It’s January 2020. You’re working towards finalising your degree and also considering a career change. We’re in to a new year, full of freedom and exciting possibilities. What could possibly go wrong, right?!…
I need not bother explaining further…we all know far too well what a certain pandemic came packing and, at the time writing, we continue to feel the effects of its ‘fun sponge’, lockdown inducing, grip.
Not that any of that deterred the subject of my latest ‘Meet the Distiller’ Q&A. And, quite frankly, THANK GOODNESS FOR THAT! Because whilst 2020 brought with it immeasurable suffering and angst for many, it did see at least one positive – the release of my top gin find of 2020; Bullards Coastal Gin.
Allow me to introduce you to Kelsey Beezhold. Having started at Bullards as a trainee distiller in the aforementioned ‘ignorance is bliss good old days’ of January 2020, Kelsey is now the Lead Distiller of Bullards Gin, responsible for everything from distillery management to R&D, distillation, and bottling. Kelsey also developed the recipe for the Coastal Gin with the previous Head Distiller from start to finish. So you can add to all of those other job titles that she is a bit of a self confessed ‘badass’!
Now they say that you should never meet your heroes…luckily, given the social distancing rules, meeting up was out of the question! But, having previously had the pleasure to review a number of the brands wider range, I was honoured to be asked by Team Bullards to ‘meet’ Kelsey (at a safe and virtual distance!) to get the full inside scoop on how & where the magic happens. This meant that I could also ‘fan boi’ about the Coastal Gin at undetectable levels, whilst still maintaining the same level of cool, witty (and ironic) professionalism that you have come to know and love…
And so whilst I’m sure she never imagined that her footsteps in to gin would see her making hand sanitiser, in an effort to battle a global virus, join me as I chat to Kelsey about the career path that has led her to Bullards, her previous experiences in Brewing, and just which of the brands lineup she counts as being her favourite?! We also spend time focussing in on the Bullards Eco Project, and their incredible refill pouches scheme that places planet before profit, which I have been lucky enough to experience first hand.
Oh. And we also talk about the Coastal Gin a bit. Because it’s awesome.
The Gin Shelf (TGS): Hi Kelsey! You recently joined the Bullards Gin family back in 2020, during the height of the pandemic, as a trainee distiller. Was this a career move you’d always wanted to make, and when did you decide that you wanted to get into the ‘gin distilling game’?
Kelsey Beezhold (KB): So I actually joined at the very beginning of the pandemic, but this was part-time as I had just moved back to Norwich to finish my degree remotely in lockdown. I went full-time in August as soon as my last deadline was complete. Distillation is definitely something I’ve been working towards for some time – my interest began back in 2015 in our last year of undergrad when my best friend and I decided we wanted to start a rum distillery. After a lengthy google search, we realised that this was a lot more difficult than we had anticipated, but it was definitely the start of an interesting and convoluted journey for me! It was only over the last few years that I really got into drinking gin, obviously, the gin renaissance has completely exploded and the variety out there makes it exciting for all liquid lovers to try, but also gin and whisky were the primary distilled spirits we studied at Heriot-Watt (University) and this definitely drove home the interest in pursuing gin and distillation as a career move for me.
TGS: What was it specifically about Bullards Gin that excited you?
KB: As well as a cracking collection of gins and commitment to sustainability, I absolutely loved the authenticity and local spirit of the brand. Bullards is a name with a long history in Norfolk and having grown up in Norwich myself this really resonated with me.
There’s definitely something special about being able to create a delicious product that really resembles my home and being able to share that with people.
TGS: Tell us a bit about your role as a distiller with Bullards? What does that involve?
KB: I’m now the Lead Distiller – it’s only me in the distillery team meaning I do everything from distillery management to R&D, distillation, and bottling. Thankfully our ops assistant also helps with packaging but even then it can be a slow process!
TGS: You’ve previously worked in Brewing, with the likes of Camden Brewery – how do the worlds of hops & juniper compare? I also saw that you recently achieved a certificate as a Master of Science in Brewing and Distilling (with a Distinction no less – congratulations!)…what does that all mean then?!
