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The long answer to the short question

The long answer to the short question

We're in the season of the Christmas market. That means I'm out of the distillery and chatting to the good Gin drinkers of the South more than usual. One thing I pretty much always gets asked is THAT question:

So, what got you into distilling?

Now, I always give an honest answer to this question, but it's only part of the answer. It's the short part. By a LONG way. So I'm going to get self-indulgent in this post and give the other part of the answer: the long part.

The Short Part: Passion

This is how I usually answer the question:

I've been brewing and cider making as a hobbyist for 20 years and I'm also a crazy keen cook and baker. I love the science of food and drink, and I love distilled spirits. A few years ago, I embarked on a Masters Degree in Brewing and Distilling which gave me the technical knowledge to complement my practical experience. I love how distilling combines biology, chemistry, and physics so intimately, and I love how distilled spirits represent so intensely the produce that creates them. I'm also an environmentalist and, as distillation is a resource intensive process, I wanted to create a way of operating that is ultra-low impact, and be a vocal proponent of the food waste movement as I do so.

And I stop there. That is more than enough for a Christmas Market. But get just the right amount of Christmas spirit in me and you might get this too... 

The Long Part: Purpose

Sustainability & the concept of retirement

Once upon a time, retirement was a thing because if we didn't retire we'd die immediately through exhaustion or by having a horrendous industrial accident or something. Now retirement is an aspiration to spend summer months sipping cocktails on the beach and take up ornamental topiary while listening to test match special. That change has happened FAST.

The problem is this: to fund this longer and luxuriant retirement we need to invest a lot of our pre-retirement earnings in companies which will deliver us growth of at least 5%, in order that our pension fund supports us for the 30 or so years until the great sleep.

That necessity for return is pretty poisonous: unless we innovate or see huge productivity growth then we need to be consuming resources and churning material goods at a fair rate. Not something I'm crazy about. And neither am I crazy about blindly supporting a lot of high growth companies in whose moral compass I have a low degree of faith.

The earth can't take it. I'm not sure society is dealing with it so well either. 

The more I thought about this and the ability of the individual to impact this setup, the closer I came to a singular solution: disinvest from retirement. And the more I thought about not having a retirement, the more it appeals to me. Why do one thing slavishly for 40 years to then pursue leisure exclusively for the next 30? Why not average it out and work until I drop, albeit at a slower pace, and ensure I enjoy what I do throughout?

Robin Williams & the Second Curve

A few years ago, I read an article in the press titled "the top five regrets of the dying". It may sound a bit morbid, but I've always thought that it's worth keeping your ear open to the advice of the generations. It's worth a look.

The first one is this: I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

That's pretty powerful, particularly if you've grown up in the regimented British education system. It reminds me of that part in Tom Schulman's great Oscar-winning script, "Dead Poet's Society" when Robin Williams encourages his students to "seize the day".  That, from an actor who was himself unable to live out his later years after falling victim to dementia.

As well as having a determination to shape a different life, there are a few other drivers behind where I've got to. The pace of technological change is making some careers (including my old one) less important, and consumers are increasingly appreciating craft and provenance as they apply to spirits. And last, but not least, is the fact that I want to put my kids to bed at night, even if I do have to go back to the distillery for another three hours after story time.

A few of these themes have been captured nicely in the brilliant book "the Second Curve" by Charles Handy. He advocates renewal by jumping off the first personal growth curve to begin a new one afresh. You've got to be a bit crazy to decide that second curve is distilling...but hey...

Passion & Purpose

Maturing distilled spirits takes time. For most startups, that's a dealbreaker, but I've set up Greensand Ridge with a decades-long ambition, not as a brand to sell to finance a separate venture or a life of leisure but to make world class spirits in an ethical and sustainable way, and to do so until the great sleep...or a horrendous industrial accident.

Building a distillery

Building a distillery

This isn't really a record of building a distillery. It's more of a photo collection of the physical work that took place over the 12 months running from getting planning permission to producing some spirit.

So, no mention of the licensing, HAZOP studies, training, financing, brand design, and on, and on...all of which I can bore you with in person some time.

One thing I will return to in detail are the specific ways we've met the sustainability challenges of running a distillery.  This project will hopefully not just be an exploration of that for its own sake, but serve as a template and guinea pig for all the new distilleries that follow us in the coming years. So i'll do my best to communicate those challenges and their solutions in future posts.

This is the Warehouse area before work started. Well, i'd done some exploratory work with a sledgehammer. You can see the stone runners of the Coach House floor where the cart wheels would have run, off the earth floor.

And this is the roof space. If it looks clean, believe me it was not. 100 years of plaster dust and squirrel droppings made for some unpleasant crawling about.

One bat survey, asbestos survey, structural survey later, out comes the ceiling and in go some collar tie beams to stiffen the structure before the ceiling beams come out.

Meanwhile, in the outside filth, eight cubic meters of clay makes way for a biodigester, which will munch through the liquid waste which can't be used as cattle feed.

This is one of the best bits of machinery i've ever seen; a kind of tank crossed with an old Massey Ferguson, it bored a hole from the Still House to the biodigester meaning the handsome victorian brick courtyard could lie undisturbed.

Here is the Warehouse building with much of the ceiling insulation & board in and most of the ceiling boards out. The stove has also gone in and all those beams will keep us warm for at least two years!

And here is yours truly taking some of the final beams out. This may or may not be a good demonstration of site safety practice.

Well we're getting there now! Painted, plumbed in, electrics starting to go in... A good old clean is needed though.

The production part of site completed and beginning to fill up with equipment. The Warehouse on left and Still House on right. But where is the STILL?

In here. Obvs.

And so began one of the most skillful demonstrations of telehandler operation you will ever see.

This is doctorate level telehandling. That bit in the air (reflux condenser & dephlegmator) weights about 350kg. I was having multiple anxiety attacks at this point.

But it all went together nicely (barring a few missing parts that has to follow on from Germany).

And after a long hard, but amazingly fun 12 months, here she is, ready to distil in, party in, feast in. See you here soon!

And after a long hard, but amazingly fun 12 months, here she is, ready to distil in, party in, feast in. See you here soon!