Wild Spirits

wildspirits-2Gin is having a bit of a moment. And I, for one, could not be happier. I’ve been drinking – and have been enamoured – by the stuff since the tender age of 15, when I’d steal one too many sips from my Grandpa’s glass on a Sunday over cheese and biscuits.

Ironically, I’ve always considered it to be one of the most uplifting spirits out there; fresh, crisp and bursting with citrusy notes that remind me of long, lazy summer days. So satisfying, in fact, that nearly a decade later I barely touch any other alcoholic beverage once bar bound and am always looking for new ways to enjoy my beloved tipple.

So, you can imagine my delight, then, when I found myself visiting what many consider to be one of the North East’s most exciting and up and coming independent gin distilleries, Poetic License, one wet winter’s afternoon.

The brainchild of craft enthusiast and managing director of Tavistock Hospitality, Mark Hird, and local lad Luke Smith, now head distiller, the Sunderland-based distillery may be only four months old, but it has already enjoyed a whirlwind of success.

It came out as top for both its Old Tom and Northern Dry gins at the Gin of the Year awards less than one month into business and has gained the support of big name retailers and venues, including Fenwick, Seaham Hall and Wynyard Hall, which now stock the distillery’s artisan creations.

Both the distillery and sister bar, which opened in March 2015 and goes by the same name, are housed within the newly-refurbished Best Western Roker Hotel – a venue that, since the brand’s arrival, has enjoyed an influx of new customers and even residents, all eager to sample Poetic License’s delights.

“It’s overwhelming to think about how far we’ve come in such a short space of time,” says Luke, his eyes gleaming. “We had a clear idea of what we wanted to achieve from the very start; unique and great-tasting products that reflected our brand ethos and the spirit of those who enjoy them. And judging by the amazing feedback and accolades that we have received so far, I think we may have got it spot on.”

“Poetic License (as opposed to licence, spelled with a ‘c’) means to deviate from conventional rules and that’s exactly what we try and do here at the distillery and in our bar. Our spirits are infused with a cocktail of botanicals and ingredients from around the globe, from cardamom and eucalyptus to rose petals and Persian limes, and can be served any which way, with any tonic or mixer that our customers desire. We encourage them to be ‘wild spirits’ and create their own experience when they visit the bar.”

Luckily for Luke, who distils, labels and packages every last bottle by hand on-site, breaking the rules and letting the creative juices flow is something that has always come naturally. He’s been distilling his own beer, gin, wine and rum at home since his teenage years, ever since he bought his first still from his local home brew shop.

“I’m an inventor at heart,” he says. “My first job out of school was at a little garden centre in Chester-le-Street, where I live. There, we made and sold our very own non-alcoholic ginger wine – a process in which I was heavily involved. I was hooked almost immediately; I loved experimenting with ingredients and creating new flavours for people to try. My Grandad worked at the Newcastle Brown Ale brewery, so you could say that it’s in my blood.”

Luke began selling the wine at various local markets on behalf of the garden centre, including Durham Farmers’ Market where he happened to meet Alan Brown, sales manager at Durham-based brewery, Sonnet 43, also part of the Tavistock group.

“It was one of those chance meetings that somehow changes your life in an instant,” explains Luke. “He mentioned that they were looking for a new starter and I applied. Fast forward a few years and, after a conversation with Mark about the possibility of opening a gin distillery, and here we are. I’ve been very lucky; Mark basically left me to my own devices and put his trust in me to create something great. It’s been an incredibly fun process and being able to make the gin I’ve always dreamt of making is the best feeling.”

Today, Luke singlehandedly distils 400 bottles of their Northern Dry and Old Tom gins, as well as their Graceful Vodka, per week, in a state-of-the-art and affectionately-named hybrid still, which is on display for all to see.

“It’s tradition to name your still, so ours is called Gracie after Mark’s daughter,” Luke explains. “It’s quite the conversation starter, let’s put it that way. I get a lot of noses pressed up against the glass! It’s big, shiny and looks like some kind of contraption out of Willy Wonka, but I assure you it’s a phenomenal piece of equipment. It was tailor-made for us by a company in China. It’s one of a kind –
you won’t find one like it anywhere else in the world.”

Distilling complete, all spirits are then stored in a warehouse, located just opposite to the hotel, ready to be delivered to stores and homes across the region, or into the bar. Venture outside and you’ll see that the two buildings are connected by nothing more than a single pipe, which allows the gin to travel from the distillery straight into tanks within the warehouse.

It’s a tiny yet mighty and surprisingly uncomplicated place; somewhere where Luke is able to enjoy a little bit of downtime, away from the eyes of the punters, and put some of that good old garden centre experience to use.

“The warehouse is like my little hiding place,” he laughs. “I’ll stick my music on, crack out the cardboard boxes and sticky labels and get to work. There’s nothing fancy to see here – no big machines to do it all for me – but I prefer it that way.”

In the future, Luke and the team plan on extending the distillery’s spirit range to dark and white rum, absinthe and a number of limited edition flavoured gins and vodkas, as well offering special distilling workshops to customers who fancy trying their hand at making their own spirits.

The team is also passionate about developing the bar’s cocktail menu, which was brought to life with the help of award-winning local mixologist, Anthony Pearman, who has created bespoke cocktail menus for some of the North East’s most successful bars.

The vibrant menu showcases Poetic License’s homemade gin in all its glory. Inventions such as The Apple and The Daisy ‘ginfusion’, which marries Northern Dry Gin with Chartreuse liqueur, grenadine, lemon juice and an apple foam garnish. As I prepare to leave Poetic License HQ – which I believe is as close to a gin lover’s paradise as you’re likely to find here in the North East – I ask Luke, who has lived and breathed the stuff since adolescence, is he surprised that the region seems to be falling in love with gin all over again?

“No. Gin is such versatile spirit; you can really add what you want to it. No two gin cocktails will taste the same and more people are enjoying finding new ways to drink it.”

For more information about Poetic License, or to purchase any of its spirits, visit www.poeticlicensedistillery.co.uk or call (0191) 567 1786

Cocktail recipes >>

Old Tom Gin (41.6%) >>oldtomgin

Luke’s notes: This classic, originating from the mid-1800s, delivers a sweeter and more peppery taste in comparison with our Dry Gin. From the botanicals alone we nurture its sweet taste, while our oak casks continue to add flavour and colour. The inclusion of rose petals infuses a distinct character to the sweetness, as well as a slight rose gold tinge.

Mixing tips: The sweet notes of our Old Tom Gin thrive in more subtle cocktail recipes. Ingredients like lavender and rose give it good balance, whereas bolder ingredients such as anise, juniper and clove could mask its delicate flavours and are best used sparingly.

Serving suggestion: Pour two measures of Old Tom Gin over large chunks of ice in a glass, serve with premium Ginger Ale, garnish with two slices of red apple and a snap of cinnamon.

Top notes: Juniper, rose, oak

Northern Dry Gin (43.2%) >>northerndrygin

Luke’s notes: Expect a big punch of juniper that is finely balanced with green cardamom for a warm and spicy flavour. With undertones of lemon and eucalyptus, the inclusion of Persian lime intensifies the citrus feel while adding a note of perfume. As for the other botanicals… well, that’s our secret for now.

Mixing tips: The gin drinker’s choice, specifically crafted to stand-out in many gin-based cocktails. The sweet and bitter flavours of a Negroni and the sharp citrusy flavours of a classic Gin Sour balance well with this powerful, floral gin.

Serving suggestion: Relished over large chunks of ice, with your favourite premium tonic garnished with pink grapefruit.

Top notes: Juniper, cardamom, pepper, citrus.