The ultimate experience for gin lovers, this Stratford upon Avon-based masterclass by the award-winning Shakespeare Distillery includes tasting, gin history and the chance to craft your own bespoke spirit.
I write this post with a G&T in hand. Rose Petal and Raspberry since you ask, ahem one I made earlier in true Blue Peter fashion – a traditional London Dry with a dominant juniper profile. Sorry, am I being a gin bore again?
Gin appreciation is one of the defining attributes of Muddy editors, but I’ve recently formalised my gin-swilling education at a super stylish new Shakespeare Distillery Gin School in Stratford-upon Avon opened by the fabulous, most groovy winners of the 2018 Muddy Award for Best Local Food/Drink. It’s also time to get a little (okay a lot) excited as this popular indie artisan distillery launches the Warwickshire’s first 40-minute sightseeing gin cruise from Sat May 18! They’ve teamed up with Avon Boating cruise to offer a tasting of three spirits, a short gin talk and a glass of Stratford Gin and tonic while taking in the sights of Stratford upon Avon.
So – for what was possibly my best working day ever – my husband and I headed to Stratford-upon-Avon to take a Masterclass. Here’s how we got on – hic!
The distillery moved earlier this year from the Alscot Estate, a beautiful 4000-acre country estate two miles south of Stratford upon Avon, into bigger premises on the Drayton Manor Farm estate on the north western edge of the town, opposite the Bannatyne Wildmoor Spa.
About Shakespeare Distillery
An award-winning independent artisan British gin brand established in 2015 by Head Distiller Simon Picken, who has lived in Warwickshire for 10 years, and Warrington-born astrophysicist Peter Monks. A modern gin “with a twist of history” award-winning Stratford Gin is made with authentic Tudor garden botanicals including rose, lemon balm, rosemary and old English lovage fused with the more familiar juniper, coriander and lemon peel inspired by a visit to Mary Arden’s Farm in Stratford upon Avon. Clever, innit? And it tastes divine. A brilliant brainwave, it took Simon two years to perfect his own recipe. He keeps samples of every gin batch he’s ever concocted.
Shakespeare Distillery now has three different spirits:
- Award-winning Stratford Gin – produced using the ‘London Dry’ combining Tudor garden botanicals with modern distillery production.
- Mulberry Gin – made by combining Mulberries with Stratford Gin and leaving them too steep for several months before decanting and bottling. This results in a deep rich blackcurrant and blackberry flavoured Gin ideal for sipping or using in cocktails;
- Rhubarb Gin – a carefully balanced deliciously tangy gin, perfect with Ginger Ale or tonic water.
- Plus, they’ve also produced a limited-run of Bard Strength (57% ABV) Stratford Gin and are experimenting with barrel aging gin too!
As soon as we arrive it feels homely, Peter takes our coats and orders for drinks, starting off with a large Stratford Gin and tonic. There were 15 of us in total for Gin School, including a couple celebrating their wedding anniversary; a mum whose son had bought the Gin School experience as a Mother’s Day gift (aww, take note kids) and two of the guy’s friends from Bristol. During gin school we all chatted away over more G&T’s choosing two of the distillery’s own flavours served up with nibbles. It’s pretty social.
A History of Gin
Peter Monks, gin school director (best job ever) has a handy blackboard with an illustrated hand-drawn potted history of gin through the ages recounted in a lively Horrible Histories-style packed with quirky details. It was interesting to learn why so many gins are labelled as London Gin- this has nothing to do with where it’s made, and everything to do with the style or recipe of the gin. Back in the day, most gin distillers could be found in London and hence the name has stuck. I know now where the phrase ‘Dutch courage’ comes from.
