Below is an excerpt from the September 2015 edition of GINNED! Magazine about Burleigh's Gin and the 45 West Distillery. Every month, Craft Gin Club Members receive a bottle of amazing small-batch gins and gin complements accompanied by GINNED! Magazine which is full of information about the gin, the distillery and loads of fascinating features.
As you approach the 45 West Distillery tucked away in Bawdon Lodge Farm, a few miles from Loughborough in Leicestershire, you’re likely to hear the sound of music emanating from the converted building that houses the stills. If you’re not one for surprises, before you arrive you could check the Twitter feed @wildfreespirit to know what is playing that day and in turn, prepare yourself emotionally. For, at 45 West, Master Distiller Jamie Baxter will tell you that it’s the music that makes the mood and the mood that makes the moonshine.
In his early years, it may have seemed more likely that Jamie follow a musical path instead of becoming a distiller. As a younger man, he had played the piano. His family moved around some when he was a child, his Scottish father following his responsibilities at Unilever. Jamie also had much opportunity to travel, his mother being Austrian and his grandmother having married a prominent Indian who had first arrived in the UK while pushing for independence and eventually became an ambassador.
The travel instilled in him a sense of adventure, one that his self-described “short and stubby” fingers would not transmit on the piano keys. On his 21st birthday, his parents gave him a saxophone, an instrument more attuned to his smaller hands, one whose sound he enjoyed and one that may have better portrayed his love of travel. But Jamie chose a beach-bound path and the saxophone was not a sand-friendly instrument. So he left it behind, stowed away at his parent’s house.
“MUESLI IS BLOODY BORING”
After a few years of living in the south of France teaching water sports and enjoying his youth, Jamie decided it was time to take the life lessons he had learned beach bumming and transfer them to a different kind of work back in the UK. Having studied biology at uni, Baxter fell into the food industry, taking his first company job with Smith’s Crisps followed by a stint making breakfast cereals.
Like many entrepreneurs before him, @wildfreespirit soon became jaded with corporate life, especially after the cereal company he worked for was bought out by Weetabix. Instead of working for the actual Weetabix, Jamie, who had by then been living with his wife in Wales for a few years, set up his own cereal company that produced an organic Weetabix-style cereal, eventually moving into muesli. After selling his cereal concerns, he was approached by Will Chase of Tyrells Crisps fame.
Chase wanted to expand the Tyrells brand into other categories and thought muesli a good start. After bringing Jamie on board and six weeks of product preparation, Chase had a change of heart. “Muesli is bloody boring. Let’s make vodka instead.”
And so Jamie became a distiller.
Not only did he become a distiller, but he quickly became an award-winning distiller. Vodka won the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Award for Best Vodka when a mere two years prior, he had little idea what he was doing. The only thing Jamie had at the start of what became William Chase Vodka was Will Chase’s potatoes.
Because the team started from scratch, Jamie learned the ins and outs of distilling from the ground up, from designing the distillery and installing the stills to producing neutral spirit and transforming it into a marketable product. During his time with Chase, he installed both a vodka and a gin still and learned how to make neutral spirit from potatoes, for the vodka, and apples, which he used for the base of Williams Chase Elegant Gin. These skills proved invaluable and upon leaving Chase, he began consulting on small distillery projects around the UK.
WARMING UP BURLEIGH’S WITH C.O.L.D.
After a number of confidential projects, Baxter found himself near Fleet Street, setting up the project of Jonathan Clark, a former pub owner whose first job was actually on the same site that C.O.L.D. distills at today. Jamie imported the stills, Clarissa and Jennifer, from Germany and got the new distillery’s gin just the way he wanted it as the rest of the team opened up a bar on the premises.
With C.O.L.D. up and running, it’s stills producing gin, Jamie was approached by Phil Burley, a consultant for the brewing industry. Burley wanted to expand his company, Exigo, into distilling and sought Jamie’s expertise. Today, Jamie consults on distilling projects around the world with Exigo Brewing and Distilling. During their original conversations the business partners also decided to create their own gin brand. The result of the brainstorm is Burleigh’s.
Like his previous entrepreneurial ventures, Baxter started Burleigh’s from scratch, finding the premises, installing the stills and coming up with the concept behind the gin. He’ll admit, it’s never a perfect process. “If you try to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ’t’ then your project will never get off the ground,” he reflected. Just as importantly as ignoring perfectionist tendencies is finding the right people to work with. “I’ve always been a collaborative person,” explained Jamie. “I have a certain skill set but there are many important attributes of running a business that I don’t have.”
In the same way that the Master Distiller is not a one-man team when it comes to Burleigh’s he’s not a one-man band either. Around the time of his first forays into the cereal world, Jamie rediscovered his 21st birthday gift and began to play. He sought out other musicians, learning different genres and how to improvise. Today, when he’s not traveling the world consulting or making the next batch of Burleigh’s you’ll find Jamie and his sax with Beeza and the Wildcats, his five-piece band.
He will tell you that he’s not a particularly good player, but his humble argument crumbles when you listen to the bands mixture of covers and originals. He may play equally modest as Burleigh’s Master Distiller. But now that you’ve had a taste, you know there is delicious, adventurous and musical expertise behind the modesty.