Imagine loving gin so much that you ‘accidentally’ move house next door to a gin distillery. Who would do such a thing?!… Ooopsie!
Ok. So I didn’t move directly ‘next door’ to a gin distillery…But it turns out that when we moved back home to our Midlands stomping ground, after a 10 year hiatus in the North of England, we did manage to move to within 1 village of Staffordshire Distillery. And in my books that means we could pretty much start our own ‘neighbourhood watch’.
Now, as anyone who has moved house knows, it’s important to get to know your neighbours. Especially when your neighbours have even more gin than you do (and that’s some going!)!
Meet Rachel Evans. Rachel is the Distiller. The Owner. The Bottler. The Labeller. The Delivery Driver. The HR, Finance and Marketing Department. And, well, she’s the one woman whirlwind behind Staffordshire Distillery!
But how did Rachel come to accumulate so many job titles in her quest to start a gin brand? What is Staffordshire Distillery all about? And what drives her on in pursuing her juniper based labour of love?
Armed with a metaphorical and socially distanced basket of muffins, I caught up with Rachel to hear all about the Staffordshire Distillery story, and was lucky enough to taste my way through the core range. You can read all about the backstory and the tasting notes of the full Staffordshire Distillery lineup in my previous blog review here:
And as part of getting better acquainted, Rachel kindly gave up her time to take part in an in-depth Q&A to give me an exclusive lowdown on the the past, present and future of a local brand with an infectious energy and enthusiasm that promises some incredibly exciting plans on the horizon. So settle in, make yourself comfortable and fill your glass with something warming. It’s time to meet the neighbours…
The Gin Shelf (TGS): Hi Rachel! When did you decide that you wanted to make a gin? And when did you officially launch?
Rachel Evans (RE): It took ages to launch being honest. I decided in 2018 to lease the premises, but it was just an outbuilding on a farm – open brick work, just a shell. So I needed to build it first and make it not just ‘food safe’ but structurally sound!
I was also still working my other job throughout (and still am) so it took about a year to do this before I bought the Still and could start production. I launched properly in December 2019, which was completely the wrong time as businesses were too busy to speak to me. And my website launched in January, so I kind of missed the Christmas trade…good start ey?? I was lucky in that everyone in the surrounding areas (Alrewas, Fradley, Lichfield and Barton Under Needwood) supported my new business and bought my gin – and they have honestly been the best customers and sounding board I could have wished for!
I don’t know when I decided to go into production commercially, but I’ve previously distilled as part of my brewing diploma at Heriot-Watt (University) and have always worked in the drinks trade. It just seemed a natural advancement from my freelancing work to go into production. As part of my other job I support producers in best practice so it just seemed fitting that I would ‘put my money where my mouth is’ so to speak…it’s all very well me preaching what producers should be doing without me actually walking in their shoes. So if anything it makes me a better auditor and mentor.
TGS: For a brand that started in 2018, you’ve already established a fairly substantial core range of 5 gins – that’s some going! Some brands start small and build up the range of flavours over a longer period; what made you take that direction and was it always your goal to create a large armoury?
RE: I can’t seem to sit still can I? It wasn’t my intention no, but it just evolved. As I was chatting to people in the village, ideas popped into my head and I wanted to have a gin to suit everyone. The gin market has seen substantial growth in the flavour variants, where the London Dry market has kept stagnant. Plus this is what the trade were asking for.
I personally like fruit flavours and a smoother gin, not so much punchy more mellow and accessible. The craft market has broken down quite a few traditional barriers when its comes to gin, but this isn’t necessarily what I seek in a gin.
More in my opinion doesn’t necessarily mean better, so I wanted to keep my gins tasty and accessible to people who were perhaps new to the gin category and felt a little overwhelmed by what is out there. So I keep them to a London Dry base with fruit accents. This is personally what I love. I don’t need a fancy tonic to go with them, as the flavours of the gins come through on their own. A lot of the production can the stay the same, just the ingredients change – the steeping of the fruits and skins imparts different aromatics that come through so differently during distillation. It really is a blend of science and art when it comes to distilling.
TGS: I believe it was the Uisge gin (London Dry) that came first? Tell us a little about it and how did you decide on the botanical mix that you wanted to target?
RE: I wanted to have a ‘flagship’ standard gin that spoke about my brand and what I was about, which is all about quality. I use the best botanicals that I can source. In terms of the botanical mix, I wanted to aim for accessible, not to throw everything at it like some. So I have a balance of lead juniper, coriander seed, lemon and orange fruits, a few berry mixes such as rowan berry and elderberry with a backnote of some spice, such as cassia, plus a few secrets!
It’s a balance really. Some botanicals are quite delicate and you need to know where to use them in the Still. Others are quite complementary or they can contrast the juniper. The proof of the pudding is in the eating so to speak, so if you want another gin after you’ve drank one, then you’re on the right track!
TGS: How many attempts did it take to get the recipe for your first gin ‘just right’?
