The rise of British spirits

As it’s Gin and Tonic Day today, we thought it would be worth exploring the impact that the rise in British spirits is having on tourism.

And no, we don’t just mean we’re a jolly bunch.

In 2016 Brits consumed more gin than beer for the first time ever and micro-distilleries have popped up all over the country; from the Highlands of Scotland to the coastline of Cornwall.

But to fist explore its impact on tourism, we first have to define it. Here at the Rural Travel Guide, we think any product that is promoting the British countryside - from Aberdeen Angus beef to Cheddar cheese - is adding to the tourism offer. But some businesses are taking it a step further and offering visitor experiences as part of what they do day-to-day.

Tourism plays a huge factor in ensuring the stories of each product is told and interest in the industry remains high.

Martin Murray of Dunnet Bay Distillery in the Scottish Highlands said: “We see tourism as another part of our business. It gives us an opportunity to talk about it and they go hand in hand.”

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Martin and Claire Murray

-Dunnet Bay Distillery

Situated on the route of Scotland’s North Coast 500, it’s in a prime location for tourists who want to know more about produce from the Highlands.

“People like to take the small bottles home as souvenirs and we’ve made them the ideal size for travelling,” Martin added. “It’s a lifeline for us.”

Dunnet Bay use their own crop of Holy Grass to flavour a vodka that is inspired by the wild and fruitful landscape of the North Coast. They also produce my favourite gin, Rock Rose which is also made using botanicals from the Highlands.

Opened in 2014 by former engineer Martin and his wife Claire, it is the most northerly distillery in mainland UK and uses British grain alcohol sourced from another distillery as the base for its handcrafted Scottish spirits.

Martin added: “As an industry there is so much potential.

“People are learning to taste and enjoy different gins and there has been an upsurge in creativity alongside it. We were the first to do a grass-based vodka using botanicals on our doorstep, so it shows there’s an opportunity to be novel there too and I hope a vodka renaissance will also happen.”

Already famed for whiskey and gin, British distilleries produce some of the finest liquor in the World but vodka, often associated with chillier climates such as Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, is fast catching up with its juniper enriched cousin.

With greater awareness of British produce and a dash of creativity, the industry is rapidly evolving and the production of vodka is proving vital to the survival and diversification of distilleries, as well as the British agricultural and tourism industries.

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Chase’s range of spirits

- Chase Distillery

Chase Distillery opened in Herefordshire in 2008 on a 550-acre potato farm which had already diversified to produce hand-cooked crisps. But after witnessing the rise of craft distilleries in America first-hand, the Chase family were inspired to create their own sustainable potato-based spirits and became the first distillery to open in Britain in 200-years.

“We had a huge surplus of potatoes that were too small for crisps,” explains brand ambassador James Chase, “so we built a still and trained ourselves to distil a 96 per cent proof alcohol from our own potatoes and apples.”

The base spirit was cut with water sourced from the farm to create Chase Vodka, which went on to win World’s Best Vodka at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

James added: “We have been working to change the way people think about white spirits ever since.

“As a country we produce more vodka than gin and whiskey but people just aren’t aware of it. There’s just something so pure about vodka. People think it’s a bland drink but it’s so full of flavour.”

James puts greater awareness of British produce, sustainability and traceability down to the rise of British spirits and thinks a change in attitude towards quality products has altered drinking habits.

He said: “A lot of distilleries will buy in base alcohol produced in places like South America whereas we can trace everything that goes into our spirits back to our farm.

“People love to support local produce and will pay more and drink less if there is a great story behind the brand.”

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Jason Barber

- Black Cow Vodka

With a similarly inspiring story, Black Cow’s pure milk vodka is made by separating the curds and whey in milk and fermenting the lactose with fruit and yeast to produce alcohol which is then distilled and filtered to produce the world’s only pure milk vodka.

The spirit was created by dairy farmer Jason Barber whose family have been making Cheddar cheese from their farm in Dorset since 1833. Jason wanted to diversify the farm’s produce further and as a vodka drinker himself, found a way to create his own signature brand from his herd of 250 dairy cows.

He said: “I knew that Genghis Khan made alcohol from horse milk but I wasn’t keen to follow suit, so in 2012 we sold our first bottle of pure cows milk vodka. I thought if Genghis can drink vodka and still be productive, so can I.

“It’s smooth, creamy and naturally quite sweet, which is usually the first thing people comment on, so it’s unlike any other vodka out there.”

And the source of flavour is unusual too. “Our cows are grass fed in the Summer and we then use the milk to make our vodka,” Jason added.

“So I like to think it’s higher up the food chain to grain-based spirits.”

Both Chase and Black Cow distilleries run tours which are fully-booked months in advance.

Chase also have a bed and breakfast and restaurant on site serving beef reared on the farm to give a full visitor experience on the craft distillery trail.

James said: “Alcohol is hugely important to the tourism industry and at the moment alcohol tourism is the highest it has ever been. We’re doing a lot of work with Visit Britain to tell our story and ensure people know the background of our product, from field to glass.

“People respect a product when they know where it has come from and it gives us a chance to show off an area of the country that we’re all particularly proud to come from.”

Black Cow’s distillery is surrounded by farm shops and Jason says that increased tourism is not only increasing awareness but boosting the rural economy.

He added: “People will book a tour with us, stay in a bed and breakfast, book a taxi and go for a meal at the local pub.

“We have a number of wonderful food shops on our doorstep selling local Dorset produce, and we are all benefiting from it.”

Megan is the owner of Rural Roots Media, specialising in rural tourism, where her passion for travel, heritage and a great visitor experience inspired her to start 'The Rural Travel Guide'.

Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.