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What it's like to make vodka and gin for a living

From grain to glass - Scott Kirkwood has combined a passion for excellent spirits and a love of the British countryside to create a range of tipples reflecting both.

For him it wasn’t enough to just make great tasting gins and vodkas, he wanted to make what he calls “honest” spirits using local ingredients and traditional distilling methods.

Having discovered that many producers buy an industrially-made base alcohol to infuse with flavours rather than brewing and distilling it themselves from scratch, he decided to do things differently.

Taking inspiration from the rolling Shropshire Hills, he sourced barley grown both in the county and neighbouring Herefordshire to create his own unique spirits.

“In Shropshire there are thousands of acres of malting barley, wheat and rye - everything you need to make a good spirit is here,” says Scott, whose distillery is based in Stanton Lacy, near Ludlow.

He then adds more local flavour with botanicals from the Long Mynd and Carding Mill Valley as well Onny Meadows, near Craven Arms, - foraged with permission from the National Trust and The Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre.

“I didn’t want to make a trendy London gin, I wanted to make a Shropshire hills gin which reflects the local area,” says American-born Scott.

Spirit making is a new venture for the former musician who grew up in northern Ohio and studied for a degree in jazz performance before starting a career playing the piano and trumpet.

“I played professionally until I realised it was the worst job in the world because once a month I got to play the music I liked, the rest of the time it was parties, weddings and corporate events - musical wallpaper,” explains Scott.

After that he moved into computing, working as a technology consultant for banks, before emigrating from the US to the UK in 2010.

He describes Shropshire as “the most beautiful and abundant place” that he has ever lived and says he is proud to call Ludlow home.

“I start to itch if I go back to big cities, I need to see sheep and trees,” says Scott. Already a connoisseur of spirits, the soaring popularity and ever increasing range of gins soon attracted his attention.

But he was disappointed to learn that many products were being crafted using a ready-made base spirit. This discovery didn’t sit well with him so he began researching how he could make his own using what was growing in the fields around him.

Local Maris Otter barley is malted and brewed to create an un-hopped distiller’s beer, known as a wash, by Hobson’s Brewery in Cleobury Mortimer and left to ferment for 10 days. It then arrives at Scott’s distillery, based at Church Farm Studios, ready for the first distillation.

The main 500-litre still is called Penelope after his five-year-old niece Penny and was built in Poland.

It is made from double insulated stainless steel and uses about one fifth the energy of a comparable copper still.

The first distillation strips the alcohol from the beer and produces a liquid of about 30% ABV.

“It’s a tank of cloudy, smelly liquid called a low wine. It’s not something you would want to drink yet,” Scott tells Weekend.

It takes four 10-hour days to complete this process for a full batch of of distiller’s beer.

All of the liquid then returns to the still for the second stage which sees the spirit undergo around thirty distillations in one long, slow process. It takes three days to reach a purity of 96% ABV, the maximum possible by distillation.

The spirit then goes through a charcoal filter to remove any trace impurities and then Scott then chill filters it to clarify the spirit.

“This last one is a cosmetic thing and stops it from going cloudy when you put it in the fridge,” he explains.

At this point, Scott has his Honest Shropshire Spirit and some of it bottled as Barley Vodka while the rest is destined to become gin.

For his Hillside Gin, he combines classic botanicals such as juniper, coriander seed and angelica root with his locally foraged ingredients including heather, whinberry and crab apples.

The botanicals are placed in a muslin bag and soaked in the spirit overnight to macerate.

The next morning the bag gets suspended inside the column of the still and the flavours are vapour infused into the spirit.

He says the recipe came from hours of “trial and error”. “I went into the hills and gathered handfuls of everything that wasn't poisonous and soaked them in jars of store-bought vodka. I eliminated any with an unpleasant smell or flavour and tried mixing different flavours,” explains Scott.

His first batch of Hillside Gin was bottled under the label of Batch Zero and served to customers at the Ludlow Food Festival last September, asking everybody for their feedback.

The recipe was then tweaked and perfected based on their comments and Scott also sought the views of local bartenders.

The final recipe for Hillside Gin is now followed meticulously to maintain consistency between batches, he says.

Scott has since produced two new products including his Whinberry Gin which proved a hit with visitors to last month’s Ludlow Spring Festival.

“It’s a unique local fruit and not much is done with it apart from jam. I thought it would work very well in gin,” he explains.

The second is his Islay Cask Aged Gin, which has been aged for many months in an oak cask that previously held rich peaty whisky from the Scottish island.

While Scott also has a cask of whisky which he intends to leave to mature for seven years and has plans for seasonal products making the most of the fruit available at different times of the year as well as those inspired by his American heritage.

He says he is pleased with the positive response to his vodka and gins, which are available from shops around the county as well as selected pubs and restaurants.

“There is an element of blind faith - you can get all the equipment and the licensing but you don’t know what the spirit is going to taste like until the moment is drips out of the still.

“The first time I tasted it and knew I had a great quality spirit, I did a little happy dance around the distillery,” says Scott.

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