The number of UK distilleries has boomed with HM Revenue & Customs reporting 315 distilleries in 2018, an increase from 152 in 2013. But there was an earlier gin craze – in 1720 around 70 litres were produced in London per head, many in bathtubs at home! This resulted in serious social problems among the ‘lower classes’. Several acts of parliament and a gin act were passed, clamping down on gin distillers and the creation of £50 distillation licenses. The gin revival began back in 1987 with the launch of ‘blue gin’ Bombay Sapphire…
Simon’s Gin Distillery Tour
Head Distiller Simon, who founded the company and created the spirits, showed us his pride and joy – their new 500-litre state-of-the-art robotically controlled still, Ophelia, alongside her sister Portia, the company’s first ever 250-litre still. Moving into the new distillery they have more than trebled their capacity with bigger equipment and more space. If you’ve ever wondered how gin is made, this is where you find out in a terrific fun, friendly and informative session.
Making your own
“Making gin is no different to making perfume or medicine,” Peter explains to us novices” Only we prefer to drink it!”
If you loved chemistry experiments at school, this practical part of this juniper-fuelled adventure will really appeal to scientific minds. The swish new school is beautifully designed around an industrial-style bar with stools – very cool. We each have our own miniature copper still and receive excellent expert tuition from Simon and his brother. The atmosphere is laid-back, and the team are incredibly attentive and patient.
Gin is made with pure grain spirit (about 96% ABV). A quantity is measured and poured into the beautiful copper stills to be infused with your chosen botanicals. Every gin has juniper and most have coriander, angelica root, and orris root. The rest is up to you.
On a blackboard are various flavour profiles and a range of botanicals that feature in different styles of gins – floral, fruity, herbal and spicy. Bombay Gin is a floral gin; Plymouth Gin has more of a citrus flavour, while Opihr is infused with oriental spices.
There’s an array of botanicals to choose from. It’s a bit like an experimental fusion cookery class. It is suggested that you choose between 8-12. I chose floral/fruity flavours – raspberry, blackberry, rose petal, heather, elderflower, lavender, and freshly grated lime peel. You can even bring along your own foraged botanicals for that extra special personal touch.
Though some botanicals are named on commercial gin bottles, the quantities and exact recipes are fiercely guarded. Gin is very quick (albeit expensive) to produce. This is part of the reason gin making has become such big business. You can be selling it so much more quickly than whiskey or wine, for example. So, the secret to a great gin is creating that perfect recipe. We watch the Distillation in action – and the trick is to keep tasting your gin as it drips from the copper still into your glass jug. Initially, it tastes quite citrusy and is fascinating to experience the changing flavours throughout the process.
Our gin is distilled and ready to drink in just under an hour. The first bit of the ‘still’ and the last is discarded and it is then blended down with water bringing it to about 40% ABV. Every gin is different and needs two weeks resting period. We then bottle, seal and label our very own 50cl bottles of gin to take home, plus a 20cl bottle, in very nice presentation boxes.
You also get 10% off in the distillery shop (below).
Mine’s not refined enough to sip neat – but it tastes pretty damn good with tonic.
Stratford Gin Festival, Sun July 7
Gin fans will be pleased to hear that Shakespeare Distillery has once again partnered up with Billesley Manor for this annual event featuring a small selection of local gin distilleries and live music set in the hotel’s 100-year-old Topiary garden. The £20pp ticket price includes a souvenir branded Shakespeare Distillery goblet, a gin menu detailing all the flavours & options available, plus a welcome Shakespeare Distillery G&T. You can buy more G&T’s using an event drinks token system on the day from each distillery. Tickets here
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Gin aficionados looking to deepen their knowledge/a birthday party with your girl gang/anniversary or wedding gift
Not for: Although the gin school is popular as a hen activity or birthday party, you really want everyone to be genuinely interested in the history and process of gin making since the experience is very hands on.
The damage: Gin Making Masterclass, £95 for one and £115 for two people sharing one still (3 hrs). One hour Distillery Tours are £15 per adult and £7.50 per child (8-17 years old). No appointments are needed to visit the shop but you will need to pre-book a space on a Tour or a Gin School.
Closed Mon & Tue; open Wed-Sat 10am-5pm; Sun 10am-4pm.