Late last year we caught up with Will Edge, Greensand Ridge Distillery’s founder and distiller, to talk about being a distiller in a gin-crazed Britain and sustainability in spirits.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what drew you into the spirits world?
I’ve been making alcoholic drinks for about 20 years. First it was those awful lager kits you could buy in Boots and that eventually led to full mash brews including my all time favourite, brett fermented flemish red ales. I served my craft cider at my wedding in 2009 and over the years have had various infusions and macerations secreted about my dwellings. In 2013 I began the Masters in Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt and that accelerated the move from passionate hobbyist to full-time career.
What led you to make gin?
Gin is a natural way to represent the lands around us, in a beautiful spirit. Anything with carbohydrate we can of course ferment and represent in its pure form. But many of the aromas around us are bound in oils or resins, for example. The incredible complexity of some of those aromas lend themselves perfectly to gin. When I tell people my gin is like a walk through the Wealden woods and fields I sometimes get an odd look but then they sample it and the recognition is pretty instant.
How are your philosophy and values reflected in your gin?
My gin wasn’t conceived in a boardroom and isn’t carried by a secret botanical - it’s simply an honest reflection of where we are and the produce around us, reflecting our provenance/terroir directly. As with all our products it’s made with 100% renewable power, no chemicals and produces no waste on site that isn't reused or recycled. Most importantly we don't compromise on quality and it tastes amazing.
Can you tell us about Greensand Ridge Distillery in your own words?
Greensand Ridge aims to make world-class spirits which truly reflect the lands around in a sustainable way. That means both minimising our environmental footprint and having a positive impact by working with farmers to use surplus produce which would otherwise be wasted. I purposefully set up the distillery in the middle of our fruit growing region for this reason, and we are surrounded by amazing flavours - botanicals and fermentables - which will influence our releases. So you won’t see an absinthe come out of my distillery, but you will see an amazing Kentish Cobnut, nocino-style nut liqueur.
How important is sustainability to you? Is it something you’ve taken from your personal life and applied to the business?
Sustainability is absolutely central to how I run the business. It’s not something that you will necessarily see front and centre on our products because primarily I want people to buy our spirits because they taste amazing and look beautiful. But scratch below the surface and you will see that we don’t compromise on that ethic. I think if you are starting a business now then sustainability should be front of mind. So for me it’s not a hook on which to sell, it’s just how we operate. I’m not sure it’s from my personal life; it feels like common sense. If we’re producing non-recyclable waste then that is just being burnt for energy. I wouldn’t want my kids to live next to that, so it follows that I shouldn’t produce any non-recyclable waste. It’s not a crusade, it’s just sensible.
Your support of farmers and local businesses is admirable, what impact do you think of your role in the local community has?
The issue of food waste is such a huge one, I’m never going to make much of a dent in it myself. But what I can do is demonstrate with actions that great surplus produce can have a life beyond landfill, and get people to think about the trickle-down effect of how we shop. At the moment sustainability is not something that people look for in premium products, but I’d like to be part of a shift in consumer perceptions. I have been able to have some impact already - one local farmer had half her apple crop ruined by a mid-season hailstorm. A few dimples does not affect the fruit but supermarkets can’t take it, and the fruit has to be picked or it will ruin the soil pH. I was able to take 8 tons this year which was important revenue for the farmer and will make an incredible aged apple brandy.
What’s your typical day like?
I sometimes joke to people who wax lyrical about the romance of a distillery that most of my time is spent cleaning lines, but I’m only half joking. It’s quite a challenge at the moment promoting a new brand, ensuring orders are fulfilled, making sure fermentations are progressing well, doing new product development, doing HMRC reporting and cleaning lines!
A typical day is either out on the road meeting with new customers, or a complete hodgepodge of work that needs to be done in the distillery. I love every bit of it, even if the days are mostly 15 hours long.
What projects do you have coming up?
I’ve got my gin working with five woods to gauge the best pairing for a barrel-rested gin, and I’m trying to source some ex-armagnac casks for my apple distillate. I’m specifying a new fermenter for my Wealden Honey Rum. It will be available next year as a white rum, and also go into barrels for aging.
Many of the local villages have community cobnut orchards which have wilded over the years. I’d like to begin a project to work with communities to bring them back to productivity to benefit the communities and make a cobnut liqueur.
My Raspberry Ghost has been a surprise hit so I will repeat that with next year's surplus fruit, and who knows what else the next growing season will throw up?
Who or what has been your biggest inspiration?
I’m massively inspired by a ton of people I’ve known who have chucked in the day job to follow their dream. I’m fortunate to have known a few and I feel like I’m hanging on their coattails a bit. In the world of craft distilling, I think many of us need to doff our caps to some of the early-birds; the guys at Sipsmith, William Chase and Jamie Baxter, the list goes on. And some of the titans of the industry are really supportive of the new wave; it shouldn't be expected and deserves our respect.
What’s the best thing about what you do?
There’s two sides to the responsibility you take on launching a business - you ask a lot of the people close to you in terms of their commitment to your project, but you’re also able to repay that by making a success of it with hard work, and giving back over time. The one thing that caught me by surprise was the emotional reaction to shipping out my first few cases; all the years of hard work that went into it, and it wasn’t that first bottle in my hand that made me happy, it was the knowledge that somewhere out there two people will be trading tales of their day with a glass of my spirit in their hand. I genuinely hadn’t thought about that until it happened.
Do you think that the UK drinking culture is changing?
In great ways, it is. It wasn’t that long ago that people were wondering aloud if gin was becoming a bit of ‘a thing’, and now I’m being asked really insightful questions about the provenance of my botanicals, in the same way that people have been asking about beer and wine for years. If the days of gulping unbranded vodka cranberry are behind us in favour of sipping a craft gin Martinez cocktail, long may it last!
Aside from your own, what’s your favourite gin?
My gin reflects the styles I like - it’s smooth and evenly balanced where one botanical isn’t shouting for attention, so The Botanist is similar in that way, and one I keep stocked in the distillery.
G&T, cocktail or on the rocks?
What’s the occasion?! Part of Gin’s allure is its flexibility. Having said that 8 out of 10 times it’s a G&T for me.
And finally, what’s the best approach to a hangover?
Without a doubt, working up a bit of a sweat. There’s always some overdue scrubbing to be done in a distillery!
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