As Circumstance Distillery prepare to release their whisky on 5 September – the first whisky to be produced in Bristol for 82 years – we sit down with team to find out more about their creations and why they were dubbed “Britain’s most innovative distillery”…
In the 19th and 20th century, Bristol, London and Liverpool were major producers of English whisky, with the Bristol Whisky Distillery, based in St Philips, being the city’s most famed producer. During the Blitz in December 1940, however, the distillery was totally destroyed, putting an end to all production in Bristol for an entire generation.
Now, from the founders of Bristol-based business Psychopomp Gin, Circumstance Distillery is set to release its inaugural whisky on 5 September – the first to be produced in Bristol in 82 years and an occasion so special that a bottle of the Single Grain Whisky will be held in the Bristol Museum.
The four-year-old distillery, known for its ‘new-world’ style, has been dubbed by renowned whisky retailers, Master of Malt, as Britain’s most innovative distillery. Their approach to making whisky is to respect the traditions without being confined by them. The team specialise in organic grains, non-traditional yeasts and long fermentations and strive to be as experimental as possible while always living up to their green credentials. “If you can’t do something sustainably, it’s questionable whether you should be doing it at all,” states their website.
Ahead of the launch this month, we caught up with co-founder Liam Hirt and Sales and Marketing Manager Sara Sanna, who took us around Circumstance Distillery, located in a former warehouse on Whitehall Trading Estate off Gerrish Avenue, and explained exactly how distillers Andrew Osborne, Matthew Keegan and the team are pushing the boundaries in the world of whisky.
Certified organic There are a number of factors that make Circumstance a stand-out distillery. For starters, it is certified organic by The Soil Association as an organic producer and by Carbon Neutral Britain as a carbon neutral business. What’s more, all of its grains are organically certified from a local maltster, which just so happens to be the oldest in the country.
The Single Grain Whisky being released this month was created from malted barley (85%) and unmalted barley (15%) that was processed by hand, but Circumstance also use a mixture of grains from English fields. “We have three different types of whisky coming out of our process: a traditional barley-style whisky, a wheat whisky and a rye whisky,” Liam explains. “The bit where we differ significantly from other distilleries is the way we do our fermentations,” he continues. “Most distilleries in Scotland use the same strain of yeast, however, newer distilleries have started working with more interesting yeasts. It is fairly well established now that in your bottle of whisky, 60% of the flavour comes from the casks, and around 40% comes from the mash. The mash was traditionally quite neglected as they thought that all the flavour came pretty much from the barrel, although brewers have known for some time that the yeast plays an important part in the flavour of their beers. We are predominately using beer yeasts, which comes with an excellent flavour. We particularly use a French saison yeast and it adds a fruit character that can be noticed even after three or four years.
“The industry standard for fermentation is 36 hours. The newer distilleries are using longer fermentations because it builds flavour. Bimber Distillery in London, for instance, calls its fermentations ‘extra-long’ as they go up to five days – we do 14 days, so I don’t think there is a word for that yet.”
After fermentation, the flavour is selected in Circumstance’s custom-built 1,800-litre still. “The choices we make here are about how the still is set up, the temperatures we allow it to get to, and where we cut the heads and the tails. The first part that comes out we don’t use, it has quite a lot of volatile things in it, and the last parts we don’t use either, that has a lot of earthy notes, so that’s the decision to make: where to leave in some of the volatiles and earthy notes – that’s how we’re selecting flavour.
“The new make comes out of the still and then sits in a cask for a minimum of three years to be called whisky by European standards. Other countries don’t have those laws. America, for example, has whisky after a year.
“We’re very proud of our new make – we spend a long time selecting flavours from the still, we think it’s really important what comes out the other end. The wheat is one of my favourites. It is underrepresented in whisky – it has been very neglected as an idea everywhere else in the world but I think it’s delicious. We use a Bavarian wheat yeast, which can give some banana-ey flavours and the wheat gives it a real biscuity flavour. A single grain rye whisky and a single grain wheat whisky should be ready for release in the near future,” Liam explains.
A world first? One of the most exceptional features of Circumstance’s whisky lies in its casking process. Due to the laws in America, bourbon has to be aged in new oak barrels for at least a year, which means once the barrels have been used once, they can’t be used again.
