2022 promises to be the year in which I learn much more about whisky. So where better to resume my whisky education than on my doorstep in Bristol.
Psychopomp distillery needs no introduction. Their Woden gin and seasonal variations are well established in the gin trade locally, and beyond. But their sister distillery, Circumstance, came into being more recently. So it’s high time to find out what they are up to, and why 2022 promises to be a watershed year for them.
The story began about a decade ago. Friends Liam and Danny began hobby distilling gin in a basement somewhere in Bristol. Woden came about during this experimental phase. Then came the ultimatum issued by their long suffering spouses: either pursue distilling commercially and do it properly or it’s game over. Wisely, they did as they were told. Aided by Sipsmiths’ campaign to amend outdated legislation to permit smaller stills, they founded Psychopomp distillery in St Michael’s Hill in 2015. Circumstance, its sister distillery which I visited on 11th February 2022, was founded in 2018.
These sisters are not lookalikes. The St Michael’s Hill microdistillery is a shop/gin classroom/tasting room with a still at the back. It’s quaint and quirky, cosy and inviting, and has an air of apothecary meets science lab. Circumstance, on the other hand, sits amidst an industrial estate on the other side of town, externally exhibiting a more functional feel.
But inside the distillery, it’s evident that this is a place at least as quirky and experimentally adventurous as its sister, if not more so. In fact Master of Malt describes it as “Britain’s most innovative distillery”. So forget the usual business model of gin still cash cows funding longer term whisky profits. There is much more to Circumstance than that.
Probably the single most impressive decision they have taken is to use only organically grown crops for their grain spirits from inception. Even though the first spirits made do not bear Soil Association certification (this came through 18 months ago), they were nevertheless made using organic practices. Organic isn’t easy and it’s certainly not cheap, so this is a clear commitment to sustainable production – and goes beyond cost cutting masquerading as sustainability seen elsewhere in the whisky industry. They are engaging in as many other sustainable practices as their premises currently permit, and the 5 year plan is to move from rented to owned premises so they can set up and control their own sustainability strategy, which is also key to long term profitability given the large amount of energy and water distilling requires.
Their willingness to embrace the relative absence of rules in English whisky making is also inspiring. If we are to see the nascent English whisky industry create something which reflects our own climate, terroir and character, English whisky pioneers need to explore new methods and ageing options to find out what works best.
So Circumstance is experimenting with both malted and unmalted barley, barley variants, and they may even create a heritage grain spirit using ancient Emma grain used so deliciously by Bristol’s Farro bakery – if Warminster Maltings are satisfied that it malts, that is. They also experiment with the mash bill, playing around with wheat, barley and rye ratios to get the best results. They are now pretty much settled on 85% malted 15% unmalted for their Barley, the Wheat is usually 70% wheat 30% Barley (Barley has to be included to help the mash process and the enzymes promote fermentation) and the Rye is 51% Rye 49% Barley. They used to import mash from Dawkins Brewery nearby but now make their own in their shiny new mash tun, which Dizzy the distillery dog is showing off here.
The experiments continue in the still, a gleaming goddess with both pot still capability, and 4 and 12 plate columns. She also possesses the magical ability to make my very short legs look almost super model length which greatly endeared her to me.
The flexibility this still provides enables them to batch distill pretty much anything, except for highly rectified vodka from scratch. Raw materials used range from apples (Wildings apple cider) for cider brandy and pomona, to oats, rice, and molasses.
The ageing process is also a melting pot of ideas and options. Unlike Scotch which takes alot of its character from the cask, the Circumstance approach is to go big on flavour before the liquid hits the sides of a barrel. Fermentation takes 10-14 days rather than 48 hours, giving the wort time to develop maximum flavour before distillation and ageing.
Maturation options abound, and in case they lose track of which liquid is in which cask, they chalk paint red for rye, blue for barley and yellow for wheat on the cask ends to make things simple – and pie charts show proportions for blends.
The cask library now contains not only whisky staples ex bourbon and ex oloroso sherry wood, but also former port and muscat barrels, virgin European oak 128L heavy toast, 60 & 100L Andean oak medium char and much more dainty 30L English chestnut casks. Virgin casks are not for the faint hearted, as they absorb so much more liquid than their pre loved counterparts. They have used bourbon casks which were reused for green coffee beans, and casks which stored Canton Red Rogue tea! They even experiment with flavours of casks they can’t yet get hold of, using charred wood spindles such as English oak, maple etc. But this won’t be used for whisky as only a cask will confer optimal interaction with oxygen. Ageing shortcuts are inadvisable for any new whisky to be taken seriously. Peer reviews can be savage, and if the ageing provenance isn’t transparent, reviewers will call this out.
So will the new whisky reflect this spirit of adventure? To a certain extent it will, for their approach is to pack in the flavour early on, as above. But at the same time, customers will expect something labelled “whisky” to taste like whisky – so it cannot be millions of miles from Scotch in its flavour profile, and it will need to have been cask aged for 3 years minimum – even though it will have aged more quickly in the Westcountry than it would have in the Highlands. The key to success in whisky, or wine for that matter, is balance. So long as they understand the raw material flavours, the ageing process, the wood, and how they work together, there is no reason why whisky from Bristol will be any less good than Scotch.
