Nestled on the Eastern most tip of Portsmouth, away from hustle and bustle and amidst the soft swaying sand grasses, is one of the city’s best kept secrets.
For the last five years I’ve travelled to distilleries by train, plane, car and coach. However, for this trip, I only had to use my feet. The amble to Eastney is easy. The Victorian terraces of my home dissipate into smaller settlement. More park land appears, few cars roll by, and the sound of the city quietens to the gentle hum of crickets, accompanied by the percussion of swivels clinking against masts in the nearby boatyard. The stillness of this place feels a world away from my street, a mere thrity minutes away. It is a magical transformation.
We approach a large gate with intercom, barbed wire laces the edges of the fence. After some negotiation we are let through to Fort Cumberland, the star shaped structure built between 1785 and 1810. This has been built on a previous structure from 1714, and that was built on an even earlier structure than that. The east end of Portsmouth was an important vantage point to guard the channel and against any possible landings from Langstone harbour. The fort, architecturally, is a thing of beauty. It’s red brick flanks prop up a grassy blanket roof bursting with coastal flowers. It is as if the land and the building forged a symbiotic agreement. There is a tranquility here that sedates the sting of wars long passed.
*Full disclosure. This visit was gifted in return for this blog, all opinions remain my own.*
And it’s here, in this veritable crown of the city that we find a jewel, a diamond in the rough. The Portsmouth Distillery. Set up in 2018, the distillery has been working diligently and relatively quietly, releasing a really interesting and creative range of spirits. It has been a long time since I have been able to venture to a distillery, and it was a really special experience that the first one I attended after lock down was the first one I could walk to, a true local.
Vince Noyce, Director and keen rum enthusiast, kindly took a little time out of his day to meet us and show us around. As a former Royal Navy Officer, along with Business Partner Giles Collighan, Vince is well versed in navy culture and rum and as such, the fort really does feel like the perfect home for them. The crew are comprised of these two, and Dich Oatley, who I first met at the Gin Sessions, an intimate gin festival held on nearby Hayling Island by former Gin Festival Events Coordinator and friend Naomi Good. And, they now have an apprentice, Josh, who was certainly pulling his weight, beginning a batch of rum, as we stood outside the first casemate making our introductions.
The casemates are the vaulted chambers within the fort, originally used to store gunpowder, cannons and troops in their hammocks. The fort is full of them and in some instances they are unchanged, servicing as glimpses of the forts previous life. Vince and the team have been lovingly restoring the ones they use, a benefit for the fort for sure. The first casemate holds the still, Sophie Wu, and several fermentation tanks. Large bags of dehydrated sugar cane are used as the base of the distilleries flagship rum, 1968. I had tried 1968 when I had met Dich previously and I remember marvelling at it’s unique character. It is commonplace for rum to made from molasses, and with it’s sugar cane base, 1968 was completely different to other white rums I’ve tried. Complex with floral and earthy notes coming through, I found it a fascinating spirit at the time and it remains special to me as the first of it’s kind that I tried, although I am now starting to see some others coming into the market. From what I gather the rum industry is pretty heated in the way of category and method. Experts are strict with their idea of what is and isn’t, what should and shouldn’t be. There is a defensiveness in the way Vince speaks, and I believe that comes as a result of critique of his inventive processes, offered too often and often unnecessarily. Rum is incredibly special to him, it is as he says, ‘his world’. The idea with 1968 was to use sugar cane as it offered a different character to molasses. However, wet sugar cane juice becomes almost unusable after 48 hours, so the logistical challenge of getting it to the UK in that time is large and costly, not something a young craft distillery can swallow. Dehydrated sugar cane is a simple solution. The product they use derives from organically grown cane and comes from a place in Costa Rica that has been making it for 50 years. Once the team at Portsmouth Distillery get the dusty brown powder, they boil it down to sugar syrup, so the rum base is half way between molasses and cane juice. Another more unusual process is that they allow fermentation to happen naturally. They don’t heat or cool the sugar wine at all, a process that results in a more complex flavour. Now, I’m more versed in gin than rum for sure, but to me, using dehydrated sugar cane seems like a carefully thought out and creative solution and the result is a wonderfully different and very sippable rum, so that is good enough for me. Being sippable is important to Vince. In fact, in all of his spirits the first objective is that they can be sipped on their own without adding anything. I find this a really interesting concept. As a spirits judge, it is often considered how spirits will work in cocktails and with mixers, as a spirits writer, we are always looking for the perfect serve. People often ask for the best tonic to use, or the best garnish. This sort of thing gets Vince’s heckles up. His view on these things are simple, drink it how you want. His objective is to make spirits that do all of the work. You can drink them on their own. Whatever you do with it after that is up to you. As someone who enjoys sipping spirits, this idea appeals to me a lot.