There’s therefore a huge market for ex-bourbon barrels and distilleries all around the world are snapping them up to use time and time again, making ‘first-fill ex-bourbon casks’ the industry standard. What Circumstance is doing with their whisky, however, is potentially a world first. “We are using Andean oak – a species of oak found only in Colombia and Panama. It’s a species that hasn’t really been used very much in aging spirits,” explains Liam. “There’s only been one release of a spirit that has been aged in Andean oak and that was a Mount Gay rum. Our whisky will be one of the first whiskies from Andean oak to get bottled.”
Experiments with different types of wood doesn’t end there for Circumstance. The distillery earned its reputation for being the most innovative in the country when it began to work with the flavours of English oak, which is almost impossible to use for casking.
“There are some very rare examples of English oak casks that have been made,” Liam tells me. “The English oak is a difficult species – it is very slow growing and when it does grow, it doesn’t grow straight, it twists and it branches low. The only way you can make staves is from the trunk, before it branches, on a straight bit, which you don’t normally get. However, we can get the flavour of English oak into spirits by using spindles, which have been toasted and charred as a barrel would be and then dropped into the spirit. We can’t call it whisky when we do that because it needs to be in a cask, but it’s interesting and its fun and you can experience the different flavours of English oak – it’s much spicier, so we’ve released some of them. We’ve had to call them grain spirits, which are young whiskies or non-traditional whiskies made in different ways. No one in the UK is doing this at the moment.”
Bristol collaborations As Circumstance is Liam Hirt and Danny Walker’s second venture and follows the success of Psychopomp Microdistillery, which is situated on St Michael’s Hill, the team have been able to collaborate with a number of local businesses that they have come to know well. Most recently, they made something new with Clifton Coffee.
“We took an ex-bourbon barrel and invited Clifton Coffee to come and put a load of green coffee beans in it before leaving it for a few months,” Liam says. “The beans essentially seasoned the barrel. They then took the beans out and did a whisky-seasoned coffee and we filled it with rye. Our rye whisky is essentially a green coffee bean-seasoned ex-bourbon cask that has had rye whisky in it. We love working with other Bristol businesses. We’re quite lucky to be able to work with all kinds of people; to have an idea and try it every couple of months and compare it to the last one.”
Cask ownership Without a doubt one of the most impressive projects happening at Circumstance at the moment is its Still in Cask scheme – a brand new global platform that is giving consumers the opportunity to buy shares in a cask of spirit directly from the distillery, from as little as £20 per cask share. The platform helps whisky enthusiasts get involved in cask ownership while supporting their favourite distilleries.
“We have 300 people that have bought shares in one of our casks – we send them updates every year and they get to be involved and understand what’s going on. There are eight or nine distilleries involved in Still in Cask around the world. The latest one to join was Stork Club in Germany – a really lovely European rye.
“If people have £20, they can get involved, if they’ve got £100 to spend, they could have a cask share from us and four other distilleries around the world and build up a portfolio.”
Circumstance is keen for their cask owners and their customers to know everything about the whisky they’re drinking, which is why each bottle has a unique code printed on the label. “All of our bottles have different codes, which is in line with us being transparent with our customers,” Sara explains. “We want to be able to give all the information to people who want the information but if people just want to have a bottle without knowing everything, that’s fine as well, we don’t have to put all the information on the back. If you go on our website, the code will tell you everything about how we make things. It starts with the mash bill, the type of fermentation that we use, the type of yeast and distillation, the type of cask we use, what percentage of what goes in and how long it’s been aged.”
As the tour comes to an end, it becomes increasingly apparent that the team’s creativity knows no bounds, and it’s a joy to witness. When asked about what the future holds for Circumstance, Liam’s answer is clear: “The way we see it, the Scots do a very good job of making scotch and we don’t need to try and compete there. We have an opportunity to do something different here. We’re going very experimental; we want as few rules as possible so that we are free to do our own thing.”
Circumstance Distillery’s Single Grain Whisky will be released on 5 September and will be available to buy from the distillery. To be in with a better chance of picking up one of the 500 bottles, sign up to Circumstance Distillery’s newsletter via their website and find out more about their innovative creations at: circumstancedistillery.com