of Bullards Spirits
For anyone living in Norwich or its vicinity, it isn’t too long before you come across the name Bullards, whether in your local pub behind the bar or in the local news.
Bullards has a long history with the ‘fine city’ from its early brewing days when its founder Richard Bullard established a brewing dynasty in the heart of the city that lasted until 1966, to its recent resurgence as a gin brand to be reckoned with.
Its trademark is ‘The Spirit of Norwich’ and it certainly is. Bullards gin is the only gin to be both distilled and bottled in the city and like other craft gins rooted in their ‘terroir’ is proud of its provenance.
The Ten Bells
In 2015 Craig Allison, the director of Bullards was looking for a distiller to develop a gin to relaunch the Bullards brand. He had the still, a 120L ex-demonstration American model from a craft distilling expo in London and he had the back room of a pub, the Ten Bells in which to distil. All he needed was a distiller. Enter Peter Smith.
Late in 2015 their first gin Bullards London Dry was launched winning a Gold in the 2016 Gin Masters Microdistillery category. A year later it won Best London Dry Gin in the 2017 World Gin Awards making Peter the youngest distiller to have won the category.
Bullards Strawberry and Black Pepper Gin with distilled and infused fresh strawberries followed in the same year.
So successful has the Bullards brand been that they are now crowdfunding to move to a ‘new’ and bigger distillery in Crystal House, a grade II listed Victorian building in the centre of Norwich. The glass-fronted building will not only house a new handmade 600L still made in Germany by Kothe, quadrupling their output, but a ‘ginstronomy’ bar and a restaurant too. The move will also enable Bullards to run tours and tastings, which they currently do, but on a bigger scale.
Exciting times are ahead.
On the wave of this excitement, I caught up with Peter at the Ten Bells in Norwich.
You graduated in 2015 with a BA in History from Bath Spa University before joining Bullards at the end of that year. It’s quite a leap to go from history graduate to Head Distiller. And you’re still only 25. How did this come about?
It’s definitely quite a big leap! I’d never really considered going into distillation as a career when I started university, at least not until I discovered homebrewing.
My parents bought me a small brew kit for my birthday and that got me tinkering with brewing (which I admittedly wasn’t very good at!) which led to winemaking and meadmaking. Playing with flavours in booze really caught my imagination and led me to look at distillation.
After finishing uni I got in contact with my nearest distillery, The Cotswolds Distillery, to see whether they would be able to teach me how to distil, and I managed to get myself into an internship with them. I learned all about whisky making, gin making and the methods and science behind it all, which put me in good stead to join the team here at Bullards after the internship ended.
Coming in as Head Distiller was a stroke of good luck and perfect timing really as I contacted Craig, one of the Directors here, at the exact time he was looking for a distiller to operate the small still he’d installed in an unassuming Norwich pub.
When I first joined the title of Head Distiller was more decorative than anything else – I was the only distiller!
The Tonka Bean
As well as having nine more traditional botanicals: juniper, coriander, angelica root, cassia, liquorice, black pepper, cardamom, orange peel and lemon peel, Bullards London Dry has chosen the tonka bean as its signature botanical. That’s quite unusual. Why the tonka bean?
I’d love to be able to say that using the Tonka Bean was my idea, but I’d actually never heard of it before joining the team.
The idea to use the tonka bean actually came from a fudge Craig had previously tried. They impart a unique marzipan/vanilla sweetness which works very well as a flavour in dessert items and confectionery. In fact, that’s where they are most commonly used.
When I joined the team my first task was to create a gin using these tonka beans that tasted smooth enough to drink neat, which is how our London Dry came to be created.
All the other botanicals were chosen to compliment the flavour profile of the bean, so it is a slightly sweeter and softer style of London Dry than a lot of others on the market.
Your second expression Strawberry and Black Pepper which uses 25 kilos of fresh strawberries per batch is very popular. Is it true that banana is one of the botanicals?
It certainly is! When creating our Strawberry and Black Pepper Gin the biggest issue we came across was the clash between the strong, spicy notes of the black pepper, and the soft, delicate sweetness of the strawberries.
The first batch we trialled had almost no strawberry flavour whatsoever as the black pepper completely overpowered the spirit. Strawberry is such a delicate flavour to distil with so I started looking into ways to balance out the flavours and bridge the gap between the light fruit and the strong spice.
