A gin-making duo are rivalling the best in the business with their hand-crafted Lichfield dry. Amy Norbury discovers more
A small spare bedroom on a Lichfield housing estate may not be the most obvious place to start a gin empire. But with a view of all five of the spires which pepper Lichfield’s skyline visible from the tiny distillery, it’s a rather poetic place to create a spirit which brands itself proudly as a ‘Lichfield dry’.
And it’s that very view which gives the gin its name; Fifth Spire.
The brainchild of longtime friends Tom Lindsey and Rory McKerrell, Fifth Spire has defied the odds and proven that you don’t need to be an established big brand to be a world beater.
With a mutual passion for quality spirits and a desire to work for themselves doing something they loved, 30-year-old Tom and Rory, who’s 31, turned to gin – quite literally – as a business option. And the more they investigated, the more it seemed like an idea which just might work. And so their micro distillery, Greywood Distillery, was born, based in Tom’s spare bedroom.
“The process for making gin is pretty basic; you get your selection of botanicals, soak it in the spirit and run it through the still, but it was getting the right recipe which took us at least a year,” says Tom.
“The ratios, the different botanicals you use, their origins, the maceration times, the alcohol strengths, the speed you run the still at, the top temperature you push it to all affect the product.
“We use traditional Portuguese copper stills, which a lot of people who are making gin are using. One of our stills runs most of the dry botanicals which creates a London dry, while the second still is run a lot quicker and has all the fresh fruit in it to add a very distinctive citrus character to our dry gin.
“It’s something that not many of the big guys do because it’s so hands-on; we have to buy all the fruit, do all the peeling and then run it through the still very quickly so it doesn’t overcook.
“Then we mix the two together to create out product. That’s our thing – big, fresh citrus flavours, and it makes ours that bit different.”
But it wasn’t always gin. In fact the duo’s first passion was for another spirit entirely.
“Our interest has always been with whisky; we’ve done a lot of camping trips up in Scotland which have usually involved stop-offs at whisky distilleries up there,” says Tom.
It was holidays to Spain which really sparked a passion for this most English of spirits. Over on the continent the craze for the elaborate gin tonic – there’s no ‘and’ in the Spanish version, which sees premium spirits garnished with herbs, spices and flowers to amplify the botanicals in the gin – has seen Spain become one of the top gin-consuming countries in the world.
“There’s such a variety over there, and even things which you probably wouldn’t classify as gin in this country,” says Rory. “It made it such an interesting area to start learning about, and to start tasting and testing.”
“We were trying to work out what we wanted to do differently,” adds Tom. “A a lot of companies tend to pick on a bizarre, very exotic botanical, like a random flower only grown on top of a mountain in Japan, which is great but it can be seen as a bit gimmicky and pretentious. We just wanted to do something really simple and good.
“We needed to nail the basics so we made a typical London dry, and somewhere along the way we got fascinated with the idea of creating a citrusy flavour because we just like the nice, simple, strong citrusy gins and we wanted to get that flavour as fresh as possible.
“We realised that by splitting the recipe and running the fruit and the dry botanicals separately it made it much easier to work with because the two need to be distilled differently; it became evident quite quickly that this was the case.”
The main botanical bill includes juniper berries, coriander seed, cassia bark, angelica root, orris root, liquorice root, pink peppercorns, sweet almonds and Seville orange peel, while the fresh citrus fruits are lemons, limes and grapefruit – all peeled and prepared on site by Tom and Rory. The result is a luxuriously smooth spirit with a classic gin taste riding on a big wave of fresh citrus.
“We wanted it to be clean and crisp, no-nonsense and avoiding any unnecessary frills,” says Rory.
While the botanicals are sourced from all over the world, the two other main components of the gin – the water and the alcohol – are as local as can be.
“We source high quality alcohol from Langley Distillery near Birmingham, which is the nearest place you can get your base spirit, and the water we use is from Elmhurst spring, which is pretty much in the same postcode as us,” says Tom.
Without any experience in distilling – Tom’s an engineer by trade while Rory worked for a wind farm – the process of creating their recipe involved much trial and error.
“Getting the right mix of botanicals involved a lot of playing around; we started out looking at what other people were doing and what they were mentioning, doing a lot of digging around on the internet to see what’s available and what’s typically used in the industry,” says Tom.
“We just bought lots of different things and tried them out; at one point we were soaking the botanicals in the spirit and and putting them into sealed boxes, seeing what they tasted like and smelled like, then changing them around, changing the ratios fairly systematically over a long period of time.
“If you made more than one change at a time it was so difficult to see what was actually making the difference, so we had to do everything individually. And the different botanicals interact differently in the still; when you change the ratios it affected what came out at the end, so we had to be meticulous in our approach and record everything.”
Hitting on the right alcohol percentage was another challenge, made more difficult by the duo’s use of fresh fruit.
“Because there are so many oils in the citrus fruit we use it has to be above 46 per cent to stay stable so that it doesn’t go cloudy when it gets cold,” Rory explains. “We don’t want to filter that out, we want all of that flavour to stay in there.”
Tom adds: “In the whisky industry it’s a common problem because of all the oils from the wood, so you often see non chill filtered on whisky bottled which means it’s over 46 per cent. A lot of the cheaper whiskies will be chill filtered which people argue takes out flavour, and there’s not many people doing it with gin because it will take out the flavour so you have to up the strength to compensate.
“It’s got to stay crystal clear in the bottle, which is why our gin is 47 per cent.”
