Distillery Focus

Small Stills

Ian Buxton looking at the rising phenomena of distilling spirit from the comfort of your armchair,shed or garage.
By Ian Buxton
Personally, I blame Bonnie Prince Charlie.The least he could have done, if he couldn’t have remained a Continental playboy, was to have won his battle for the British throne. That way, we might never have had the vicious clampdown on private distilling that followed Culloden as part of the general suppression of Highland culture .More and more legislation followed and the man from the ministry got used to the idea that everything that passed through a still had to be measured, monitored, controlled – and taxed to the edge of existence.A few distilleries got burnt down, but within a few generations we all fell into line.Today, of course, living in Brown’s Big Brother Britain the idea that we might produce our own spirits can scarcely be mentioned.In a society driven by the twin diktats of big business and New Labour’s authoritarian control freaks the prospect that the citizens might actually be trusted is too much to contemplate.But as I discovered recently they order things very differently in Austria, southern Germany and Italy. Just across the Channel our European cousins enjoy a flourishing artisanal distilling industry that works quite literally on a domestic scale.Yes, that’s correct – miniaturised distillery operations in people’s basement, kitchen or purpose-built distillery annexe, no bigger than your garage!So I went to a garage in Germany to take a look - Irmgard and Edmund Marder’s garage as it happens, where they keep their Holstein still (it’s a very clean garage, converted for the purpose, but a garage nonetheless). Yes, the Marder’s produce high-strength alcohol from their own home, in Albbruck-Unteralpfen, just across the German/Swiss border.But it’s all perfectly legal; in fact, Herr Marder is a driver for the local court and he sells his fruit spirit to Lufthansa, among others, hardly a fly-bynight operation (well, they do in fact fly by night, but you know what I mean). He’s licensed to operate his own still but, such is the demand for his products that he’s taken over the private stills of his neighbours and goes round to their houses to distil under his own label.It’s a tantalising vision of what might have been here in the United Kingdom. Little Austria, for example, with a population of 7.8 million, has some 120,000 licensed private distillers. Just imagine: 77,000 Scotch whisky distillers – or three quarters of a million Englishmen and women producing their own gin!Little wonder government and the big distillers don’t like the idea.You can even hire a mobile distillery that’s packed on the back of a small trailer. Provided you live within 20 km of Lustenau in Austria, Andreas Krammel will bring his distillery and you can hire it and manufacture right in your back yard. He processes some 200 tons of fruit each year, so there’s clearly a demand. Krammel, who also runs a flourishing shop supplying domestic brewers, wine-makers and distillers, is just one of a number of flying distillers who offer this service. It could definitely catch on here: after all, malted barley is no harder to distil than fruit, and anyway don’t we grow some of our finest raspberries and strawberries in Perthshire?The scale of some of these operations is bemusing to a British visitor. Austrian distilling law, for example, permits private production of as little as 100 litres of pure alcohol a year – that’s the equivalent of around 350 standard bottles at the normal 40% strength. And, quite legally, you can produce this in your own kitchen in a robust, easy to operate still that you can buy from a friendly corner shop (or second-hand, out of the newspaper small ads).And, make no mistake, these aren’t some hole-in-the-wall moonshine operations, that stay just ahead of the law. These weren’t raw spirits that removed the lining of your throat on the way to permanent blindness. No, this is a completely legitimate fruit spirit distilling industry producing and selling top-quality speciality products in a vibrant regional tradition that dates back hundreds of years.The sort of tradition, in fact, that we’ve sadly lost.These Holstein stills, manufactured in Germany, usually comprise a copper pot, generally of no more than 150 litres capacity, linked to a rectifying column. Spirit can be drawn off at up to 80% alc by volume and, generally, one distillation is considered sufficient, though some operators run a larger volume at a lower strength and then redistill this wash.In the United States, too, there’s a revival of craft distilling. Despite four levels of government bureaucracy that can take two years to complete (you have to obtain a licence from City, Council, State and Federal Government) Bill Owen of the American Distilling Institute tells me that new ‘boutique’ distilleries are opening at the rate of 10 or so a year!There is no minimum size of still required, so you can begin with a 30 US gallon pot (less than 120 litres) and grow from there. Most US distillers make vodka and gin, but small scale whiskey distilling is growing fast – in fact, Bill plans a specialist “Craft Whiskey” conference to be held on 7-9th April next year (if you’re interested, details at www.distilling.com).Despite having started as recently as 2005, one significant US success story is Philadelphia Distilling whose Bluecoat Gin has just won the prestigious Best in Class Gold medal at the 2007 IWSC. 27 year old master distiller, Robert Cassell, who trained at Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University tells me that a whiskey is very much in his company’s mind, especially given Philadelphia’s distilling credentials dating back to Revolutionary days.But as well as training this talented American distiller, Scotland is a big part of this American success story, because the awardwinning Bluecoat still was manufactured by Forsyths of Rothes, probably the foremost manufacturer of stills in the world.Though probably best known to readers of Whisky Magazine for the giant copper pots that dominate the still rooms of Scotland’s malt distilleries, Forsyths have in fact sent stills all round the world – including some tiddlers.“We’ve built stills as small as 50 litres capacity,” Richard Forsyth told me “and, recreating the farm house distilling tradition, also supplied the stills to Kilchoman and Daftmill. There’s a lot of world-wide interest in craft distilling.” So the skills are still clearly here. We can build award-winning stills; we grow the finest barley in the world (or so our distillers assure us) – so why can’t we all distil our own whisky, legally and above board?After all, if it’s good enough for our Continental cousins… Richard Forsyth left me with some hope.“Why doesn’t someone try?” he asked. “I feel that with strong enough representation the right person could get Customs dispensation and we could restart our craft industry.” It’s an optimistic vision that would mean more jobs for coppersmiths in Rothes; more markets for the farmers; increased variety in the market and the revival of a folk tradition that until now has been swallowed up by larger and larger international groups.What have we got to worry about? After all, even the mighty Diageo started somewhere and look at their whisky now. Today a 50 litre pot, tomorrow world domination! In fact, who’s my MP? I feel a letter coming on…