RE: I lost count ha! Lets just say loads…It doesn’t happen overnight and even now I am still learning the process when it comes to working with some fruits. The good thing about distilling is there is no waste really in terms of alcohol. You can re-distil it until you get it right. It’s a learning curve to say the least!
TGS: There’s a lot of reference to the Scottish water used in your gins, which seemed a bit surprising for a Midlands based gin – what’s the story there?
RE: The majority of gins in the UK come from Scotland. The distilleries in Scotland are the best in the world, which is why the whisky (and gin) from there is so good – because of the water.
I used to live in Scotland for over 10 years, I love the place. I studied there for 5 years and it was at a water spring in the Cairngorms that I kind of had the idea really. I was auditing in Scotland, Deeside Water, as part of my consulting work, a beautiful place where the water is blessed by monks and takes 50 years to get to the surface. Crystals guard the spring and Queen Victoria used to bathe there to alleviate arthritis.
Of course I wasn’t going to (and can’t legally) say my gin has healing benefits! But because of the unique mineral content, it has benefits in the distillation process and the taste of the gin. No other water makes my gin taste like this. I’ve tried a few – others make my gin go cloudy too, so I wanted my gin crystal clear. Plus the water spring Deeside Water has been working with my old University, Heriot-Watt, where the mineral content has been proven to show efficiencies in distillation due to the molecular size.
If I can’t have the distillery in Scotland, the Scottish water will have to come to me!
TGS: I see that some of the botanicals you use are local, including rhubarb grown by your Granddad? (does he know about this?!). Can you tell me more about the locality of some of the botanicals and why a sense of provenance is important to you?
RE: I had to put in my order for Grandad really early last year, so he’s been planting and cultivating in his allotment as we speak. The craft is very mindful of locally sourcing where possible. Everyone including myself loves a local element to what they’re buying – it’s part of the community spirit that binds us in the ‘support local’ ethos. I not only source from Grandad, as there was a shortage of rhubarb at the end of the summer! I put the word out and people from Alrewas, Lichfield, Abbots Bromley, Sutton Coldfield and Tamworth came forward and gave me their rhubarb! How nice is that?! Plus its nice to think their produce is being used in a local gin that they have played a part in making.
A few friends work with fruit and veg farmers and I source from them too, as I prefer to support our local community. We’re all working parents, giving back to our community where we can.
TGS: Of the 5 gins you’ve created, which proved to be the trickiest to nail?
RE: Working with oranges is tough – the zest is so oily. Yes I have cried about oranges!
My poor fingers have peeled hundreds of them and my kids have eaten loads (it’s just the skin we need in distilling), but then this is all part of being a distiller.
TGS: Would you profess to having a particular favourite from your range?
RE: You know, I like the London Dry…or the Lemon, or the Orange & Cinnamon. Or the Forest Fruits….or the Rhubarb and Ginger!!! How can I possibly choose??
I really depends on what mood I’m in or the weather or what I’m wearing!
TGS: How do you drink your gins? And would you go as far as to say that there is a ‘perfect serve’?
RE: Lots of fresh ice, and a fruit slice to compliment the gin – we have a selection of dried fruits that are perfect and I like those. They are super concentrated and full of flavour – they provide the perfect garnish. In terms of the tonic, I would always go with what you know and like. If you like to premium tonics then stick to those, although I do like Franklin & Sons personally; the Mallorcan tonic or the Elderflower goes perfectly with most of our gins.
If you like a branded tonic, like Schwepps, then that’s fine too. There is a lot of snobbery when it comes to tonics and I like my gin to speak for itself rather that be overloaded with other flavours. Lots of people like our gins because of the smoothness neat over ice, like a sipping gin. I would highly recommend that too!
TGS: I know the area where you’re based pretty well (you’re only a stones throw away from my house!), but for people who don’t know Staffordshire & the Lichfield area, can you tell us more about why the location is so important to you?
RE: I moved back from Scotland about 10 years ago and moved back to Sutton Coldfield, my hometown. Then, when I got married, we wanted a slower pace of village life to raise a family. So we moved to Alrewas, which is a lovely village near Lichfield, Sutton and Burton on Trent.
It’s a beautiful place, very rural, and when the opportunity came up to start a business here I jumped at the chance!
TGS: Who are the team behind Staffordshire Distillery? Is it just yourself?!
RE: Just me. I’m the Distiller, Owner, Bottler, Labeller, Delivery Driver…you name it, just me!
But I couldn’t do this without the support of my husband, Mark, who put the distillery together for me, the support of my mum and friends. It’s a massive commitment financially and emotionally and my mum, kids, best mate Zoe, friends and family have all backed me 110%. I couldn’t have done this without them!
They all believed I could do this, and they never once doubted me, and that keeps me going.
TGS: Having done some background reading, I noted that you’re a member of the Institute of Food Science and Technology as a Registered Food Auditor and Mentor; what does that entail and how does it tie in to the Distillery?