The result was banana. It worked to provide the spirit with a sweet fruitiness that almost gave the strawberry flavour something to cling onto and boosted the fruity notes.
Bullards Old Tom Gin has just launched on 13th November together with a complete rebranding of the bottles, which look great I have to say. The Old Tom style is seeing a resurgence in popularity at the moment. What sets apart your Old Tom gin from the competition?
With our Old Tom we’ve tried to keep as close as possible to the spirit of the traditional style, but without all the turpentine and blindness that usually went hand-in-hand with it in the 1700s!
It’s my Assistant Distiller Rory’s first full-scale gin recipe, and he was very much let loose on our test stills to experiment with different botanicals and find the perfect flavours. After many trials, we finally settled on using locally sourced Norfolk honey, not-so-locally sourced mangoes, and a dash of pink pepper as our core botanicals.
To get the sweetness traditionally associated with Old Tom gins, we added a pinch of demerara sugar to each bottle which also adds a little colour to the spirit – reminiscent of the oak barrels that would have been traditionally used to store the spirit three hundred years ago.
What cocktails would you say would go well with Bullards Old Tom?
Given that it already has honey as a key flavour, the natural fit would be to use it in a Bee’s Knees cocktail! Or something fruity and refreshing like a White Lady or even a Bramble. Because it has such a sweet and soft flavour profile it works well to soften the edges of most cocktails making them even more dangerously easy to drink.
Bullards have launched three gins in three years. It must be quite nervewracking launching a new gin? How do you know you have got it right?
So far I think we’ve actually all been surprisingly calm with the launch of the Old Tom. Since the very first distillation we’ve been doing thorough taste tests and further distillations to make sure the flavour and consistency of the spirit are up to standard, and we’ve actually been testing it on willing ‘guinea pigs’ during our weekly Tour and Tastings at the distillery.
It received very positive feedback from each tasting, so we were confident that we’d hit on the right recipe before launching.
That said, you never quite get used to the excitement and pride that you get from seeing bottles being bought and people enjoying the things you’ve distilled.
Bullards is in the process of rebranding and crowdfunding for a new distillery site, complete with a new 600L still. That must be very exciting?
Upscaling and rebranding is very exciting, if only because it means I have a new 600L toy to play with!
It’s definitely the right time for us to grow, we’ve built a great following since starting up here in the Ten Bells Pub, but as more people have heard about the gin we’ve very quickly outgrown our site. Until now I’ve literally only had two rooms in the back of the pub to distil, bottle and package every single bottle of our gin! With the help of everyone who on our Crowdfunding campaign we’re excited to get our new still set up and start shipping our gin across the whole country.
What is your favourite botanical? If you have one.
I think my favourite in its raw form is cassia bark because it has a wonderfully warming cinnamon-esque smell to it.
To distil with I actually find pink pepper quite fun, even though it is my least favourite botanical in terms of its raw flavour. It adds its own complex elements that are just fun to play around with and try to match with other flavours.
Kaffir lime leaves are great fun too – although they can very easily overpower the spirit with their distinctive aroma.
I guess I can’t easily narrow it down to just one – a big part of what I love about making gin is the fact that you have a whole world of botanicals to tinker with, which means no two gins will ever be the same!
Pirates of the Caribbean
If you weren’t Head Distiller what would you be doing for a career?
Now that’s a tricky question… My original back up plan if I couldn’t become a distiller was actually to join the Merchant Navy and sail around the world. While I’ve always loved the sea and exploring the world, I can’t rule out the fact that that career path may have been influenced by my third-year dissertation on Piracy and the Caribbean! Studying for that unfortunately required me to sample lots of rums for purely research purposes – it was a hard job, but someone had to do it!
A Bullards Rum?
What next in the Bullards catalogue? Any plans for a cask-aged gin? A rum perhaps?
At the moment we haven’t got any firm plans for our next full-scale release, but we are always tinkering and experimenting with things on our mini-stills and laboratory behind the scenes.
We’ve trialled some interesting concepts, from fresh flavoured gins and coastal gins to a couple of really interesting ones like coffee or raisins, but they are still a long way from completion.
It may just be the pirate in me, but I’d love to make a rum since it is still my spirit of choice when I’m not trying new gins. We are called Bullards Spirits after all…
To help Bullards with their crowdfunding click here.
For tours and tastings or to shop for Bullards gin please click here.