The Christmas season is all about friends, family and festivity – the very same things that make Batch Premium Gin, handcrafted in Burnley, one of the UK’s most unique craft gins. Find out how Phil Whitwell – with help from his friends and family – makes it all happen.
In the basement of a terraced house in Burnley, carefully guarded by a devoted Shih Tsu named Lopan, are the incongruous remains of Batch Premium Gin’s first ever distillery.
Now settled into an amazing converted mill, founder and director Phil Whitwell and his nephew and head distiller, Oliver Sanderson, are a long way from the days when they hauled pallets of gin up and down narrow stairs. The team has grown, the gin has won silver at both the prestigious International Wine and Spirits Awards and San Francisco World Spirits Competition and they’re about to embark on a wondrous, year-long adventure, releasing an innovative new product every month. But some things have stayed exactly the same.
As Phil explains, “I wanted to set up this business because I wanted to do something interesting, and I wanted to do things right. We’ve got it in our core principles that we treat our employees with respect, transparency, and openness. With family, you can’t not.”
With a nephew and his partner at the still, a sister and brother-in-law as ad-hoc delivery drivers, doing everything from delivering gin to hauling ex-sherry barrels back from Spain, and a clutch of distillery employees close enough to count as extended family, it’s more than a botanical blend built around Frankincense and Myrrh that makes Batch Premium Gin the spirit of the festive season.
The Right Spirit
Batch Premium Gin began life, oddly enough, as a craft beer brand. Phil, an IT consultant by day, had always wanted to start his own business. So, when he came into a sudden inheritance, it seemed like the perfect time to make his dream come true. He settled on brewing, but it wasn’t long before he found himself frustrated by the sheer number of competing beer brands, and spooked by the expense of the equipment.
It took a business trip to Spain to change his perspective. One evening, in the luminous Madrid twilight, a client took him to one of the city’s famous gin bars. Phil says, “It was the first time I saw a gin menu – 30 gins, 10 tonics, each with a different garnish. I thought, forget beer! This is where we should be.”
Back home in Winchester, where Phil, a prodigal son of Lancashire, had settled, he cast aside his craft beer aspirations and turned his attention to gin.
“I started with a recipe I found on the Internet, the source of all knowledge these days,” he laughs. With no formal training, Phil was free to experiment with new and strange techniques – including Batch Premium Gin’s now-signature method. “It’s part infusion, part vapour infusion,” he says. “I thought that was the way everybody did it!”
While Phil didn’t know exactly what he was doing, he did know what kind of spirit he wanted to be making – though the exact botanicals remained elusive. He explains, “What we wanted to do is create gins that are different. We didn’t see any point in being as small and as agile as we are to just do another London Dry Gin.”
It was near Christmastime when Phil had his breakthrough. He was clicking aimlessly around the website where he bought his botanicals when a few ‘suggested items’ popped up at the bottom of the screen. Among them were frankincense and myrrh – stuck on, no doubt, as a novelty nod to the approaching holiday.
Phil says, “I thought, that’s fantastically Christmassy! Let’s give it a go. The revelation was that they actually work really well – they give the gin a spicy, earthy note.”
Working in harmony with more classic botanicals – coriander, orange peel, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, lemongrass, allspice, angelica root and cinnamon bark – they produced a gin that was rich, yet subtly spiced. The frankincense rooted the spirit in aromatic earthiness, heightened by the clove-like warmth of myrrh. But even with the final botanicals list set, Phil still needed time. It would be another year of experiments, tweaks and tastings before the recipe was complete.
He says, “One of the things for me, looking back, was that we had absolutely no time pressure. We didn’t have a product; we didn’t have salaries or rent to pay. We were able to experiment for a lot longer. Balance is what that time gave us.”
For Claire Plowes, head of operations at Batch Brew Ltd, it’s the balance that makes this gin such a spectacular spirit. She says, “The balance of the botanicals is so clever – what Phil has achieved is genius.”
While he wouldn’t call himself genius, Phil knew that he had a gin recipe worth pursuing. So, he took his recipe back up north, to his nephew’s terraced house in Burnley. It was time to start distilling Batch Premium Gin in earnest.
When Phil first turned up in Burnley with a recipe and a gin brand – Batch Premium Gin for his love of Manchester’s Factory Records, the glimmering gold stamen of frankincense on the label – his nephew Ollie was more than a decade into a career as a cobbler. But he and his partner Emma were looking for an opportunity – and when Phil offered to teach them how to distil, they jumped.
Ollie says, “Phil gave me a very basic lesson in my basement – pretty much just bringing a little still up to temperature and then tweaking the water input just to make sure that we’re getting the best ABV coming out.”
His basement – magically twice as large after Ollie and Emma followed a well-informed neighbour’s suggestion and knocked down a wall – was the perfect place to wedge a fledging distillery, and Phil knew that Ollie and his partner, Emma, were the perfect people to run the day-to-day work of distilling.
“He wanted me to own it,” Ollie says. “The best thing about teaching yourself is that you make mistakes, and then you never make them again. It allows you to know all of the parameters, rather than ruining a massive run because you didn’t know your own weaknesses.”
At the start of the endeavour, it was Emma who really took the reins. Meticulous and forthright, she was a cracking Head Distiller. But health problems got in the way, and Ollie stepped in.
Everyone who tried Batch Premium Gin was impressed – but where it was made had to stay a big secret, lest potential buyers dismiss the spirit as a crackpot side project. Even Lopan the Shih Tsu didn’t know exactly what was going on – though, according to Ollie, his constant sniffing at the cellar door was a sign that he suspected something.
