Meet the Distiller
John McCarthy, Adnams Gin
Adnams is just ten years young in the spirits industry, but nearly 150 years’ experience as a brewery has given the Suffolk-based business both a head-start and a setback in gin making.
The company started in 1872 and evolved from a brewery supplying local pubs into a wine merchant and hotelier. However, Adnams’ relatively recent ambition as a distiller hung in the balance thanks to an outdated law that prohibited breweries and distilleries being on the same site.
John McCarthy, Head Distiller at Adnams, explained: “This, we believe, stemmed back to the way duty was paid on malted barley in the past.”
The beer from Adnams’ brewery would be an integral ingredient for its planned gins, so setting up a distillery at the existing brewhouse was vital.
John said: “All Adnams beers are made in Southwold. This is where the wash, which is essentially beer without hops, would be made for the distillery. It just made sense to keep it all together.”
Adnams took legal advice and applied for a distilling licence to challenge the archaic law.
John described: “The fact there were laws against it meant we just had to try – and we were lucky enough to get our licence. It wasn’t definite at the time, but it turns out the regulations had been updated.”
British breweries seemingly had little interest in on-site distilleries and vice versa until that point, as Adnams claims to have the first distillery on the same premises as a brewhouse in England.
The company made space for its distillery in a room which once housed coppers that boiled wort, so Adnams aptly named the distillery and its first gin Copper House.
Copper House was developed alongside First Rate Gin and evolved through 30 distillations. John described: “Rather than any specific gap in the market we wanted to be grain to glass distillers, which at the time we were the first – on the same site anyway.”
Adnams found combining brewing and distilling produced significant advantages, including a range of spirits and flavours.
All our spirits start their life in the brewhouse. We take different locally grown grains and brew a ‘wash’.
“The wash, once fully fermented out, is then pumped to the distillery, where it goes through a beer-stripping distillation, removing and concentrating all the alcohols.”
Distilling the resulting Adnams Low Wine creates Adnams Vodka or Adnams Whisky, while further distillation and added botanicals creates Adnams Gin.
John continued: “We currently use three different grain bills, producing multiple gins.”
Copper House Gin won the coveted International Wine & Spirit Competition London Dry Gin Trophy just three years after its release, an achievement John puts down to the unique production process.
He said: “These washes, which we distil into vodka and subsequently our gins, are our USP.
“They are the unspoken botanical, supplying a mouthfeel and in some, a malt sweetness or spiciness that you cannot achieve using neutral grain spirit.”
The award-winning formula has remained relatively unchanged over the past decade. With sustainability being a core tenet of Adnams, it’s the bottle that’s seen the most change.
John explained: “We wanted to move to a lighter weight bottle in line with our sustainability story, so Copper House Gin had a new bottle design a few years ago.”
The sustainability story begins at the brewery. John claims it is “One of the most energy efficient brewhouses in Europe, if not the world.
“The brewing process is extremely efficient, recycling a large proportion of the heat produced.
“In the distillery we collect the spent wash and send it for bio-digestion and all the cooling water is recycled. This ethos extends throughout the business.”
Other gins have been developed and improved by taking inspiration from Adnams’ other successful spirits.
John said: “Our third permanent gin, Rising Sun, was inspired by the spicy rye vodka we had made, using rye grown on our Chairman’s farm just two miles from the distillery.”
Adnams more recently branched into seasonal gins, so far including Quince Gin, Orange and Sea Buckthorn Gin, Lemon and Tamarind Gin and Habanero and Lime Gin.
The business was relieved to see a surge in online demand for its gins during the COVID-19 pandemic. John said: “Our online business has grown by 1000% and over 50% are new customers to the web.
“We have a strong and loyal customer base which we never take for granted, who have found ways to buy our products differently.”
Adnams had prepared for shifts in consumer behaviour as a result of Brexit, so was able to adapt to the effects of the Coronavirus outbreak quickly. John described: “We have looked at every element of what we do and worked through a risk register, playing out scenarios and sharing what we know with others, as we are all in this together.
“We have and will adapt to new ways of working but being independent enables us to make changes quickly.”
Adnams has focused on its website and digital marketing to serve the spike in online traffic. John explained: “We have worked hard with our supermarket partners, developed our online presence and kept our customers updated and informed via social media.”
As Adnams reopens its stores and with demand for its gin remaining strong, the brand is undeterred in developing its market share in Europe and the Southern Hemisphere. John said: “We export to more than 22 countries and our grain to glass, proven sustainable credentials and recognition helps us.
“The ‘soon to be’ 150 years of Adnams is very important to us. It has allowed us to develop a strong base for innovation and adaptability, both of which we believe are immensely important, especially now.”
While new gin products are on the horizon, for now, John settles on Rising Sun Gin as his personal favourite. He concluded: “The recipe has developed over the last few years. It’s a balance of juniper spliced with lemongrass and a background note of Japanese Matcha tea. Very refreshing when made into a G&T.”