When you see the very contemporary, minimal design of the bottle – which was created by Tom’s graphic designer brother James Sutton – you can understand why the duo were so concerned with keeping their gin completely clear; there’s no big label or coloured glass to hide any imperfections in the spirit.
Fifth Spire officially launched at a Lichfield gin festival at The George Hotel back in November last year, and the duo haven’t looked back.
“We had the home advantage because we were the new local gin, but we outsold and out-served everyone on the day,” says Tom. “The feedback was great, and it’s been hugely supportive ever since.”
Tom and Rory’s gin has, indeed, hit the spot with everyone from casual gin drinkers trying it for the first time right up to world-renowned experts. In April, just five months after launching, Fifth Spire was awarded a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the most prestigious competition of its kind across the globe; an incredible feat for a spirit crafted in tiny batches in a Lichfield bedroom.
“The competition is judged by a whole panel of experts so we figured we must be doing something right,” says Tom.
“I’d heard about the awards and seen the label on various bottles of whisky, and gins we were sampling during the research phase, so we decided to give it a go. We didn’t expect anything from it.
“The amount of paperwork involved to get alcohol in a glass bottle over to the States is crazy – it took so much time that we actually missed the initial day of judging so we thought that was it.
“But apparently a lot of people from different countries had problems getting their products over there so they set up a second day of judging a couple of weeks later, and we were deemed worthy of a gold medal.”
At the moment, Fifth Spire is available to buy online and in “a handful” of shops, as well as by the measure in discerning pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels across the area. However, it seems like they are on the verge of a distribution breakthrough – retail giant Selfridges will soon be stocking the gin in their Birmingham store, which will play a sizeable role in bringing Lichfield’s finest to the masses.
“That’s where we are at the minute, just trying to make that leap to get us further afield,” says Tom.
“Hopefully off the back of Selfridges we’ll be able to generate more sales and get more distribution involved. Getting the bigger distribution companies to take us on is the aim, and the gold medal will certainly help in that respect as people know what that means.
“It’s nice that companies like Selfridges are taking us seriously, knowing exactly the scale we’re operating on – it’s great.”
And that scale is definitely on the small side, with each batch hand-crafted by the duo.
“We can do a single batch from start to finish in a week, which is about 160 bottles,” says Tom.
“We’re in talks with a bottling plant at the moment so they can take sterilising and filling off our hands, which would leave us with more time to distill and enable us to do a couple of batches a week easily.”
“We’ll always maintain the distilling and the drinks designing in-house,” adds Rory. “But at the moment we look after the entire process which can get quite tricky to juggle. When we’ve got an extra table set up in the distillery room and we’re busy washing and sterilising as well as distilling things can get a bit hectic.”
With their core product perfected, the duo are not content to rest on their laurels, and are always experimenting with ideas which just might be the next big thing in the world of premium spirits.
“We’re trialling other things and have got recipes and tests on the go,” says Rory. “There’s one that Selfridges particularly like the sound of and which we may do as an initial exclusive release with them in the run-up to Christmas – so watch this space.”
One of the new products which has already made it to the production stage is a bold coffee liqueur created in collaboration with Shenstone artisan coffee roasters Shining Stone, which launched at Lichfield Food Festival over the August bank holiday weekend.
With gin and tonic being enduringly popular the world over, there’s much debate around what goes to make the very best beverage. After all, the gin itself is only the beginning.
“Tonic is the majority of the drink so you need to make sure you use a good one,” says Rory.
“The main thing to look out for with tonic is that it has all natural ingredients; it’s sweetened naturally and it has natural quinine. You don’t want to spend a fairly large amount of money on a bottle of gin which someone’s spent a lot of time making, then ruin it with something fake.”
So which tonic would the duo recommend to partner with their gin to create the perfect serve?
“There are loads of great tonics out there, but very few that you can just go to the shop and get easily,” says Tom. “We’re huge fans of Franklin and Sons, which used to be quite hard to get hold of but now it’s stocked in Sainsburys; it has more fizz than some of the competitors which really lifts the gin and it doesn’t taste quite as sweet which is definitely a good thing.
“We’ve also drank plenty of our gin with Fever Tree, which is available in pretty much every supermarket and works really well too.”
Incidentally, Franklin and Sons is made with Staffordshire spring water meaning that, when paired with Fifth Spire, you have a truly local G and T
As what about the all-important garnish?
“We used dried Seville orange peel where we can, but we know it’s not that easy to get and it’s very seasonal, so otherwise a piece of pink grapefruit works very nicely,” says Rory.
“The fresh citrus in the gin itself is actually grapefruit, lemon and lime in that order. It definitely doesn’t need any extra lemon or lime; both of those can be very overpowering in a gin and tonic if you leave them in too long, whereas grapefruit is a lot more subtle in that respect.
“And as much ice as you can fit in the glass, for sure; the more ice you get in there, the slower it melts.”
With a premium look and feel, and a taste which is steadily winning over gin aficionados in their droves, Fifth Spire is flying the flag for Lichfield, and for local producers in general.
“We spent a long time deliberating over names. We wanted a name which harks back to Lichfield and has a connection, but which isn’t too specific and you don’t need to know about Lichfield to understand it,” says Rory.
“Fifth Spire gives it a really local feel, and locals know what it means, while further afield it just sounds nice! From the top of the house you can see all of the five spires across town.
“And we always wanted to have Lichfield written on the bottle, so we call ourselves a Lichfield dry gin rather than a London dry.”
For more information visit www.fifthspire.com or find Fifth Spire on Facebook and Instagram.