Oxford is synonymous with a certain university, intellectuals and idyllic streets bustling with robed students on two wheels.
It’s a place of many firsts and today it has bagged another: opening the ‘first’ legal distillery and releasing its vodka (40% abv) and gin (46% abv) to the general public.
The Oxford Artisan Distillery, TOAD for short, will produce a range of spirits including gin, absinthe, vodka and rye whiskey with a ‘total provenance from grain to glass’. It will join an elite group – no surprises there – of only a handful of distilleries in the UK to prepare its own neutral spirit on site and is said to be the only distillery in the world to use populations of sustainably grown ancient heritage grains.
Here’s the geeky bit: The team will use 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,’ the team explained.
‘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.’
The reason? ‘Intensive farming has had a catastrophic effect on wildlife,' distillery founder Tom Nicolson said. '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.’
With such a focus on provenance, it was only right that the stills came from nearby. TOAD turned to Paul Pridham from South Devon Railway, more commonly seen restoring boilers for heritage locomotives than stills, to make its stills capable of producing around 1,000 bottles of gin and 750 bottles of rye whiskey from every tonne of grain.
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.
‘So many things are mass-produced – we at TOAD are trying to break the mould,’ Nicolson added. ‘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.’
TOAD’s signature gin and vodka will be 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.
Plans are afoot for a visitor centre and restaurant at the purpose-built distillery site in South Parks, Oxford.