Derbyshire Distillery - the home of Chesterfield Dry Gin
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 January 2020 | UPDATED: 08:30 16 January 2020
Simon Turton looks into the history of gin and Chesterfield Dry Gin’s production centre at Markham Vale.
When you order a gin and tonic do you ever wonder how and when your spirit of choice developed or why it is so popular? For a drink that in 2018 had sales of over £2bn in the UK alone and rates of consumption showing no signs of slowing down, you might assume that gin has a long and distinguished history.
It turns out that gin is a relative newcomer to the array of alcoholic drinks available today. Its roots only date back to the 13th century and wine and beer are the elder statesmen. Around 2,700 BCE the Babylonians were brewing beer that we would recognise today and in 3,000 BCE the Etruscans were producing wine.
Today's gin developed from a drink called genever, originally made in the Netherlands by distilling malt wine to around 50% alcohol by volume, but it wasn't very pleasant due to the elementary distilling methods of the day. The distillers tried to improve its taste by adding herbs and spices, including juniper berries (jeneverbes in Dutch) for their supposed medicinal properties. This early form of gin was discovered by English soldiers whilst fighting in Antwerp - supporting the Dutch against the Spanish in the 80 Years War of the late 1500s/early 1600s. The soldiers drank genever before going into battle - giving rise to the term 'Dutch courage'.
Back in England distillers started making their own version of genever, which was eventually shortened to gin, but it wasn't particularly popular until William of Orange publicly endorsed the drink; demand surged and almost anyone with the space started distilling their own version of gin.
By 1720 a quarter of all houses in London were producing a range of lethal distillates masquerading as gin, which caused widespread problems, particularly amongst the working classes. Laws were passed to help reduce the effect on public health: gin was taxed and could only be sold in public houses and as a result it progressed from being an opiate for the working class to a drink of moderation for the middle class.
With the arrival of the continuous still in the early 1800s, the quality of gin improved significantly and distillers no longer needed to rely on sugar or glycerine to improve its taste. Gin became drier, with delicate, more complex flavours, courtesy of a wide range of exotic botanicals, and it evolved to become more like the drink we enjoy today.
London Dry Gin was so named because most distillers were based in the capital, but there has never been a requirement for its production to be geographically linked with the capital in order to take the London appellation, unlike Champagne and Cognac, which must be produced within officially defined regions.
Chesterfield gin, on the other hand, does relate to a geographic area, which is produced by the town's first commercial distillery. In early 2018 Derbyshire Distillery was established and started distilling in Staveley. The company's first product was named after the town and Chesterfield Dry Gin was launched.
Authenticity and provenance have been important to the shareholders - Tony Altman, John Harper, Diane Harrison and Philip Meakin - from the outset and they did not want to simply bottle pre-blended spirits. They purchased a traditional alembic still to produce their early batches and within a few months it was clear that they were on to something. Head distiller David Hemstock, who is also an experienced brewer, was producing consistently smooth traditional dry gins, which were being very well received. He also started to experiment with flavoured gins and worked hard to develop a range of unique gins that have become firmly established in the company's product line-up.
Although the three who set up the business had complementary and relevant skills, including brewing, distilling, retailing and construction, by their own admission they were running before they could walk and the early months were spent trying to keep up with demand and ensure the cash kept flowing, as Tony Altman explained: 'The plan was always to expand and not to remain as a small batch producer, so the pressure of having to fulfil all the orders that kept coming in, which we had not anticipated, forced us to run a very tight ship.
'We couldn't afford to employ anyone and so we were all involved in the production process, from distilling and bottling to labelling, sales and distribution, but our hard work is now paying off.'
In August 2019 the company ordered a new state-of-the-art still from Kothe in Germany and a month later they moved in to new purpose-designed production facilities at the Markham Vale Industrial Estate. The new still increased their production capabilities by a factor of ten, freeing-up their original still for the development of new flavours and styles of gin.
The company's current line-up of their Chesterfield-branded gins includes The Original Dry Gin (which was runner-up at The Gin Guide Awards 2019), Lemon Sherbet Gin, Pomegranate Dry Gin, Strawberry Candy Floss Gin, Mojito Gin and a gin that has been described as Christmas-in-a-bottle: Distilled Sloe and Spiced Orange Gin. Their premium gin is Derbyshire Dry Gin, The Master Blend, with new gins in the pipeline that will carry the Derbyshire branding.
From the outset the company aspired to the values of quality and innovation, which were recognised in October 2019 at the Chesterfield Food and Drink Awards when Derbyshire Distillery was named as Chesterfield Food Producer of the Year. This delighted the founders, as Philip Meakin explains: 'In a little over 18 months we have gone from producing a few bottles of gin to having our products sold around the region. Getting our gins stocked at the Chatsworth Estate Farm Shop is in itself an endorsement of the quality of our products, but in conferring the award the judges recognised our innovative approach to production and they all praised the quality of our gins.'
It isn't only the judges who like what Derbyshire Distillery is doing. In the last few months they have been approached by various companies, including Darwin Forest (luxury lodge holidays on Darley Moor) and Ringwood Hall (4-star hotel and spa near Chesterfield) to produce own-label gins to be served in their bars and restaurants. They are also producing two new gins for Underdog Bar in Dronfield. For the corporate gift market Chesterfield-based Auto Windscreens ordered 72 bottles of re-branded Chesterfield Dry Gin to be sent out as Christmas gifts and Sheffield-based Stauff UK ordered 300 bottles of Chesterfield Dry Gin and 250 gift packs, which carried their own branding.
In November, David Hemstock put the finishing touches to a unique, new gin he had been working on for The Outdoor Guide - a company co-founded by Gina Bradbury Fox and her sister, Julia Bradbury, in 2014.
The Outdoor Guide, inspired by Julia's love of the outdoors, is a comprehensive website for all things related to Britain's great outdoors, with walks to download, information on places to visit and where to stay, and an extensive online showroom that includes details of outdoor clothing and equipment, gadgets and accessories, bikes and mobility vehicles.
Commenting on their partnership with Derbyshire Distillery, Gina Bradbury Fox said, 'We're delighted to be working with Phil, Tony and David to produce The Outdoor Guide Gin. Our father was from the county and some of Julia's first walks were in the Peak, which has remained one of her favourite parts of the country.'
Derbyshire Distillery's owners are extremely pleased to be working with Gina and Julia, as David explained, 'Having the chance to work with The Outdoor Guide is a fantastic opportunity and we have worked hard to craft this new gin. It is fresh and uplifting, with a unique combination of botanicals - mixing hints of nettles, mint and ripened fruit. The product fits very well with the ethos of both companies and we're all highly optimistic that the gin will be a hit.'
In less than two years the company has had its share of success and demand remains strong for their Chesterfield and Derbyshire branded gins, but the owners are very much aware that they cannot rest on their laurels.
New products are in the pipeline, including Angel Tears Vodka - a premium vodka brand that Derbyshire Distillery has acquired, which retails from £60-£100 per bottle, depending on the blend. The owners have also become shareholders of Evil Eye Aegean Gin, which uses botanicals from Greece, Turkey and around the Aegean region.
A distillery shop was launched in November and in January the company is launching the Derbyshire Distillery Gin Experience, where groups of up to 20 can learn about gin and its history, see how it's made and have a gin tasting, as well as discount vouchers for the shop.
As the company approaches its second anniversary and with a growing order book, the owners can focus on running the company rather than running around. They have taken on new employees and are looking forward to managing the growth of the business and to expanding their range of drinks inspired by Derbyshire and the Peak District.