Men are a funny lot. They spend the first decades of their adult life working hard, blindly striving for some distant goal they’re not actually completely sure of whilst doing their best to enjoy those fleeting moments with friends and family scattered between a constant stream of demands from a hierarchically superior boss figure they probably don’t even like. And then, when their midlife crisis inevitably hits, that distant goal suddenly becomes very close and very clear. All this time, the answer to all life’s problems was a shiny new sports car.
For Anno Distillery’s Co-Founder Andy Reason, his Ultima GTR kit car (pictured) wasn’t necessarily the result of a full-on midlife crisis. He has a knack for tinkering with things and his red ride was a pet project that took him two and one-half years to build. But he and his distilling partner, Norman Lewis, stood at the edge of the White Cliff of a Kentish midlife crisis when the GlaxoSmithKline research laboratory in which they had worked for over a decade announced it was moving to another location.
Not keen on decamping from Kent, the two decided to take their leave from the pharmaceutical company and remain in their beloved county. “What to do next?” questioned the impending existential crossroads? With the kit car already under construction, they thought they could turn to consulting knowing that their organic chemistry expertise would be in high demand in their industry. But that thought didn’t last long as it didn’t really entice either of them.
So, as the GSK lab prepared to shutter its doors, Andy and Norman decided to take the popular alternative midlife crisis adventure, the one on which men already equipped with sports cars embark - they decided to start an alcoholic beverage company.
In a lot of ways, the decision made sense for them, a sense they could use to deflect any accusations of a midlife crisis. Firstly, distilling is a basic element of their lab research. They knew very well how to distill and had the basic equipment to get the job done. Just as importantly, they both loved spirits -particularly gin and whisky - to the extent that they had purchased a cask of whisky at the Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay. And finally, they didn’t have any other appealing ideas!
Thusly the chemists turned their focus to creating the spirits they loved. Tying their former life with their blank slate as distillers, they came up with the perfect tagline for their new adventure: “The Spirit of Alchemy.”
MASTERING THE MIDLIFE CRISIS
As their alchemical adventure began, they quickly realised that although they aspired to make whisky eventually, that the five years needed to draw their first bottle from the casks would turn their adventurous decision into a financial misadventure. So they turned their focus to gin.
Initially, Andy and Norman thought to make three different styles of gin - one citrus-led, one floral, and one inspired by the woodlands. But the branding agency that they had employed to investigate the best way to market their products decided that “they weren’t Diageo”: three gins would be too confusing a message for such a small distillery to sell. At the point this news broke, they had been working on the three different styles and were nearing the point at which they wanted to be with each. “They were good, but not quite good enough,” remembers Andy. With prodding from the branding agency, they set their sights on producing a gin that combined all of the styles they had set out to produce.
On their 2-litre kitchen still, they began creating several versions of the all-encompassing style and testing them on family in friends in blind tastings, including Andy’s daughter, Kim, who looks after Anno Distillery’s sales and marketing. They gradually worked their way beyond those closest to them and began trying their wares on those in the drinks industry all the way up to gin experts. Time and time again, one of the recipes came out on top. So Andy and Norman decided it was time to take the next step - move out of the kitchen.
Looking to the States and its micro-distilling boom for inspiration, the duo realised that many of the stills being set up across the pond were coming from the German company, Carl, based in Stuttgart. The budding distillers traveled to the Carl factory to meet the makers of what would become the maker of their spirit. This was not just a courtesy visit. Anno Distillers, with ambitions to produce a range of spirits, would need a specially engineered, flexible still, a message it was necessary to clearly communicat to the experts at Carl.
To accommodate the necessary flexibility, Carl created something unique to Anno’s still, something it calls a distribution panel. The distribution panel complete with “coupling units” allows the distillers to channel the vapour and spirits through the modular structure of the still according to the spirit that they are making. For instance, they could direct the vapour from the rectification column directly to the final condenser or if they want the alcoholic steam to pass through the botanical basket before reaching the rectification column.
Whichever spirit they’re making that day, it all starts in the 300-litre copper pot module, a small size they chose to ensure the highest quality spirits. Andy and Norman were shocked when the equipment finally arrived at the rented premises the chose to house the still just before Christmas in 2012 on a “very large lorry from Germany”. The rectification column itself reaches 4.5 metres, weighed a half-tonne and required a specially built ladder to reach the top.
THE PERFECT PERFORMANCE OF PATIENCE
Of course, as is often the case for aspiring UK-based distillers, Andy and Norman needed to wait for HMRC grant them the necessary licenses before they could even turn the still on, a time period that seemed to drag on forever. During what turned out to be a five-month wait, the distillers came up with their still’s very apt name, Patience.
With the alchemic stars aligned, Anno Distillers first began working on the final flavour profile for its gin in May 2013. Scaling up the recipe originally intended for the 2-litre alembic was not much of an issue for the career chemists, but the different processes required by the rectification column forced them to jump through some scientific hoops, which, if a gold medal for their gin is any proof, they jumped through perfectly.
Patience seems to be performing well with the flexibility intended by her makers. Andy and Norman are experimenting with different combinations of Patience’s capabilities to distill their next major product, a Kent whisky. They teamed up with the Westerham Brewery, a craft beer outfit based in Kent, to source the mash necessary to make the first Kentish whisky, distill the mash and barrel the outcome, a process that was underway at the time of writing. In 2012, the two had spent time learning to make whisky in Scotland from the masters at the small Kilchoman Distillery based on a farm on Islay. There they learned the tricks of the trade, including how to age whisky which Anno plans to do in American oak and potentially finish it in another type of wood.
Other spirits already on sale include a Kent sloe gin, made with handpicked sloes from the region, an Elderflower & Vodka spirit drink and a cranberry gin that its proud distillers say is “like Christmas in a bottle.”
Andy and Norman, quickly learning the tricks of the distilling trade, will continue to experiment, producing a variety of Kentish concoctions whilst keeping true to their goal of creating “exceedingly good spirits.” Along with Kim and Patience, they have embarked on a path through the Garden of England paved with spirited gold-medal adventure, an adventure they afford us, their gin-loving patrons, each time we sip the alchemical elixirs of Anno.