Distillery Focus

Steampunk Spirit: Behind the scenes at The Oxford Artisanal Distillery

Oxford’s first licensed distillery is inspired by the past and the future in equal measure
By Gavin D. Smith
Oxford’s copper pot and column still, Nautilus, was inspired by vintage aesthetics.
Oxford’s copper pot and column still, Nautilus, was inspired by vintage aesthetics.
For those of us of a certain vintage, mention of the city of Oxford and whisky calls to mind episodes of the classic ITV detective series Inspector Morse (1987–1993). The eponymous detective would arrive home from the office or pub, swap his suit jacket for a cardigan, put some very loud Wagner on the stereo and pour himself a generous glass of The Famous Grouse.

Why, we wondered, did he never close the curtains?Since 2017, Oxford has boasted its very own whisky-making facility, and with the launch of Oxford Rye Whisky in April of last year, citizens of the city of dreaming spires no longer have to rely on Scotch to accompany the local cask ale Morse so relished. The Oxford Artisan Distillery, to give its full name, is located in a former Oxford City Council depot in the Headington area of the city and was established in 2017 by Tom Nicolson and Tagore Ramoutar. One of the buildings on the site is Grade II listed and dates from the early 19th century, having formerly been owned by the Morrell family of Oxford brewers and used as a threshing barn for the processing of barley.

The distillery overlooks Oxford’s South Park, which was planted with cereal for brewing until the 1930s, giving the venture a rich heritage relating to grain. This is entirely appropriate, as grain – of a very individualistic type – is at the core of everything the distillery stands for.

“It’s actually a farm distillery in the city,” declares master distiller Francisco ‘Chico’ Rosa, a graduate of the Heriot-Watt University MSc Brewing and Distilling course who was born into a Portuguese wine-making family. Rosa notes that eight local farms are involved in supplying grain and that sustainable farming is at the heart of the distillery team’s ethos.
Overseeing the cereal aspect of the operation is Canadian-born head of grain and sustainable development John Letts, an organic farmer, archaeobotanist and plant breeder. Letts has spent a large part of his life sourcing and growing ancient grains together, as polycultures, taking 30–100 varieties of grain, mixing them up, and growing them together in the same field, at the same time.

John Letts, head of grain and sustainable development

Whereas most distillers use a single variety of cereal, such as Laureate barley, Chico Rosa explains that the Oxford Artisan Distillery has a different approach. “In effect, we do it as they would in medieval times. Rye and wheat are mixed in the same field sometimes and we grow barley with dredge [a mixture of barley and oats]. If we have a crop of, say rye, with 10 per cent wheat, we get a 30 per cent higher yield. It elps the rye to grow. There’s a synergy. We create the mash bills in the field.”

Given its idiosyncratic approach to grain, it comes as no surprise to find that Oxford’s stills are not run of the mill, either. There was never a chance that the Oxford team would commission a turnkey operation from fabricators like Scotland’s Forsyths or Italy’s Frilli. Instead, they approached South Devon Railway Engineering, headed up by Paul Pridham. The company is best known for its work in refurbishing the Flying Scotsman steam locomotive, but happily accepted the challenge of turning its hand to the fabrication of pot stills.

As well as excellent operational ability, aesthetic concerns were of great importance, and inspiration came from what is described as the best of distilling practice, the romance of steam, Victorian engineering, old diving helmets and imagery from Jules Verne’s 1871 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas. The result was a pair of stills with more than a hint of steampunk about them, christened Nautilus and Nemo, along with two 40-plate copper distilling columns.
“There were so many different skills utilised, from welders, to machinists, fitters and plate workers,” says Paul Pridham of the still fabrication process. “We used traditional casting methods to create connecting rings for the body of the still and 1,000 copper rivets to hold it together.” A porthole from a decommissioned ship in India was installed to allow for cleaning and maintenance, and additional ‘portholes’ were fabricated from brass.

Oxford gin, vodka and absinthe are produced at this certified organic distillery, and when it comes to whisky, rye is the distillery’s favoured style of spirit. “This whisky perfectly showcases our distillery terroir,” says Chico Rosa of the inaugural release of Oxford Rye Whisky. “The huge flavour impact of our grains [is evident]. Herbal notes from the rye, nutty caramel from the wheat and sweet malted barley, combine with oaky vanilla.” Rosa credits long fermentation in the distillery’s Hungarian oak vats, where lactic acid bacteria get to work, for the spirit’s creamy, praline and sour notes.
“The flaked grains, which become baked around Nautilus’s steam coils, gift the whisky with extra toasty, sourdough flavours,” he adds. Rosa says the whisky offers refreshing rye and warming Christmas spices, creamy banana bread, nuttiness, vanilla notes, and layers of cream, bread and herbs.

Checking on the malted grain

The inaugural rye whisky release was followed by five more iterations, with Batch #7 hitting the shelves in May 2022. Each batch to date has differed significantly from the others, with Batch #2 being aged in new American oak and vintage port casks, while Batch #3 was finished in moscatel wine casks and Batch #5 was matured in American oak, a Pedro Ximénez butt and two vintage port barrels. Rosa explains that working with rye has its drawbacks, as its richness in protein means that the grain tends to become a thick porridge during mashing, and it is not unknown for pumps and hoses to explode due to the pressure. “We don’t separate grain from liquid as distillers normally would,” notes Rosa. “That gives more time to develop flavours.”

Different profiles of spirit are created depending on whether the liquid is intended for bottling as a four-year-old or if it will be matured for much longer, to be bottled at 10 to 20 years old. “We have developed a library of flavours through our casks programme,” says Rosa. While the distillery’s principal focus is on American oak, the team has also filled French oak, Portuguese oak, wine and port casks. Even chestnut casks have been added to the portfolio of maturing stock.

“The inventory is still quite small and each batch is different, but what is consistent is our quality,” says Rosa. In time, Oxford will have a ‘signature’ whisky, but there will be small differences from batch to batch. He explains that the use of worm tubs to condense spirit gives a waxy note to the new make and describes Oxford’s ‘house’ character as chewy, with caramel, chocolate, pastry, cream, rye spice, florals and herbal notes.

Going forward, 70 per cent of the distillery’s output will be ‘house style’ whisky and the other 30 per cent will be what Rosa categorises as ‘small batches’, with different grains, single casks, and releases dialling up the differing influence of column and pot-distilled spirit. “It’s a young distillery and we are shaping the future,” he adds.

Rather than a rye whisky, as might have been expected, Oxford’s first release was actually its Heritage Corn Whisky. This spirit was created more by accident than design – John Letts had a field of corn that he didn’t know what to do with, as it had been harvested in wet weather. Chico Rosa recalls that the corn was beginning to ferment when it arrived, already kicking off heat, at the distillery. Nonetheless, from such an apparently unpromising start, an extremely distinctive and drinkable spirit was created, with a mash bill of 51 per cent corn, 35 per cent rye and wheat, and the remainder barley. The spirit style could be compared to that of bourbon, and it became the initial bottling in the distillery’s sub-brand, called Grain Stories.

“The next Grain Stories release will be more barley-forward: a single malt,” Rosa shares, adding that two-to-three years ago Oxford collaborated with local brewers and used chocolate and crystal malts to make an unusual malt whisky. The brewers bottled stout from Oxford rye whisky casks in return. “We hope to have an interesting single malt release in a year or two,” says Rosa. “It’s currently a work in progress.”

With such a healthy obsession with grains, an established range of excellent products and exciting projects in the pipeline, it doesn’t take Inspector Morse to detect that this highly individualistic distillery is well worth keeping under regular surveillance.

Master distiller Francisco ‘Chico’ Rosa