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© Graham Flack

Oxford’s First Legal Distillery

The Oxford Artisan Distillery is the very first distillery creating spirits in Oxford. Chairman and CEO Tom Nicolson, and master distiller Cory Mason tell us more
© Fisher Studios

"For a small fella then, George’s appeal is paramount."

Jeremy Smith


When is a gin not a gin? When it has attitude – a simple fact that distinguishes George and his spirit from other wannabes. But of course, we only have his word for it, or rather his ‘croak’, since this natty dresser of a web-footed Oxonian is a toad. And a jaunty one at that. Unaccustomed to giving one-on-one interviews, I spoke instead to George’s valet Tom Nicolson, a similarly sartorial fellow about just why TOAD (yes, in capitals, because George is nothing if not proud of his roots: the letters stand for The Oxford Artisan Distillery) is such a big deal for both the spirits connoisseur and the city in general.

“Who doesn’t like a gin these days?” asks Tom, a twinkle in his eye as he tweaks his waxed moustache – which is a fair riposte to a fairly stupid question. After all, gin is hardly the new boy on the block, having first been distilled back in 17th century Holland where, like so many of today’s quintessential beverages, it was produced as a medicine, sold to treat stomach complaints and gallstones.

TOAD chairman and CEO Tom Nicolson© Graham Flack


Every inch the embodiment of the distillery’s true, amphibian inspiration, Tom goes on to explain that while George’s Oxford Dry Gin is the first spirit to be produced by the distillery, it is in fact only one of a wide range of spirits which will subsequently be produced on the site (the ‘site’ in question lies at the top of the city’s South Park).

“We are already producing and selling our Oxford Rye Vodka,” he adds, “and are in the early stages of making absinthe and whiskey.” But still, why gin? Which is when (possible) exasperation turns to celebration, and master distiller Cory Mason picks up the case. Sporting a Mid-Atlantic fusion of a similarly fine moustache and an oh-so-caramel Southern Californian drawl, Cory explains that gin is a “hugely expressive spirit with a vast range of iterations, depending on the ‘palette’ of botanicals used”. Which says it all, really, except of course for the fact the drink’s huge surge in popularity has also been fuelled by people’s interest in the stories behind each recipe.

“In TOAD’s case,” he explains, “the narrative around our gin starts well before the story of its botanical ingredients – it starts with the grain and with the fact that our gin has total provenance. It is a truly artisan, hand-crafted product – and that is very rare.” Indeed it is, as surely as is their decision to base the operation in the city. Perhaps surprisingly, throughout Oxford’s long and illustrious history, it has never had a legal distillery. “Possibly a few backyard bootlegs,” chuckles Tom, “but certainly nothing which, like TOAD, has the full recognition and support of the city.” So, when Oxford-born and bred Tom, who lives on a barge at Port Meadow, started to research his business venture five years ago, this ‘Oxford First’ was clearly too tantalising an opportunity to miss. And of course, the city also offered several other advantages. For instance, it is home to John Letts – an archaeo-botanist responsible for the unique populations of ancient heritage grain which are now exclusive to the spirit. He boasts a rich supply of skilled organic local farmers, like George Bennett of Sandy Lane Farm in Thame, who are now growing TOAD’s grain. Plus on top of all that, it has the University of Oxford with its famous Botanic Garden – now a partner to the distillery and an inspiration behind many of its products.

“It’s why we have coined the phrase ‘spiritual excellence for curious minds’ to describe our work,” says Tom, “because like Oxford, we are unstinting in our pursuit of excellence.” So much so, in fact, that the distillery boasts its own unique copper stills, christened Nautilus and Nemo (soft porn for steampunk aficionados) which were hand-built by the same engineers who recently refurbished the boilers of The Flying Scotsman.

It should, of course, also help create new jobs, especially if the unique temperament of their product ignites a blaze abroad. Tom agrees. “The quintessentially English character of George will, we hope, help make TOAD a big player in that market,” he says.

For a small fella then, George’s appeal is paramount. But since we know what he is, perhaps it might be time to find out who he is? Inspired by Tom’s love of the river and by that other famous character dreamt up along the banks of the Thames, Toad from ‘Wind in the Willows’ (its author Kenneth Grahame actually attended St Edward’s School in Oxford), George, like Grahame’s creation, is depicted as a bit of a rascal, a maverick, a mischievous free spirit, unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom, a trendsetter. Yet despite his cheekiness, he is every inch an artisan – a true craftsman, devoted to the mastery of his noble art of distilling. But above all else, he enjoys the company of others, sharing stories and is a natural entertainer. His personality chimes with our type of customer,” says Tom, “and in many ways reflects them.”

Which is the best gin cocktail in the world?

“One of the great joys of being a mixologist,” offers Cory Mason, “is that you get to play with all of the world’s best cocktails – old and new. So, it would be silly to try and put one at the top – there’s a perfect cocktail for every situation so it’s probably better to talk about favourites. Some of the simplest classic cocktails are often the best, and one of my favourites has always been the Negroni – it’s from the 1900s and made with equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. You can have it up or on the rocks, and I always like mine with a healthy twist of orange. Strong, well balanced, and very tasty. “Having said that, as with all truly good spirits, the goal of a cocktail is not to overbear or mask the flavour of gin, but to complement and accentuate it; and the best expression of a good gin is often in the simple gin martini, another all-time favourite. The addition of the complex flavour of vermouth and the aroma of a twist of citrus peel creates depth and brings out the best parts of a well-made spirit. With a big bold gin like TOAD’s Oxford Dry Gin, I choose a slightly sweet Vermouth Blanco. Mix ¼ measure vermouth to ¾ gin, stir and strain through ice and finish off with a twist of lemon. A classic and delicious gin martini.”


Top Image © Graham Flack

Below © Fisher Studios

Bottom TOAD chairman and CEO Tom Nicolson© Graham Flack


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