Gin anyone? We try out Bullards' gin distillery tour in Norwich
PUBLISHED: 17:01 27 November 2017 | UPDATED: 14:24 28 November 2017
Bullards run gin distillery tours in The Ten Bells, Norwich. We went along to see what the fuss was about.
The key botanical in Bullards London Dry Gin is a controlled substance – a fact that I’ve been telling everyone that will listen. I learnt so much on the Bullards gin distillery tour that I am now a walking talking gin factoid. Did you know that Londoners used to get their gin - slightly illegally - from the mouth of giant wooden cats on the walls of back alleys? Neither did I – I love this tour.
I was not a gin drinker but after spending two hours in gin school at The Ten Bells on St Benedicts Street – the only pub in the UK to have its own in-house gin distillery - I now am.
The tour is taken by Peter Smith, the head distiller, and brand ambassador Hamish Wright, who put myself and seven fellow pupils at ease and had us all chatting and laughing together.
The tour is in two parts, beginning with an hour-long tour of the still distillation process.
The distillery itself is small but charming, with a floor-to-ceiling glass window looking into the pub itself. What’s quite incredible is that all of Bullards gin - that’s up to 500 bottles a week - from infusion to bottling and hand-labelling - is made in two tiny rooms by Peter and, more recently, his apprentice.
Peter joined the company in 2015. He explains: “Both gins (Bullard’s Norwich Dry Gin and Bullards Strawberry and Black Pepper) are like my babies. I visualised the flavours I wanted and had free reign to create them.”
At the age of 23, he is one of the youngest head distillers in the UK. It’s hard to believe that a man who has created the “Best London Dry Gin in the World” according to the World Drink Awards 2017, only three years ago was studying for his history degree at Bath University, where the closest he had come to any kind of study of alcohol was university itself and Hogarth’s gin craze.
His imagination was captured when, along with some friends, he decided to make some fruit wine: “I enjoyed messing around with the flavours and started researching and learning about the science of alcohol. I then acquired an internship at a distillery in the Cotswolds, making whisky and gin; it was there that I really learnt about commercial distilling.”
After the internship ended, Peter came across the opportunity at Bullards and they snapped him up.
Peter explained how the still - the apparatus used to distill the liquid - he uses is American, made by design and shipped over from Chicago. It only holds 120 litres, and is the first still of its kind to arrive in the UK. Its versatility of craft means it’s capable of distilling anything.
Not wanting to give too much away (I wouldn’t want to ruin the tour) the process has three stages: infusion, distillation and bottling. All of which take time and dedication, and which Peter explains in great detail. The distillation process takes 12 hours of exact timings, purely based on instinct and smells coming from the distiller. The difference between drinkable gin and slightly poisonous gin is detected by Peter’s nose and whether he can smell the last of the orange peel disappearing.
Prior to distillation the gin is infused with botanicals. There are 10 within the London Dry Gin, and after smelling, prodding and tasting them our entire group managed to identity each and win a free drink.
I won’t tell you all of the answers, but one of the key botanicals is the tonka bean, hailing from the depths of South America. Grown in rainforests in Brazil, Peru and Venezuela, the beans are actually the seeds of the tree, found at the heart of the tonka fruit. They are often used in confectionary, such as fudge, as the bean offers a slightly less sweet flavour of vanilla.
Once all botanicals were guessed, and a solid foundation of gin distilling knowledge built, we moved onto the tasting with Hamish. It’s essentially a history lesson but with four gin and tonics - if history lessons had been like this at school it might have been my favourite subject. I was rather exhilarated by the complex and rousing past of gin.
We worked our way through history, learning about the origin of each gin before we tried it. I’ve been walking around relaying facts all week and understanding the stories behind each gin added another aspect to them and really made you think about what you tasted.
There was some disparity within the group about which gins we enjoyed and those we didn’t, but everyone went a little crazy over the final taster of Bullards Strawberry and Black Pepper. I was not a gin fan going into this at all but I can say that, in the last seven days since the tour, I have ordered several Bullards Strawberry and Black Pepper gin and tonics and have found myself craving it at home. Forget any concern about my alcohol intake because the point is, the gin is that good and I hope Father Christmas brings me a bottle.
Throughout the evening I learnt a lot, found a new appreciation of gin and, most importantly, had fun. I absolutely loved it. I’ll leave you with one final thought, which country consumes the most gin per capita? You’ll never guess.
In 1837 Richard Bullard founded Bullard and Sons and established the Anchor Brewery in Norwich, where the company successfully supplied beer to pubs across the city and became one of the “big four” - the largest and most popular breweries in Norwich. Eventually the company stopped operating but in 2015, Russell Evans, an employee of the company in the early 1980s, revived it. Two years on and Bullards has just taken over the Ten Bells on St Benedicts.
Russell says: “We are running the Ten Bells as a free house because we are unashamedly about drink, and that can be seen by our massive selection.
“We have six cask products, 10 keg products, 25 rums, over 60 gins, over 100 whiskys and so much more.”
To book a gin tour (it would be a great Christmas gift) visit bullardsspirits.co.uk or call 01603 920292. The Ten Bells has live music every Sunday, Thursday Quiz Nights and much more.