Sheffield is all about the beer. The city is home to numerous breweries, real ale pubs and last year a few of the best even got a recommendation as some of the country’s finest from The New York Times last year.
However, it’s not just independent beer production and distribution leading the way in the city.
For the first time in 100 years Sheffield is now distilling its own gin. Sheffield Hallam University student Robert Jones started distilling the spirit after being awarded the university’s Heller Bursary.
The money allowed him to purchase the distilling equipment and take his years of experience and knowledge as a mixologist to begin his own blend. Based in the upstairs of the city’s Stancil Brewery, the small-scale copper distillery – handmade and imported from Portugal – is surprisingly neat, even though it can produce around 20 bottles in every batch.
“It takes up very little space, it’s quite compact,” says Rob as another batch begins to heat up. “Gin can be made anywhere, which is reflected in the license, people are actually allowed to make it in residential properties. London-based Sipsmith started off in a garage and Sacred is made inside someone’s house.”
The £1,000 that Rob was awarded fuelled a long time ambition of his as fan of gin.
“I had gin on the mind, I thought it would be a great thing to do, but I didn’t see how I was going to do it. The bursary made me think I had nothing to lose, I thought the worse that could happen is that I would I would have to give them it back and say ‘sorry it’s proven to be impossible’ but it’s all gone well.”
True North Gin is now stocked in a number of bars across Sheffield, including The Old House, The Forum, The York, The Broadfield and the British Oak. It was at the Old House as a barman that Rob was able to let his love of gin blossom.
“I love cocktails, I have done for years. Before I worked at the Old House I was more of a whisky drinker and enjoyed whisky cocktails, but being exposed to the variety of 50 to 70 gins really changed my outlook.
“In some ways I think gin is a bit more daunting than whisky because at least with whisky you can read up on things like what the different regions of Scotland are, what aging does. It’s also a bit easier to look at a bottle and tell the difference between a good one and a bad one.”
It wasn’t until Rob was well underway with setting up the distillery that he came to realise that he was doing something in Sheffield that hasn’t been done for a very long time.
“The large distilleries disappeared some point during the last century. While the manufacture of the spirit may have continued on a small scale, I can’t find any record of a major distillery after the First World War.”
Keen to focus on what marketeers call the USP, Rob has sought-out local ingredients, including a secret blend of botanicals specific to the Peak District to flavour his Sheffield gin.
“I haven’t got around to picking my own yet as they first need to be dried and I’ve also used a dash of Henderson’s Relish as a little bit of savoury flavour can go a long way in helping the texture of gin in the mouth and helps bind the other flavours together.
“A lot of the large gin manufacturers that you can buy in supermarkets will put a bit of salt in to assist with that and Henderson’s does much the same thing.”
As if by magic, the first trickles of the morning’s batch begin to fall out of the copper pipe. Quickly scooping a measuring jug underneath it, Rob takes a small sample and waters it down (it comes out at 80 per cent proof and is bottled at 42 per cent) for us to taste.
Neat gin before noon is not normally my chosen tipple, but the result is crisp and flavoursome, not overwhelming and abrasive as many neat spirits can be. It also has an immediately distinctive taste, something Rob has been aiming for.
“It’s a hand-crafted gin so I wanted something that’s quite distinctive. That’s important because it’s never going to be the cheapest gin on the shelf – when you’re making such small batches, you cannot compete with the mass manufacturers – so you have to offer something different, So, something you could have with tonic, something you could have in a cocktail and something you could sip on its own.
“I’ve been very pleased with the flavour I’ve produced, it’s smooth but the botanicals are also very distinctive, it has a flavour of its own. There is a market out there for very light gins that are easy to drink, but I think if you’re making something by hand and the processes that go into it, it pays to have something that’s got a little bit more flavour to it. I’m happy to accept that it might put off a quarter of the people but three-quarters of them will come back and try it again.”
The move to smaller scale, hand-crafted, individual spirits seems to be a growing fashion.
“The trend at the moment in spirits is moving away from big manufacturers and towards smaller ones, you see year-on-year the large spirit makers are losing sales and the smaller ones gaining them, it’s the same in the craft beer market.
“They’re not gaining as much as the large ones are losing but small manufacturers are able to find a niche for doing things like this.
“However, for decades the trend was for big spirit makers. It’s a trend that’s come in in the last five or ten years.”
Rob’s dedication to creating something unique to Sheffield has paid off with sales and feedback already being positive despite the infancy of the whole operation.
“People do like it, most of all people seem to like that it’s locally made. The response has been really good but I’m more interested in negative feedback because, for me, that’s how you improve something but I haven’t had much negative feedback which – is a strange thing to say – has been disappointing.”
The Old House, where Rob now only works one shift a week due to university and distilling commitments, also hosts a Gin School once a month. Rob’s True North is set to feature as one of the many rotating guest spirits on offer. He’ll also be there, ready to take on board some of that that negative feedback he so desperately wants but which seems to be in very short supply.