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First legal distillery in Oxford opens doors

The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD), the first distillery in Oxford, has announced its opening. TOAD is the culmination of five years of planning and various collaborations. 

The distillery will produce a range of spirits (gin, absinthe, vodka and rye whisky) with total provenance from grain to glass. It is one of only a handful of distilleries in the UK to prepare its own neutral spirit on site and claims to be the only distillery in the world to use populations of sustainably grown ancient heritage grains. Using genetically diverse populations of rye, wheat and barley grown exclusively for the distillery on farms within a 50-mile radius of Oxford. The majority of grains used in TOAD’s spirits are grown from varieties once common in Britain before the hybrid ‘monoculture’ varieties of late. Thriving in fields which don’t need the chemicals used in intensive arable farming, the result is a crop which is not just ‘organic’ but is part of a new sustainable movement and the pinnacle of current eco-agriculture. 

Founder Tom Nicolson says: “Intensive farming has had a catastrophic effect on wildlife. It depletes the soil and contributes to global warming. Scientists are also linking pesticides to illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. There has never been a more urgent need to explore less toxic and more nurturing ways of growing our food.”

Master distiller, Cory Mason, continues: "Our concern with importing stills from Germany was that almost every other craft distiller in the UK is using them". 

TOAD approached Paul Pridham from South Devon Railway; although more used to restoring and repairing boilers for heritage locomotives, they set about producing their first ever still. First came the creation of two very large steel formers, into which they hydraulically pressed the main components from more than three tonnes of six-millimetre thick copper. They then had to heat and cool the metal before hammering, sanding and grinding out any imperfections by hand.

Pridham’s team created two stills: Nautilus (2,200-litre) and Nemo (500-litre) are named after Jules Verne’s fictional submarine and its captain. Together with two five-metre, 40-plate copper distillation columns, TOAD anticipates the stills will produce around 1,000 bottles of gin and 750 bottles of rye whiskey from every tonne of grain.

Nicolson continues: “So many things are mass-produced – we at TOAD are trying to break the mould. We are entirely focused on creating really great spirits while fighting for the heart and soul of true craft distilling and taking our time to get it right every step of the way. We really care about provenance and it’s our devotion to craft distilling which will, I believe, mark the difference between us and other distilleries.”

There are plans for a visitor centre and restaurant at the purpose-built distillery site in South Parks, Oxford. With the support of Oxford City Council and the Oxford Preservation Trust, work to convert and develop the former Parks depot is well underway. The centrepiece of the site is an 18th Century Grade II listed Threshing Barn which will initially house TOAD’s casks and grain. A new barn has been added to the compound to house the artisan distillery. 

TOAD’s signature gin and vodka is initially available to purchase at the distillery from 27 July, bottled in 70cl. It will retail at £39.50 (gin) and £36.50 (vodka) a bottle.

29 July 2017 - Sam Coyne The Drinks Report, news editor