KB: Well, life as a distiller is definitely a slower pace than brewing. Not that I don’t work hard now, but I sometimes look back on those days and just think wow, that was really hard, and that makes me feel like a badass because I got so good at it. Gin is a much simpler process than brewing; because we (and most gin distilleries) buy in neutral spirit to redistil with our botanicals it means we skip a big chunk of the process. We’re technically a rectifier, not a distiller, because we don’t actually create alcohol, we just play around with it. There are similarities too though – the reason you find a lot of hopped gins is because hops contain terpenic botanical oils like you find in other gin botanicals which give their desirable fruity/floral aromas.
Thank you! Getting that distinction was one of my biggest achievements so far, doing a full-time masters while working both days of the weekend and then through a global pandemic certainly wasn’t easy but I made it! The masters basically gives a really good technical foundation for a career in brewing and distilling. It’s a solid mixture of biochem, engineering, drams at Diggers and beers at Hanging Bat (the Edinburgh haunts for all B&D nerds). While the course is by no means the only way into the industry, it’s definitely good for building knowledge, contacts and opportunities.
TGS: Let’s talk about the Bullards Gin line up – with a core range that includes the London Dry, Old Tom (the use of honey & mango has converted me to the Old Tom style!), Strawberry & Black Pepper and the most recently launched ‘Coastal Gin’, would you admit to having a personal favourite to drink & a ‘perfect serve’?
KB: It’s such a tough one, the Coastal gin has a very special place in my heart as I developed this recipe with the old Head Distiller from start to finish, I also think it’s a beautiful sipping gin – no tonic required and has such a gorgeous aroma which really is reminiscent of the North Norfolk coast.
Having said that, as someone with a bit of sweet tooth I do find myself sipping on a G&T of the Strawberry and Black Pepper most often – it goes great with an Elderflower or Light Tonic and a few fresh berries to garnish. My favourite gins to distil are the Old Tom or London Dry, when the Vanilla Pods, Norfolk Honey or Tonka come through the still it just smells heavenly.
TGS: And flipping back to the other side of the Still, which of the gins is the trickiest gin in the range to perfect? Do you have a favourite & least favourite botanical to work with?
KB: Probably the Coastal. With Coastal we’re working with fresh, foraged botanicals so there’s a lot more natural variation. It also makes a huge mess when trying to discharge the still – they’re probably my least favourite for that reason.
My favourite is probably the vanilla pods for their powerful aroma.
TGS: If you’ll allow me to ‘fan boy’ for a moment, the Bullards Coastal Gin was my gin of 2020 – I was blown away by the ability of the gin to transport the palate and the mind to the Norfolk seafront. For me, it is the epitome of what the G&T should be all about! What is it that makes it so special and how many attempts did it take to get it ‘just right’?
KB: Firstly, I’m so happy you liked it! It’s great to hear you had the experience we were aiming to craft. That really is the crux of what makes this gin special; we worked with a local forager to hand-select a range of North Norfolk coastal botanicals that captured the scenic route that spans pine forests, marshland and beaches with that refreshing coastal breeze. The marsh botanicals give the gin a saline essence and almost briny viscosity for a fuller mouthfeel, while the Douglas Fir pines really complement the pine from the Juniper and tie those coastal notes to North Norfolk. The bright zesty aromas give the gin it’s burst of refreshing coastal air.
Surprisingly, we nailed this recipe quite early on – we did a number of trials in total but kept coming back to the same one which was only our 4th round!
Note: You can read my full review of Bullards Coastal Gin here:
TGS: Foraging and locality seems to play a big part in Bullards Gin; can you tell me more about the locality of some of the botanicals and why a sense of provenance is important to you?
KB: Of course, I’ve spoken about Coastal already, but in Old Tom, we use local “Norfolk Honey” and we use Norfolk Strawberries for our Strawberry and Black Pepper Gin. We’ll always try to continue that sense of place in any new products that may be developed. Not only does provenance give our gins their authenticity as the ‘Spirits of Norwich’ but sourcing locally and seasonally where possible is the sustainable approach to conscious consuming.
The environment is such an important topic right now and reducing our carbon footprint by using sustainable and/or recyclable materials is something we keep in mind.
TGS: What would you say is the toughest part of being a distiller? And what’s been you’re biggest challenge to date? (Or are we living in it right now with the impact of Corona Virus?)
