The definition of small batch distilling
One of our objectives at English Spirit is to make the best spirits money can buy, at a price people can afford. We create fine spirits & liqueurs to a brand new level of quality and taste: we want to show people just how wonderful fine spirits can be. One of the secrets to achieving this superior standard is by distilling in small batches. In this post we set out to answer two very good questions that we are often asked: what does small batch distilling mean and why does it matter?
Small batch distilling kicked off in the UK in 2009 when the law was changed to allow alcohol to be distilled in small batches: i.e. you didn’t have to distil in industrial quantities anymore. The field was open to anyone who wanted to distil and market their own spirits, and the gin boom began booming not long after. However, like ‘craft’ there isn’t really a proper definition of ‘small batch’. The closest you can probably get is that the still in which you distil alcohol is smaller than the ones used by the industry giants. People like to say it also involves more care and attention to detail, but we also know that many small batch spirits with nice looking labels and exotic sounding ingredients do not necessarily equate to a quality end product.
There are small batch distilleries like ours that use stills with a 200 litre capacity. Then there are ‘small batch’ distilleries that use 1500 litre stills - which are nearly eight times the size! And then there are distilleries that started off with 200 litre stills many years ago, that have now moved to 1500 litre stills. But, if it’s all still small batch, does it matter? Oh yes it does...
The smaller the still, the better a distiller is able to separate the heads and tails from the heart of the spirit: or put simply, remove the ‘bad’ alcohol while keeping the good. Our master distiller Dr John says:
“The choice of still size, design and energy input are critical to dictating the overlap of heads into hearts and tails into hearts. If you don’t optimise this, you will put yourself in an impossible position and no matter how good your sensory skills are you’ll not be able to make a decent cut to isolate the hearts - they will always be contaminated with traces of heads and tails and not pass muster. Let alone be divine.”
At English Spirit, we only use 200 litre stills, and nothing larger. By much calculation and experimentation, Dr John has determined that 200 litres is the size which gives us the control we need to make the finest spirits we possibly can. Any larger than this and it becomes too difficult to provide a spirit smooth enough for sipping, as well as controlling exactly which flavours we want to capture. It may be easier and more profitable to use a larger still, but our goal is to get as close to perfection as we possibly can. In fact, Dr John himself invented and constructed the rectifying columns for distilling our vodka; no other columns were up to the standard we require. Now that’s truly uncompromising.
Another distinction under the broad definition of ‘small batch distilling’ that is oft overlooked: where does the base spirit come from? Is your craft gin really ‘small batch’ if the neutral grain base spirit was made industrially? We are proud to say that our distillery is one of a handful in the UK to distil all of our own base spirits, including the vodka for our gin, and the first rum ever distilled in the UK. That’s why we call ourselves the UK’s original small batch distillers: not because we were the first, but because of the first few to kick start the industry, we have stayed true to what we consider real ‘small batch distilling’ ever since.
So, to conclude with a short answer, what does small batch distilling mean and why does it matter? It's hard to define on paper, but if you taste a true small batch spirit, it's easy to distinguish.