a wood flame which in turn heats the spirit in the still. To keep things simpler - and safer - Peter designed a version that uses electric heating. Blackwater’s pot is wrapped in an “oil blanket”: the electric heating heats the oil which then heats the spirit in the 400-litre pot, producing just the right amount of bubbling needed to create enough contact between the spirit and the copper and slowly absorbing the flavours from the botanicals that are thrown directly into the spirit. “Another option would have been a Holstein, a German company from which a number of UK microdistillers have ordered stills, but they’re over-engineered for my purposes,” explained Peter. “The spirit we start with is already a very clean spirit. It just needs the copper touch to smooth it out.”
And smooth Blackwater London Dry Gin is, as smooth as a ride up the river for which it is named. When you sail up the Irish Rhine, visiting the castles, watching the heron and taking in the scenery, be sure to stop by Cappoquin and visit Peter and Sally to take some Blackwater Nº 5 and whatever spirits they’re experimenting with that day.