RE: I’m still consulting with other food producers, such as breweries and distilleries, helping them make better drinks and to follow best practice. I’ve been on the register for about 5 years, as part of being a professional food auditor and mentor.
In terms of linking this together, I guess other producers can find my industry insight of use to them and I can empathise with what they are going through themselves (I hope!).
At university I studied BSc Food Science & Marketing then went on to do Brewing & Distilling MSc, which was a blend of chemical and mechanical engineering. I then did a few other post grads in management during my corporate life in Mitchells & Butlers. I now consult for a few industry professionals, guiding businesses and industry through Good Manufacturing Processes. I think I needed to advance in a different way and going into production was that outlet for me. My training has definitely helped in that process. It must be difficult to navigate through starting a business in drink and food without any knowledge in food risk.
TGS: You’re Twitter handle, for those who follow you, is ‘@BrumBeerGirl’, which initially seems slightly at odds with your gin distilling role. What’s the story there and what role does beer play?
RE: I have 2 handles (@BrumBeerGirl and @StaffsDistil). BBG came first, as I have been working in this industry for 26 years and wanted to share my love for beer and Birmingham – my stomping ground. I worked for Mitchells & Butlers for 15 years before doing what I’m currently doing and beer was my first love so to speak. I’m still very much supporting the beer industry as my role as a brewery auditor/mentor and a Cask Marque assessor.
I think @BBG is a little more personal than my company account on @StaffsDistil.
TGS: What has been your biggest challenge in making the gin? Or are we living in it right now with the impact of Corona Virus?
RE: The market is very saturated. There are loads of gins out there, so knocking on doors and getting the gins in front of the right people is always a challenge, to be able to stand out from everyone else. My approach has been to add to the category, not to stand out in a weird and wonderful flavour profile way (I promise no Unicorn Tears will be added to my gins. Or glitter for that matter!).
Quite a few people ask ‘What makes you gin different?’ and my response will always be ‘quality’. The craft market is diverse and has so many people making gins their way, which is great (something for everybody right), but our ethos is that everything has to be built on the best principles and practices. The ingredients have to be the best (they’re ISO/BRC accredited), we use Vapour Infusion as the method of distillation, we use copper plates to impart and extract any negative compounds, we blend with the best water in the UK. I cut my points at absolute points to get the best heart distillate based on flavour out of the run. This isn’t about quantity, this is making the best gin I can make.
I personally date, batch code and apply all of our labels by hand. Everything is done by me so I know it is done correctly, not by an automated machine. Even the heat shrink wrap tops are sealed by hand. I visually inspect all bottles before despatch and I do care about where these gins are going. I have refused to stock in some places, as I don’t think my products sit well against some of the market out there and I don’t want to devalue our brand.
TGS: And what has been your proudest moment with the brand to date?
RE: When I get comments from people saying they have loved my gin – they’re the proudest moments. It means everything, including the time away from the kids and family, has been worth it. I’m a just a working mum at the end of the day and when I get a glowing review, it’s just the icing on the cake. And I’ve shed a few tears reading reviews and blogs from people. Bloggers, customers and followers on social media are the best people I could have wished for honestly. If anyone would like to come over for a gin you’re more than welcome! Most people I’m in contact with on the socials are now my friends!
TGS: We’ve already touched on the impressive lineup of Staffordshire Distillery gins; are there any plans for further additions?
RE: Yes! A few of my mates are vodka drinkers (not judging) so I may dip into another category. Plus rum is having a good presence at the minute…I have made whisky previously so perhaps….
I do love the fruit element to gins but perhaps there is something else out there that we could tap into that perhaps isn’t fruit yet has an edge? Matt, if you have any suggestions please let me know!
Note to reader: I’m currently doing my best to twist Rachel’s arm to make Barrel Aged Gin or Navy Strength (or a combination of both!). Wish me luck!…
TGS: What’s next for Staffordshire Distillery? And are there exciting plans you can reveal at this stage?
RE: I’m working on a distilled lime gin but I need someone to peel quite few limes for me. Any volunteers are welcome…
So there you have it! One thing you can be assured of with both Rachel and Staffordshire Distillery is that slowing down is not on the agenda – it’s not even close! I’m looking forward to being able to pay a visit to the distillery in person as soon as the climate allows to see where the magic happens first hand. Though I guess I had best take my peeler with me…
I have a feeling that this is going to be a case of when good neighbours become good friends.
With huge thanks to Rachel Evans for her time and for generously gifting the samples of the Staffordshire Distillery gin range for my previous review!
Be sure to follow the exciting journey over on Social Media and on the website for the latest news and goings on. You can bet there’s a lot more to come from this energetic brand;
Facebook: The Staffordshire Distillery
And don’t forget to stop by @theginshelf across all social media platforms for more blogs & event updates. Stop by, say ‘Hi’ & chat gin!