Behind the Scenes at the White Peak Distillery
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 November 2020
Discovering the passion and history of Derbyshire’s first whisky distillery
Born and raised in Derbyshire, Max Vaughan and wife Claire relocated back to Derbyshire from London to raise their family and, in 2016, embarked on their dream of establishing a whisky distillery in the Peak District.
During this period there were a handful of small whisky distilleries starting in England, which all had a common theme of being located in areas where there were high footfalls in tourism.
In 2011, Max began to learn the fundamentals of starting a distillery and met a contact through a small urban whisky distillery in Battersea.
Finding the perfect location for his business – his Derbyshire base is set amongst the Shining Cliff Woods besides the River Derwent - was obvious, and after 18 months working alongside a knowledgeable construction team, including local engineers and Shaun Smith head distiller, they converted part of the 120-year-old Johnson and Nephew Wire Works factory into the working distillery that stands today.
‘Nine months were spent clearing the buildings to create a blank canvas,’ says Max. ‘We had to replace the roofs, establish a power and water supply, construct drainage - it was logistically very challenging as a start-up.’
Installing hundreds of metres of stainless steel pipework, local engineering firm Musk fabricated and installed the large vessels which form part of the whisky making process. These were made in Derbyshire, an important feature, as Max explains. ‘We wanted to combine as much of the area into the whisky-making process as possible. It all came together and luckily we had very few teething problems as we had a great team engineers who were based in the locality.’
Originally an iron forge owned by the Hurt family in the early 19th century, the building became the Johnson and Nephew iron works in 1876 and contributed significantly to the iron industry at the time through manufacture of cable for suspension bridges and for the first sub-sea cross channel telegraph service. During the mid 1990s, the wire works factory closed, but the connection to community lives on.
‘The wire works were at the heart of the community, both as a major employer and through sponsoring annual sports events and flower shows, says Max. ‘We would like to see ourselves becoming part of our local community’s DNA through regeneration of the Wire Works, creating employment and through initiatives such as our local litter pick and our whisky members club - Temperance Club.’
The area is protected as part of the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage Site and is inhabited by protected wildlife, therefore construction work had to be carefully and ethically planned alongside The Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. Forming a close connection to the local area, Max explains, has been an integral part of the distillery process.
‘Working with the local officer of the Environmental Agency for our permits, we repurposed some river water extraction pipework which was previously used by the wire works factory. This now provides a natural, sustainable process for water cooling our distillation process. This maintains part of the original factory workings whilst incorporating this industrial heritage into our distillery processes.’
Max ensured he had expertise early on in the field of whisky-making and through contacting Dr. Annie Hill at Heriot-Watt University (Edinburgh) he met head distiller Shaun Smith. ‘I wanted to do things differently, to find someone who was smart, enthusiastic and not stuck in their ways. I didn’t want to make Scotch whisky in England, that would have been a missed opportunity to create a unique Derbyshire whisky, so I needed to find someone who shared my vision.’
Through contacting the alumni students from the Heriot-Watt MSc Degree course in Brewing and Distilling, Max discovered Shaun, who had subsequently spent time working in both brewing and latterly distilling.
Meeting Shaun, I take a guided tour of the still house, which is filled with a pleasant and lingering malted aroma. I learn that White Peak Distillery, as well as whisky, manufactures a range of gin styles, from Bakewell Pudding infused with cherry and almond notes, to its flagship Floral botanical gin inspired by the flora found in the surrounding woodland. Discussing with Shaun, we pause to consider the popularity of gin manufacture in the UK and the differences between the gin and whisky making process.
‘The number of gin distilleries has soared; gin requires far less investment in equipment and is much less time consuming to manufacture than whisky, and doesn’t require any compulsory maturation period, unlike whisky which must be aged in casks for a minimum of three years before the spirit can be officially recognised as whisky.’
Continuing the tour, we focus on the whisky distillation process, which begins with crushing malted, English barley, which they have recently started to source from Derbyshire. Shaun explains the malted barley is crushed into ‘grist’, essentially splitting the barley husks to enable the starch to be extracted. ‘Each batch of whisky requires six hundred kilograms of grist which next moves on to the ‘mashing’ process, where we add water at seventy degrees to strip the starch, or fermentable sugars, from the barley grist.’ The resulting hot, sugary water is referred to as ‘wort’ and each mash produces three thousand litres.
Stepping onto the elevated platform in the still house, I am surrounded by two magnificent gleaming copper pot stills and Derbyshire fabricated mashing and fermentation vessels. Following the mashing, the wort is piped to one of the fermentation vessels and yeast is added which, as a living enzyme, converts the fermentable sugar into alcohol through process of fermentation. Shaun explains the process in detail. ‘We are unique in that we use live yeast that we collect each week from a local brewery, this adds to its Derbyshire provenance and creates some flavours that no other distillery has, adding a fruity, sultana flavour to the whisky.’
