A visit to Nelson’s Gin distillery in Uttoxeter

Nelson's Gin - made in Derbyshire

Nelson's Gin - made in Derbyshire - Credit: Archant

Lissa Cook visits Nelson’s Gin distillery in Uttoxeter, run by Ashbourne chef, Neil Harrison Lissa Cook visits Nelson’s Gin distillery in Uttoxeter, run by Ashbourne chef, Neil Harrison

Neil Harrison (right) with 2016 Mayor of Stafford Borough Cllr Geoffrey Collier and his wife Cathy

Neil Harrison (right) with 2016 Mayor of Stafford Borough Cllr Geoffrey Collier and his wife Cathy - Credit: Archant

When Chef Neil Harrison was looking for a career challenge, moving from food into drink was the obvious choice. But why gin? And why Nelson’s Gin?

‘I used to own Patrick and Brooksbank, the delicatessen in Ashbourne, for eight years. I was looking for something else to do and gin seemed to fit the bill. You have a blank canvas and you get out whatever flavours you put in. So it’s like the next step on from cooking.

‘As for the name, we have a house in Menorca where it’s rumoured Lord Nelson was stationed when he met Lady Hamilton. His sailors set up a distillery on the harbour in Mahon which is still there. Nelson was supposedly a prolific gin drinker. Also my grandfather’s name was Nelson and he was always a big wine maker – it’s a nice British name, too, which is great. Everyone seems to think Nelson’s Gin has been around for years and not just 12 months.’

Neil has certainly got his timing right. Gin is so much back in fashion that this year the Office for National Statistics reintroduced the spirit into the typical basket of goods used to calculate the rate of inflation for the first time in 13 years. Also, according to HM Revenue and Customs, tax revenues from sales of spirits have overtaken those from beer for the first time.

Distill your own gin at Nelson's Gin school

Distill your own gin at Nelson's Gin school - Credit: Archant

The brand was launched last year and Neil says it has not been an overnight process. ‘It took about two and a half years to get the blend right. We ran seven trials with seven batches in each trial to master the blend and the 49th batch was the one we chose. Hence it’s called No. 7.’

The still is housed in an eco-friendly industrial estate near Uttoxeter and is a thing of beauty. It looks like a Victorian designed space shuttle or a musical instrument from the brass section of a giant’s orchestra.

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‘The still was made for us as a one-off in Germany by a company called Hollsteins. It’s completely state-of-the-art. They only build one every couple of years. It’s designed to make the gin as smooth as physically possible so it’s got lots of bells and whistles on it to keep the temperature exact. The slower you make gin the smoother the flavour is. A lot of people use stainless steel because it’s cheaper but the copper reacts with the alcohol to take away the tannins and acids.’

I took my husband, aka Derbyshire Life’s Beer Correspondent, Nik Cook, with me for a taste test. Not a natural gin drinker, Nik quizzed Neil on the distilling process.

‘It’s not like whisky. It’s not flavoured by oak or age. The flavours all come from the herbs and spices that you put in it. It’s also quicker to make. It takes about eight hours from start to finish to make about 200 litres of gin. Then you have to blend it down the day after that and then you can bottle it the day after that.’

Neil won’t give us the secret recipe but tells us that Nelson’s Gin is infused with 27 different botanicals from all over the world including Madagascan vanilla, kaffir lime leaves from Thailand and juniper from Poland. ‘Most gins use only seven or eight botanicals. It’s like when you’re a chef making a curry. Every time you add one thing it changes everything else so it’s quite a difficult process. With a lot of gins you get juniper and then it’s finished. We’ve tried to get a really long finish on our drink. It goes citrussy, then vanilla, then flowery, then at the end you get a slightly peppery note.

‘It comes out of the still at about 84 per cent proof so we blend that down with Peak District water that runs off the Staffordshire Moorlands and is filtered through a reed bed.’

Don’t get too excited, though. You can’t home-brew gin like beer and wine. It is illegal to use a still in the UK and it took Neil two years to get a licence. The process is stringently managed by the government and Neil has to pay tax on every bottle weekly.

The good news is that you can drink Neil’s gin with a clear conscience. ‘The whole Grindley Business Park site is clean energy – we’ve got wind, solar power and biogas so it’s completely self-contained. It’s got its own water, power and waste. It’s good to use green energy, it makes sense and it’s cheaper.’

And although they’re based just over the border in Staffordshire, the team is from Derbyshire. Neil lives in Clifton, as does PR Helen Craven. Head of Sales and Marketing Greg Kimber, who lives in Ashbourne, tells me that the design is also local, ‘Ego in Brailsford did all the branding and labels and Neil’s father hand drew the little Nelson on the label so it’s very much a family story.’

I don’t need convincing of the benefits of drinking gin but Nik’s always steered clear, saying it makes him maudlin. Neil says this is a misconception, ‘It’s the quinine in the tonic which makes you sad – it was put in there for Indian army officers for malaria and to lower their libidos.’

My personal favourite from the range is the new pink-tinted Rhubarb and Custard flavour. Neil says the best way to drink gin is neat. And I confess, after a lifetime of G&T, I’m a convert to gin on the rocks.

If you want something a little stronger, try the new 57 per cent proof Navy Strength, so-called after the sailors’ test of sub-standard gin. (If you poured it on gunpowder and it failed to light, then it had been diluted.) If you prefer a long drink, then Neil recommends mixing it 50-50 with a good tonic like Franklins, who happen to be based in Chesterfield.

So what’s the future for this new gin distillery so steeped in history? I ask Neil if it’s a labour of love or a serious business. ‘It’s definitely a serious business which we’re going to grow. We never want to be huge. It’s something we do because we like doing it. Obviously we need to make a living but I’ve got no desire to be the next Gordons.’

If you’d like to do your own taste-test, Nelson’s is available online and from Majestics nationwide and is served in most of the pubs and restaurants in Ashbourne. Or you could even create your very own gin at Nelson’s Gin School, learning the art of distillery and taking home a bottle made from botanicals of your choice. To buy or book visit www.nelsonsgin.co.uk