COVID has changed so many lives, but for some, it has also provided new opportunities. Forest of Dean-based couple Jason Morgan and Jessica Howells launched Woodside Distillery just in time for Christmas last year. With their brand new gin selling quickly, they're optimistic that 2021 will be a year to remember for all the right reasons.
Jason has spent much of his life in the motor trade and also competing in local and national rally events. However, expectations of a top five finish had begun to ebb away at his enjoyment of the sport. With lockdown in effect, Jason devoted more hours in his workshops, building or repairing engines and other car/motorbike parts. This was also a time to reflect on other life plans and so the idea of distilling gin took hold.
"I was sat at home bored", describes Jason, "and wanted something to do. I remember one afternoon, it was boiling hot. I was scrolling through the internet and came across a Chase Distillery advert. I saw a picture of a still and thought 'how does that work?' and one thing led to another. I started looking into all the different sizes and shapes of stills and tried to understand how they worked. Then I looked at the reflux capabilities of stills and what would be needed for distilling spirits."
With his background knowledge of engineering principles, Jason found the basic science of distilling relatively straightforward to understand. Putting this into practice would be a new challenge … but where to start?
Having a tight budget, Jason bought an entry-level 65L copper pot still, made for open-fire heating. He then set about adapting it, first importing parts for a stainless steel column from the US, which he then pieced together. He designed and built an electrical PID controller to convert the still to electrical heating. "I had a lot of help", he remembers. "We had to weld stainless steel to a copper lid, which was no easy task!" He also built a cooling system, using a motorbike radiator and cooling fans.
By the end of July 2020, Jason had constructed his still, but with no previous experience, ran into a few problems. "I wanted a still that we could run off a pressure release to help the botanicals. The still head comes up to a close and the vapours come out of the top of the still. I went from a two-inch to a four-inch column at that point for flash condensation and that's how I was forcing my botanicals to mix. However, I couldn't quite work out how to proceed to get licensing and paperwork and how I'd even begin looking at flavourings. At this point, I had tried to run the still with hot water, putting tap water in at the base. Yet I wasn't getting the temperature readings and the results I was hoping for."
However, talking to industry experts provided him with the advice he needed to tweak his recipes and adjust the machinery too.
Jason is producing a unique gin, inspired by the local area. "The ancient Royal Forest of Dean has a big tourism heritage, but there wasn't a single distillery in our entire district! I wasn't just looking at the product. I was looking at what I could bring to the region from a tourism point of view. We tailored our whole design around the local area."
As a result, the bottle label design incorporates oak leaves, foxgloves and ferns. The cardboard packaging echoes the woodland theme too. The year 2020 is inscribed at the bottom of the bottle, a reminder of the sheer achievement of setting up a business in such an annus horribilis! Also, as a small craft business, they currently measure, fill and label every bottle by hand.
The real USP of the gin is the unique mix of botanicals, which reflect the local area, a principle that lies at the heart of their business approach. "We're using things like mugwort, violet and dandelion root, but our key ingredient is hawthorn berries. This gives the gin a uniquely sweet aftertaste. Gin is predominantly a dry drink, but it can leave a dry, earthy or sour taste on the back of throat which can be unpleasant. I didn't want something that was going to be overly sweet or bitter."
Hawthorn berries ready to be used in the distillation process
Production of this gin is also helping local businesses. Unlike most other gins, Woodside's is supplied in a gift box, with all packaging sourced locally. They sell online through their website and at local delicatessens, including Forest Deli in Coleford. Bottles cost £38 for 70cl and £5 for 5cl.
They currently sell dehydrated lemon and lime slices to add the perfect garnish to your G&T and have other products in the pipeline, including vodka. Subject to social distancing requirements, they also plan to open up the distillery for gin tastings and make-your-own-gin classes.
🍸 Having tried different tonics with Woodside Gin, here are a few of my suggestions for a G&T serve, garnished with a slice of lemon or lime:- 🍸