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db meets: Barney Wilczak

On a mission to make the finest eaux de vie without compromise, Barney Wilczak talks to Douglas Blyde about photojournalism, roe deer, and capturing the essence of the land.

What is your vintage and what have you enjoyed from that year?

I was born in 1984. I’d like to say that it was a great Bordeaux or Burgundy I have enjoyed, but for me it was probably the era of Indiana Jones and The Goonies. On the plus side they encouraged an idea of adventure and creativity.

Wilczak is a surname we’ve not heard before; what are your origins?

I’m a mix of Polish and English; Babcia and Dziadek were from the East of Poland (now the Ukraine and Belarus) and my grandma and grandpa were from the less exotic Bedfordshire!

Describe your career to date?

I originally worked as a photojournalist specialising in conservation stories, but fruit distilling was an accompanying hobby which became an obsession. With a desire to spend more time in the garden and with my partner, Hannah, I began planning the distillery seven years ago – we’re coming up to five years of sales now.

The great advantage of having worked purely for my own production was the development of my own practice in a purely quality driven way; fruit distilling is an incredibly demanding discipline and when you begin to look at its possibilities for truly expressive and terroir-rich spirits, the focus needs to be even higher – absolute quality in the fruit is a must and the normal concerns over yields have to be completely ignored.

For me, the surprise was how the sheer compression in these spirits elevated flavours, normally imperceptible in the raw fruit, where we could taste and smell the parent plant, trees and the influence which our maritime climate has on their growth and ripeness.

Do your products somehow refer to your past as a photographer, capturing the essence of places?

They are very similar disciplines. You have to have a huge amount of technical knowledge residing in the back of your brain. This helps you to capture and express what you see in a creative manner. Most importantly, you have to be at that absolute moment of perfection to record it faithfully.

How did you establish a distillery?

With a lot of paperwork and determination. 

What was the product you opened with?

We originally launched with three eaux de vie and our gin, Garden Swift. I thought the former would always be for my own amusement and the latter the only true commercial option. At the time I had £8 in my overdraft. Within five months, The Whisky Exchange had awarded Garden Swift as their spirit of the year and I was still the one employee distilling from the greenhouse of my childhood home. 

How did you keep up?

Adding another still and expanding the distillery allowed us to focus further on eaux de vie – we now work with around 30-40 tons of around 14 locally sourced fruits each year. This completely uncompromising focus on eaux de vie has become what we are best known for, and despite still working from the garden, I am amazed to find them placed as parallels to my own personal heroes by sommeliers, Michelin starred chefs and top bartenders. Just a day ago, one of France’s most prestigious 3* Michelin restaurants told us they would like to work with our English eaux de vie…

What advice would you give your younger self?

Find time to stop – it makes work more enjoyable.

And what is the best advice you’ve been given?

The best advice was more of an upbringing – with research you can achieve almost anything. It’s something I still do obsessively. 

Why the name, Capreolus?

Natural history has been a constant accompaniment to my life. The roe deer is not only our most beautiful native deer but is a constant accompaniment to our gardens and the countryside around us; recently we woke to a newly born deer opposite our bedroom window. Their ephemeral nature and often fleeting appearance of these deer seems so closely aligned with the transient nature of the essences we are trying to preserve that it seemed only appropriate to name the distillery after their latin name, Capreolus Capreolus.

Who in the trade has been your biggest supporter?

We have received so much support from the industry as a whole. Names which stand out include Dawn Davies, Doug Wregg and Jan Konetzki.

Did you consider selling the business during the pandemic?

Obscure fruit distilleries not being the most marketable entities, no. But in all seriousness, the distillery is based around a small team working to express their locale in a very personal way – it’s not something that will ever transfer easily. The truth is that we are doing something we love, so as long as we pay the mortgage we were pretty happy despite the temporary worries.

What is the most interesting feedback you’ve received from a customer?

We recently made somebody cry with our Raspberry Eau de Vie as it was so evocative of a time in her childhood.

What is your go-to drink at the end of the day?

Inevitably a cup of tea. However, we make cider for fun and are lucky to be exposed to some great wine and spirit makers.

Where can we enjoy your work?

We’re lucky to be in some great restaurants; Core by Clare Smyth, Le Gavroche, Le Maison aux Quatre’Saisons, L’Enclume, Sketch, The Clove Club, Le Dame du Pic and some great bars, e.g., A Bar With Shapes for a Name has our Raspberry Eau de Vie as one of their only 20 bottles. In terms of shops, Hedonism Wines, The Whisky Exchange and our own website are all great options.

What was the last book you read?

The Patience of the Spider by Andrea Camilleri.

Do you have plans for the future?

The future seems to come too quickly to think about. I’ve got as far as sorting out the watering system for our greenhouse tonight. 

What is The Sourcing Table and your corresponding gin?

The Sourcing Table is an online wine retailer which has not only an enviable selection but also has the powerhouse of Ben Henshaw, Dr. Jamie Goode, Rajat Parr and Paz Levinson, as its partners. We were asked to produce an exclusive expression of our Garden Swift gin for them.

Aged in a Tokaji Azsu barrel from the Királyudvar winery, Hungary, we suddenly find the elevation of citrus, stone fruit and notes of vanilla. Integration is always key to what we do and we find that Garden Swift, already well balanced with 34 botanicals, works beautifully with noble rot wines. It’s something I am very proud to be a part of.

Capreolus Distillery Limited, The Mount, Park View, Stratton, Cirencester, GL7 2JG; Tel: +44 (0)1285 644 477 

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