National treasures: The Surrey Copper Distillery, Dunsfold

In a new series of articles called ‘national treasures’, the drinks business tells the stories behind small wineries, distilleries and breweries in the UK that are making their mark both at home and abroad. In the first article in the series, db speaks to Chris Smart, co-owner The Surrey Copper Distillery about his Charles Dickens-inspired gin and vermouth and why he believes in the future of sipping spirits.

Founders Katherine and Chris Smart.

Founded last year, The Surrey Copper Distillery is owned by drinks industry veterans and husband and wife team Dr Chris Smart and Professor Katherine Smart. Located to the side of Dunsfold Aerodrome where the BBC series Top Gear is filmed, the distillery produces a gin and a vermouth made with English grapes.

The couple both have an Institute of Brewing and Distilling Diploma – Chris also has a PhD in biochemistry and has worked for Campden BRI where he was the head of brewing services, while Katherine has a PhD in brewing, lectures at the University of Cambridge and was formerly global chief brewer at SAB Miller.

Smart told db that the couple’s industry connections have been invaluable.

“Knowing a lot of people who work for or at distilleries, and having a big network between us, has meant that for any problems or questions we may have, we can just drop someone an email or pick up the phone,” he said.

“The brilliant thing about the craft distilling and brewing industries is that the people involved are very open about the challenges and problems that they face, and also how to overcome them. By nature they’re very sociable and are happy to support us”.

Smart said that he’d always wanted to own his own business and with the couple’s two children having both flown the nest to attend university, the timing seemed right.

The distillery’s first product, a gin launched in June this year, is based on a recipe from Ambrose Cooper’s 1757 book Complete Distiller. With a few tweaks (the addition of cubeb berries and elderflower) the gin can be enjoyed with tonic water, but has specifically been designed for use in cocktails such as a Martini or to be sipped neat. It takes its name from Dickens’ classic novel David Copperfield.

“I believe that to make a really good Martini a floral gin is best,” said Smart. “I like to enjoy gin over ice and it has to be very smooth in order to do that. A lot of gins simply don’t work when sipped neat, but work well with mixers.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of people that drink whisky who have enjoyed our gin over ice. There aren’t many true sipping gins out there, and a lot of people don’t like tonic water as they find quinine too bitter”.

The distillery’s second spirit, a vermouth, is named after Dickens’ 1844 book The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In.

Bottled at 15% abv, Chimes English Extra Dry Vermouth is a blend of Surrey-made Sauvignon Blanc and distilled spirit infusion made with 12 botanicals.

Botanicals include wormwood, lemon peel, bitter orange, rosemary, sage, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, cardamom and cubeb berries.

Smart explained that they sourced the wine from a Surrey-based winery and that he would explore using other English varieties too in the future.

He added, however, that English wine was difficult to source. “You have to find a vineyard of a certain size if you want to get hold of some spare wine. Most wineries want to build up their own brand and not everyone is in the position to sell on a proportion of their output.

“We tried a lot of grape varieties and felt that Sauvignon Blanc worked best with our botanicals. We’d consider using other varieties in the future, but the problem with wines made from grape varieties such as Bacchus is that they’re hard to get hold of in any volume”.

With the finishing touches being made to the distillery’s 300-litre carterhead still, Smart hopes to reach full production capacity by the end of this month. Once fully operational, the distillery will be able to produce 500 bottles of spirit a day and will be able to host small parties for distillery tours.

In the near future, Smart said that he will be concentrating on the local market but “would be thrilled” if he could secure a contract with a larger supplier by the end of the year.

The Surrey Copper Distillery will be releasing its second gin (vol. 2) towards the end of this year.

The Surrey Copper Distillery, 222 Dunsfold Park, Cranleigh, Surrey, GU6 8GA.

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