That’s the spirit - Adnams’ produces award-winning Longshore vodka
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2014
They beat the Baltics, despite being better known for brewing beer and now their vodka has been hailed as the best in the world. STACIA BRIGGS went to Southwold to visit Adnams' award-winning distillery.
At Sole Bay Brew House in Southwold, under the shadow of the town's famous lighthouse, something special is brewing.
To be precise, the world's best vodka: take that, Eastern Europe.
Adnams' Longshore vodka, one of three produced at the Southwold distillery, was judged to be the best in blind taste tests, beating off stiff competition from across the world.
Judges at the International Wine and Spirit Competition said that Longshore was 'rich in texture with barley and sherbet aromas, plenty of roasted cereal flavours lingering on the nose, powerful and full of flavour on the palate with an extremely long finish. An outstanding example.'
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As a relative newcomer to the spirits world, it was a huge triumph for Adnams.
'After winning the prestigious Gin Trophy and a Gold Outstanding medal at the competition the previous year, we didn't dream of taking away another big award,' said Jonathan Adnams, chairman of Adnams.
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'We built the Copper House Distillery in the brewery in 2010 and our aim was to produce the very best products that we could. The main aim was to make gin, but gin is made from vodka and so I was keen we made our own vodka so we controlled the whole product.
'I suppose it stands to reason that if our gin is great, our vodka must be great too, but it was an honour to be judged the best on a global stage.'
The award was a major victory in the battle to convince consumers that vodka is a drink that can be enjoyed on its own rather as the alcoholic element of cocktails.
Some argue that cheap, mass-produced vodka made in huge ethanol plants is the equivalent of the chicken breast or tofu of the spirits word, like white paint or a blank canvas desperately seeking flavour from a mixer.
But Adnams' vodka sets out to be a spirit that can be enjoyed neat.
'Our vodka is anything but bland,' said Jonathan.
'Those huge ethanol factories are churning out neutral grain alcohol whereas our production is craft distilling – we don't want to produce alcohol with no flavour, we want a vodka that people can enjoy on its own.'
John McCarthy is Adnams' head distiller having started at the company in 2001 as an engineer in charge of beer-making equipment. He holds a diploma of distilling and its his original recipes for vodka and gin that have won the international plaudits.
'The process of making vodka is the same as the process for making beer in the early stages so it made sense to branch out into spirits,' he said.
'We didn't want to make something that people would drown with other flavours, we wanted a drink that was delicious in its own right and with East Anglia as the grain basket of the UK, we had the ingredients we needed right here on our doorstep.
'I tried a lot of mass-produced vodka in the early days when we were experimenting with gin and it wasn't nice. Which meant that some of my early recipes weren't nice either! It took trial and error to get to the right ones.'
Adnams Copper House Barley Vodka has been described by Diffords's Guide as smelling of 'toasted bread with faint fudge aromas' and having 'a characterful palate with slight sweetness with creamy fudge notes and a light peppery spirit tingle'.
Longshore, according to Difford's, has an 'almost creamy mouthfeel with toasted bread, delicate fudge flavours and considering its high strength, only the merest spirit pepper tingle.'
'I drink it neat,' admits John, 'cold and neat. It's a sipping vodka and you really don't need to add a mixer, although of course you can. If you think vodka is boring and only exists to add the alcohol to mixers: try ours.'
The malted cereals that Adnams uses are 99% local ('the oats are from Scotland – we'd get them from East Anglia, but there aren't any!' explained John) and the grain is processed by local maltsters.
This distinctive malt blend, along with the company's yeast which it has grown from the same batch since 1940, contributes hugely to the final flavour of the beer or the 'distillery wash' being brewed.
Driven from computers, there are hundreds of recipes that can be accessed at the touch of a button – whether production is for beer or spirits, the initial process is the same.
Boasting the very latest brewing technology, the mash conversion vessel at Adnams controls the temperature to ensure that the enzymes in the malt produce the necessary sugar during the starch conversion process.
The mash then goes into a lauter tun which extracts the sugary wort and the spent grain, sold as cattle feed, and then if the wort is to be made into beer, it will be boiled in a kettle before hops are added, if the wort is to become a spirit it will pass through the kettle without being boiled and on to fermentation.
Following fermentation, the liquid travels to a 'beer stripping' column which removes the alcohols to create a 'low wine' which are subsequently distilled in copper rectification columns to create a clean, pure spirit.
After being infused with botanicals and redistilled, the vodka is ready to be bottled: 32,000 litres of 'distillery wash' (unhopped beer, to you and I) has become 2,100 litres of pure vodka in a process that takes roughly two weeks from start to finish.
If it sounds complicated (and this is an incredibly condensed version of the process, my favourite part of which involved separating the 'head, heart and tails' of the vodka), it's because it is and it explains why artisan vodka is still a relative rarity in the UK.
In the distillery, which brings to mind a scene from a Jules Verne novel with vats and cylinders that look like deep sea diving bells and space rockets from the 1950s and which boasts one of the best views of Southwold, Jonathan explained that the company insisted on a 'grain to glass' policy.
'When we decided to make gin, we could have bought in vodka and made it from that stage, but we wanted to do it properly,' he said.
'We use wheat and oats which make the vodka creamy and smooth and our premium vodka is aged in barrels to become Northcove Oak-aged vodka which then forms the basis of our Limoncello liqueur and our new Triple Sec liqueur.
'We make around 100,000 litres of spirits a year - compared with the beer we produce it's a drop in the ocean, but we expect the amount we produce to rise every year.'