KB: Hmmm is it bad that I don’t have an answer for this? Tough feels like the wrong word because I currently have a great life/work balance and I enjoy what I do. Challenges come in perfecting recipes, problem-solving and keeping production running smoothly. My biggest challenge has probably been moving into my current position where I am responsible for managing the distillery and distillery projects as well as doing the labour. It’s a step up for me in my trajectory and I’m keen to make an impact!
TGS: And what has been your proudest moment with the brand to date?
KB: 100% the success of Coastal, ever since it’s launch it’s been a top-selling gin with wonderful feedback! Seeing and hearing about people enjoying your product is what it’s all about.
TGS: Having had the pleasure of trying and reviewing the Bullards refill pouches, as part of the Eco Project, I was really impressed by the brands ethos of ‘planet before profit’. For those who perhaps aren’t as familiar with the scheme, what’s it all about?
KB: Our Eco Project aims to reduce, reuse and recycle. By keeping your Bullards ‘Bottle for Life’ it means that further resources are not required to produce the bottles, and there is a reduced carbon footprint with creating and shipping pouches to customers over heavier bottles.
Our refill pouches are designed to fit through your letterbox delivered by Royal Mail, they can then be free posted back to us by popping them in any Royal Mail post box – no envelope or anything required, you can post them just as they are.
We store them here until we have enough to send to a specialised recycling unit. The beauty of the scheme is that it is actually cost-effective environmentalism because the refill pouch costs less than buying a new bottle, they’ve also been hugely successful in hospitality for this reason.
Note: You can read my full write up on the Bullards Eco Project, and their Old Tom Gin, here:
TGS: The ‘Eco Project’ recently celebrated its first birthday! And with bottles as stunning as the Bullards vessels, it’s hard to argue with the idea of wanting to keep them as ‘bottles for life’. What level of success have you seen for the ‘Eco Project’ since its launch a little over 12 months ago – any ‘vital statistics’ you’re able to share? And where do you see the future of the Eco initiative moving to?
KB: In terms of stats, at present that sales direct to consumer online are at about 57% of our total gin sales. And eco pouch sales are also growing exponentially at the trade level and are becoming increasingly popular.
TGS: What’s next for Team Bullards? Are there any further additions to the range in the pipeline? And are there any other exciting plans you can reveal at this stage?
KB: Nothing at present that we can announce yet, but watch this space!
TGS: And finally, what advice would you give to anyone out there reading this who was thinking of getting into gin distilling?
KB: Taste, experiment and learn as much as you can! There are some really good resources out there – the best ones tend to be paid for but platforms like reddit have some really useful home-distiller threads. It’s also worth reaching out to distilleries to see if they’ll let you shadow for a day or two – I did this while I was still studying up in Edinburgh. It always comes back to tasting and experimentation though, they’re the best way to build your palate and refine your craft.
The Spirit of Norwich…
It was an absolute privilege to spend time chatting to Kelsey, and getting to understand life from the other side of the Still, in an open and honest exchange. Kelsey’s story is as interesting to hear as it is inspiring to discover, showing how a little bit of grit and determination can turn a personal passion in to a fully fledged career. Add to that, that Kelsey is now leading the way in delivering what I would truly consider to be world class gins, and it really is a remarkable feat that has been achieved in a relatively short space of time. She really is living up to the brands ethos of being ‘the Spirit of Norwich’.
Whilst I perhaps couldn’t prize any trade secrets or inside plans from the team on this occasion, something tells me that there is an exciting future for Bullards Gin on the horizon. As Kelsey says, “watch this space”. I’m willing to bet that we won’t be disappointed…
My huge thanks to Hannah Macey and Kelsey Beezhold from Bullards Gin for the opportunity to host them for my ‘Meet the Distiller’ Q&A, and for their time, energy and thorough answers!
Be sure to keep on top of all things Bullards by following them across social media @bullardsgin – and then why not head to their website to order your very own Eco-Pouch at http://www.bullardsspirits.co.uk
And don’t forget to stop by @theginshelf across all social media platforms for more blogs & event updates. Stop by, say ‘Hi’ & chat gin!