We have a four-day fermentation process and this long, slow fermentation helps to create flavour, at the end of which we end up with a ‘wash’ or beer at 8% alcohol.’
An integral part of the process are the two copper pot stills which were handmade by Scottish copper smiths to a design that Max and Shaun decided upon. Shaun explains, ‘The distillation using first ‘wash still’ doesn’t fully separate the alcohol from the wash and produces a liquid known as ‘low wines’ which contains about 20% alcohol. Through a second distillation on the ‘spirit still’, hence the phrase double distillation, we end up producing our final single malt spirit at approximately 72% alcohol. Each distillation takes a whole day, so all in all the process of creating the whisky spirit takes one week, but then we have to wait a minimum of three years!’
We end the tour at the whisky cask storage area, which contains hundreds of casks stretching from floor to ceiling which when empty weigh up to fifty kilograms and when full a quarter of a tonne. Some of the oak casks for whisky maturation have previously been used for ageing American bourbon, and will therefore add some flavour, such as vanilla, to the spirit. White Peak also uses casks that have previously been used for making red wine, port and rum (its own rum).
‘These casks mature the whisky through a rollercoaster process which add flavour changes month by month over the seasons as the casks breathe, whilst storage in this environment at this location will add a unique part of Derbyshire to the whisky which should be ready for first release towards the end of October next year,’ says Max.
Returning to the distillery tasting room, I meet Claire Vaughan who, following 20 years in teaching, retrained as an interior designer and now manages the creative, marketing and branding aspect of the business, which has included the design of the tasting room.
‘There is so much character and history to this building,’ she explains. ‘We wanted to include many of the original parts of the Wire Works to create an authentic and unique visitor experience. We found that Johnson and Nephew used a signature blue paint, so we’ve used that throughout the renovation of the distillery and the visitor areas, and the tasting table itself we found on site when we first arrived. The science lab style work tops add an interactive feel and originate from Trent College and others from a reclaimed furniture shop in Matlock.’
The long tasting table, etched with the workings of a busy factory, forms the centre piece of the tasting room which is filled with natural light streaming through large multiple paned windows, carefully restored as Claire explains. ‘When we got here, we found the original windows had been replaced with a modern design, so we managed to salvage some original steel window frames from elsewhere on site and restore the windows to the way they would have always been; its enhanced the character of the building and was very satisfying’.
Adjacent to the tasting room, an inviting shop welcomes visitors to the distillery and compliments the connected tasting area.
‘Incorporating the glass partition between the tasting room and the shop area gives a connection comparable to a workshop which feels true to the wire works,’ says Claire. ‘Working with Wirksworth interior design company Up-Cycled Creative, we converted some of our ex-bourbon whisky barrels into hanging lights and salvaged an old factory heater to create an outdoor light embossed with the White Peak Distillery logo.’
Studying this logo, I notice the subtle references to the past workings of the factory as the Johnson and Nephew wire works. A circular wire band surrounds two central intertwined letters with an overall design resembling an iron branded stamp. ‘We wanted to include aspects of the wire works site into the design of our logo and its history as an iron forge belonging to the Hurt family. They were prominent entrepreneurs of the area and form an integral part of the history of the distillery.’
Surrounding the building is the ancient medieval woodland of ‘Shining Cliff’, previously belonging to Plantagenet Earl Edmund Crouchback (the second surviving son of King Henry III), and an area which some believe may have inspired the ‘rock-a-bye-baby’ nursery rhyme. This setting has had a considerable influence on the design and branding of White Peak Distillery’s gin, which Claire explains.
‘We commissioned a wood carving of a yew tree to use on our ‘Shining Cliff’ gin label to tell the story of the Shining Cliff Woods; Betty Kenny and her husband Luke, who lived in this woodland allegedly used a large yew tree as a cradle for their eight children, and Betty would sing them to sleep with her rock-a-bye-baby lullaby. This is why the words to the lullaby feature on our gin label and the botanicals that are found in this woodland have inspired the flavour of our floral gin.’
Due to launch next October, Claire is currently developing the branding and packaging for the hugely anticipated single malt whisky and explains that there has already been interest much further afield. ‘We have been providing online whisky tasking sessions recently and have had customers and enquiries from Europe and the US.’
Sitting alongside Claire at the tasting table, I am joined by Liz Griffiths, another expert in the team; a Chartered Mechanical Engineer, Project Manager and head of business administration at the distillery who has spent the majority of her career in the Aerospace industry in the UK and Canada. Liz is involved in process improvements in all areas at the distillery. ‘As a small business we’re always looking to improve how we do things and I love to solve a problem by ensuring our tools and methods are as efficient as they can be. No two weeks are the same, I love the variety that comes from working here.’
Following a fascinating introduction to Derbyshire whisky making and a warm reception from a team of dedicated experts, on leaving I pass again through the still house, the former maintenance and stores sheds at the Wire Works. Liz concludes, ‘people have worked and manufactured on this site for over two hundred years – long may it continue!’