Whether you’re a saint or a ginner, much like us, you might not know a lot about what goes into your tipple of choice. We speak to Leslie Walker of The Oxford Artisan Distillery, ahead of its virtual appearance at IF Oxford, where he and master distiller Cory Mason will explore the wonders of gin.
What’s it like working at The Oxford Artisan Distillery?
It’s not one of those jobs where you’re just able to talk the talk and big up the distillery, we all properly muck in. When I first started, there were only a few of us so if something needed making, you’d make it. If something needed bottling, you’d bottle it. If it needed selling, you’d sell it. I think I’ve done every role I can do within the business since I started, from bottling to basking in the glorious sunshine and drinking it!
Is gin-making a complicated process?
It’s easy to make but it’s also such a varied product. Gin goes as far as your imagination will take you because it starts as a plain vodka, and then you do anything you want with it to make it a gin. It’s a great expression of someone’s creativity. The hardest part is making the alcohol, after that you’re just adding your botanicals. Most of the gin distilleries buy in their alcohols so we’re one of the rarer ones, there’s only about 12 in England who make their alcohols from scratch – we’re doing it a bit differently from everyone else. After you’ve made the alcohol it’s like a canvas or tapestry which you decorate with botanicals to get your product. We work a lot with fragrances and use lots of things which you’d expect to be in perfumes.
Do you have a favourite product of yours and how best would you serve it?
I’m a classic gin person. When you work in the gin industry you taste so many fabulous gins, but you end up going to a very classic gin and tonic. Our dry gin is probably my go-to and then it would be the Oxford Botanic Garden Physic Gin because it’s just so herby and spicy. It’s one of those where 75 percent of people absolutely love it because it’s so different, but others are like ‘wow, that’s a bit too weird for me.’ I’ve gone back to Schweppes for my tonic water choice, their signature 1783 has got loads of caramel in it and it’s fabulous.
Tell us about your relationship with Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum, with whom you produce the Physic Gin.
If you’ve got the oldest, biggest and best botanical garden on your doorstep, why would you not dig into their greenhouse and root through their gardens to find some weird and wonderful bespoke products to use in your gin? We’re very lucky that Simon Hiscock [Oxford Botanic Garden director] is a big fan of gin and wanted to make the Physic Gin. Something like 30 different iterations of this gin have been tasted by Simon and the team at the Botanic Garden so it’s actually their gin – we haven’t just made it and slapped their label on it – it was part of an exploration into the gardens. It was exciting, we spent a lot of time literally digging through mud finding seeds and bits and bobs that we could use. There are 25 botanicals included and each one has an impact. That’s what we’re going to show people at IF Oxford. We want the event to be as inclusive as possible, there are taster kits available online (the proceeds of which go to the Botanic Garden) but if you don’t purchase one of those it doesn’t matter.
Finally, what do you make of the Copa de Balon gin glass?
There’s an argument if you want to start one. If you ask head distillers, they’re not fans. They like a small rimmed top – like that of a highball – to focus the aroma and taste. I’m a fan of them, the reason being they look fabulous. It’s an experience when you have a gin and tonic and so to have it in its own glass is great. A gin and tonic is personal, like a roast dinner. The only person who knows how you like it best is you.
The science of gin tasting, Friday 23 October
Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum and The Oxford Artisan Distillery invite you to an evening all about the wonders of gin. Join a special virtual tour of the gin botanicals at the Garden followed by an exclusive gin tasting session with the gin creators themselves all from the comfort of your own home. Taster packs will be available for purchase beforehand but are not essential, feel free to drink your own drinks instead. Adult only.