Phil says, “Then things started to really pick up – we got a couple of overseas orders, and the reality of hauling a palate full of bottles up and down from the basement became clear.”
It was time to upgrade. Phil and Ollie packed up and moved their operation into a proper distillery space. It’s a perfect place for greeting gin enthusiasts and visitors; in fact, Phil and Ollie are always happy to show spirits lovers around, and explain the unique method they use to make Batch’s amazing spirits. There are no secrets in the new distillery space – not from one another, and not from Batch Premium Gin’s customers.
“I think that’s part of the charm,” Phil says. “When we first started we hid who we were, because we were in the basement of a terraced house. Since then we’ve been able to be more open. People like the fact that they can touch and feel it, that we can explain the process in detail, rather than it being some kind of mystery.”
Batch Premium Gin’s current set-up is a far cry from the basement of a terraced house. Bright and clean, with lots of space to spare, their new distillery is as unique as the spirit they make there. But when it came to kitting it out, Phil ran into a problem: he couldn’t find the right still – and months of searches had yielded nothing suitable.
“We really wanted a still with a northwest engineering heritage. I said, ‘It’s got to be possible!’” Then, a casual whinge in a local bar led to a solution (as every gin lover can attest, they often do!). A friend put him in touch with a bespoke engineering company.
Phil says, “They developed a design for a 265-litre still – not huge, but properly floor-to-ceiling, with copper bubble plates. It looks the business! It has a really high column, and we have very tight control over the temperature point.”
They called the big still Adrian, after a gin-loving friend of Phil’s who had sadly passed away. It’s a superb construction, the column in particular, and Batch’s Organic Vodka is made specifically to show off the purity of the alcohol Adrian creates. Four smaller stills are also kept on deck: Tom, Dick, Harry and The Other One.
It was also time to grow the team. But, when your staff is your family, bringing in new blood can be a challenge. Fortunately, new additions only served to make the Batch Team – now six strong – closer than ever.
For Claire, a former teacher whose love of gin drove her to reply to an ad Phil placed in the local paper, working at Batch has been a total life changer.
“I constantly pinch myself,” says the operations manager, whose centrality to the success of Batch Premium Gin is impossible to underplay. “Not even a year ago I was still teaching – I never would have dreamt this is where I would be. All of my friends and family will say what a change they’ve seen. I was on the edge when I was teaching, but now I look forward to going into work every day.”
An apprentice distiller has also joined, a talented twenty-something who often vows that his devotion to his Batch Premium Gin family is such that not even a burgeoning rap career could make him leave. While no two people on the team are quite alike, they’re bonded by passion for everything Batch.
The team, Claire says, is what makes her proudest to work at Batch. They even ran the Tough Mudder competition, a hard-core, 10k obstacle course, together – though Ollie swears it’s much easier than it looks.
Claire says, “If someone has an issue, we don’t bottle it up – and you get pretty friendly when you’re launching someone over a 9-foot fence into a puddle of mud!”
The Batch team might not technically be family. But after almost a year together in the trenches, working hard to make a product they all love, they’re as good as. And Phil, even though he’s managing them from afar much of the time (he has yet to make the permanent move back up north), treats them as such.
“You have to be open and honest,” he says. “It is a different way of running a business, with family and friends – you can’t hide anything. But it’s good.”
And, in the coming year, Phil and the Batch team will be spreading their wings further than ever before. From January, every month will herald a new ‘Innovation Release’. While many will be gins – first on the dock is a ‘Buddha’s Hand Gin’, zinging with the bright flavour of fingered citron – others will be more of a departure.
Even now, rum is aging in an old sherry barrel Phil’s sister brought back from a trip to visit their parents in Spain.
“It’s a little bit nerve wracking,” Ollie, a self-described mad scientist, says of the year ahead. “But I’ve got the first six months nailed – and I’ve got a bit of time to get the rest of the year sorted out!”
One favourite will be returning: Batch’s Whinberry Gin, Phil’s beguiling, limited-edition answer to sloe gin. ‘Whinberry’, he explains, is a local name for bilberries; his Whinberry Gin isn’t as sugar-laden as most sloe gins, and as an added bonus, his team can pick many of the whinberries they need right in Lancashire – with a little help from Burnley locals, that is.
“This year we had a whinberry drive, where we offered a discount to anyone who brought in a kilo of whinberries. But it turns out that’s quite a lot,” he laughs.
Still, uptake was amazing. In fact, that’s why Phil is determined to stay in Burnley come what may. Ollie may have been the initial lure, but now it’s home.
He says, “The pride in Burnley, in local produce, is incredible. Batch is a premium product, but we have masses of local orders. People are on board – the football clubs, pubs, restaurants. There’s been fantastic support.”
“My local was one of the first places to take it on board,” adds Ollie. “I’d spent enough money behind the bar, they thought they would return the favour!”
While Phil has shareholders, they’re all his friends, family, employees and mentors. His goal – and their goal – is to build a beautiful craft spirits distillery, to support the community that’s helped Batch Brew Ltd thrive and continue to make amazing spirits of every stripe, in the right way.
“We want a sustainable craft business,” Phil says. “The objective is not to get to the point where we get acquired or stocked in the national supermarket. We’re in it for something we all enjoy doing.”
Friendship, family and the festive season – when you raise a Batch Premium Gin and tonic, you’re toasting all three.