It must be tempting to sell all their grain spirit as whisky at the 3 year mark. The grain spirits they make now are something of a curiosity for consumers, so positioning them alongside their whisky ought to result in the Circumstance brand becoming much more established, and the creation of consumer thirst to know more about what else they do. At present, their Rye is the most relatable Circumstance offering released to date. The term Rye appears on US whiskey labels and has a recognisable flavour profile. “Mixed grain spirit”, although an accurate descriptor, is rather less beguiling! Its meaning can be deciphered by looking up the bottle’s batch code on their website. But this is a bridge too far for most consumers. Even if this could be made more obvious and accessible with a QR code, it will almost certainly take the release of a whisky to convert Circumstance into a brand consumers will relate to.
But Circumstance hasn’t come this far to be known as a 3 year old whisky company. So they will limit what they sell for now, while ageing casks for the future. Only distillers wanting to perfect their craft would take this approach, especially south of the border, where whisky is in its infancy and a route map to profit is so much less certain.
My “tour guide” was Andrew Osborne, who became an apprentice distiller at Circumstance in 2020 after a long bar tending career. Circumstance put him through his IBD exams, and he plans to develop his knowledge further with work placement exchanges if he can. There was nothing I asked he couldn’t answer. I asked what he is most proud of in his new role. His response was that with no set way of doing things, Circumstance is all about doing things better, rather than slavish adherence to meeting financial targets. The team are therefore proud of what they make, and are constantly striving to improve and perfect each bottling with every distillation.
New rules for English whisky are on the horizon, and are needed to protect the interests of producers as well as consumers. But the great wine appellations of the world were created once uniqueness and quality had been proven after trial and error over many years. The danger is that too many rules based on what has become established in Scotch whisky production may stifle the development of unique and characterful English whisky, and instead, create a framework which permits only a spirit which looks and tastes like Scotch – a danger compounded by the fact that many of England’s distilleries were set up using know how from Scotch master distillers. If this happens, English whisky will languish in the shadow of Scotch, and fail to establish its own credentials.
What should excite us is the emergence of a new top quality English grain spirit style with its own distinct character, and Circumstance has great potential to contribute to this. If rules develop gradually, this will allow time, trial and error to demonstrate what works best south of the border, so English whisky is free enough to seek out its own path to excellence. Quality whisky does not have to emulate Scotch. Irish whiskey is enjoying a resurgence, and is a very different creature altogether.
So maybe a better question to ask is what do we want a whisky from Bristol to taste like? My answer is that I want it to taste unique and to speak of the Westcountry where it came from. This is therefore what I was looking for when tasting the samples Andrew so kindly gave me.
Rice: Bright lively nose, honeysuckle, dried apricots, cherry pastry, with incense and umami qualities. Neat, the character was more savoury umami, and charred wood was too evident for me. With water, its floral fruity notes re-emerged but it was still heavy on the wood. Overall good quality, but was 21 months ageing with English oak spindles too long?
Mixed Grain – this version is not available now except in Harvey Nichols: funky nose with a grassy fruity twang reminiscent of rhum agricole and Lowland Scotch. Green banana, coconut, pine, fresh pineapple, straw, with notes of brine and prunes. Neat, the palate had abundant tropical fruitiness, and bready cereal notes. The finish evolved into bitter lemon and shortbread. With water, it acquired delicious Danish pastry flavours, with sultanas, cherries and almonds and a long evolving finish which revealed peppery rye notes, as well as exotic jasmine and incense. Overall very good with ageing potential – the exuberant fruity spiciness could take more wood.
Wheat cask sample after 1.5 years in ex bourbon cask: slight mistiness. Unripe bananas and pear drop aromas with acacia, tinned pineapple, hints of sawn wood and flour. Neat there was real depth of flavour to match the aromas; a whopping mouthful, even if it faded quickly. With water there were dried fruit, almond and linseed flavours and oily weight. Intense, with plenty of potential.
Rye: pungent herbaceous fresh hay and straw, white pepper and pencil box aromas with hints of prunes and brazil nuts. Neat it had almost vinous character, and was an intriguing succession of stalks, black pepper, incense, dried fruits and spices – on comparing to spices at home the nearest was mixed spice, but there were distinguishable elements of clove, coriander, mace and nutmeg. Water boosted the black pepper aromas and exotic elements, and reminded me of Baco dominant Armagnac, while adding liquorice sweetness to the palate. A spicy one made for Manhattans or Sazeracs.
My pick is the Mixed Grain, exciting for the glimpse it offers into the future. Its lowland character suggests that this spirit is being allowed to express its origins, and the long evolving finish in a young spirit was a welcome sign of its quality. It wasn’t just a fruit bomb. Ageing further would temper any excesses and make it more complete, but there is already plenty to enjoy for those who don’t care for peat, and who enjoy sipping gentler fruitier fragrant styles over a cube. Cheerz to the next 10 years…..
Meanwhile, I have signed up to Circumstance’s Circ Club to guarantee myself a bottle of their inaugural whisky release in September 2022. To do likewise go to: https://www.circumstancedistillery.com/