It seems, that all of the creativity goes into the spirit. Vince is an artist. He paints and that creative artistry certainly extends to his distilling. I tasted a little of a very recent experiment. A little go at a Calvados, using their own Fort Cyder, force aged using oak chips to do the work of the barrel and hazelnuts, as recommended by a friend of a friend and a technique used in Normandy. Just a day old and already the liquid has colour and tastes like Calavados. Depending on how the experiment goes, we could see it released, but we may not. It is what it is. And this idea seems to be a bit of a mantra for Vince. They are currently aging some of the 1968 in Jim Beam barrels. Some for 3 years, some for 5. “My theory is, well I don’t really have one. It will be what it will be.” That said, it is looking very promising, as such that Vince believes it will be his ‘masterpiece’. A year in and little old me was lucky enough to taste it. There is a hint of colour and the heady vanilla bourbon notes have taken lovingly to the rum. With the 3 year due for release in 2022, and the 5 year 2024, it is a spirit to get very excited about.
And they do like to experiment with their spirits. Rather than some distilleries I see that experiment with different flavours, the scope of vision at Portsmouth Distillery is wide. There is talk of a Shrub – an Agricole rum liqueur made with citrus, in this instance orange. There is also talk of a gin rummy being made for someone, yes, it is what you think it is and it sounds pretty amazing. Though, that is also not be confused with their Forum, a refined botanical ‘garden’ rum, with the complexities of gin.
Excuse me for digressing, there is so much to talk about with this place. I mean, we’re here for the gin right? Or at least, to an extent. You may have seen the distillery’s first juniper offering, Fort gin. Recently, receiving a medal in the IWSC, the botanicals include locally foraged elderflower, gorse flower and sea radish. Well, they’ve just brought out something new and it was this that prompted me to get in touch, their recently launched Tudor Gin.
I’m a sucker for history, and gins that tie into history really do get me excited. With Portsmouth’s huge naval heritage, and the links between gin, rum and the navy, I have thought it a little strange in the past that the city didn’t have a distillery. Other distilleries in the area have been successfully creating gins with historical links. Isle of Wight Distillery have done very well with their HMS Victory Gin, and HMS Spirits in neighbouring Southampton have found a comfortable home for their Mary Rose Gin amongst sailing groups. Well, now it’s time for Portsmouth to claim a little bit of that, because as with their other spirits, Tudor Gin is well thought out and carefully crafted to deliver it’s concept. The process started with a list of the forty odd botanicals found on the ship, provided by Sally Tyrrell, Head of Development at the Mary Rose Trust. After a lot of time experimenting with them, Vince settled on four key botanicals. Dandelion, hazelnut, hemp seed and cherry. The dandelion was particularly important as it had a purpose, being carried for medicinal use as an anti-inflammatory. Hazelnut delivers a similar smoothness to almond, but with a slightly bitter element that balances the sweetness of the cherry which bursts delightfully towards the end. The hemp seed does a great job at carrying the botanicals. Indeed, in tasting the gin all these flavours marry together beautifully and it’s a really delicious drink to sip neat, although it still opens up nicely with a light tonic. The experience is generous yet gentile, you are carried through a journey that pops with a soft natural note of cherry on the finish as if you were in some sort of bubble that had burst. And the experience evokes indulgence, candlelit tables set with rich fabrics and wooden plates holding meats, preserved fruits and sugared almonds. This all entwined with heady juniper make for a lovely drink that captures a taste of old whilst retaining a modern appeal. It’s really very clever. And, with a considerable portion of the profits going to the Mary Rose Trust to aid in preservation of Henry VIII’s flagship, every bottle supports this valuable local piece of history.
Their principles are the mast upholding the distillery. The business has intentionally costed their spirits slightly lower than some would expect. Both their Fort Gin and 1968 rum sell for £32 online, whereas the general pricing point for craft gins is £35 – £40. This is done for the sole purpose of making their drinks more accessible. This costing point also extends to their hand sanitiser. After fulfilling a contract for Govia Thameslink, they have been making sanitiser to fulfil a more local need, recently supplying 4000 bottles to Portsmouth City Council and the business costs this at little more than what it does to make it. Local connections are important. In fact, location is a fundamental part of the distillery. And there’s give and take with support. Portsmouth as an island city has a strong sense of community, even if it is a little rough around the edges. The distillery are happy to support local, and in turn they have found strong support in bars like Croxtons and the Merchant House. If you’re local you can take a trip for ‘Fill up Friday’, to refill your bottle, benefiting both the earth and your pocket.
In terms of marketing, the distillery has been a little quiet. Vince admits he’s not been very pushy to get their name out there. Like their fermentation, they have certainly taken a slower, more natural approach. Their van is out doing public deliveries, they now have someone working on their social media so their online presence should start to grow. I think this is fine. Brands spend a lot of time and money getting known quickly and sometimes, when you’ve got that belief in your product, it’s nice to sit back and let it grow organically. The distillery may be a little off the beaten track but the team are looking at taking up a retail space in the old John Lewis Building in Southsea, which will be great for footfall when it opens. That said, business has been growing. Before lock down kicked in, the distillery were getting somewhere in the region of one hundred and fifty visitors a week. A bar and shop have sprung up in the casemate next door, an office in one opposite and a tasting room in another across the way. The interesting thing about this site is there are other casemates available, and with the distillery renovating each one they take, there is fantastic scope for expansion that benefits both them and Fort Cumberland. There have been group tours and it’s possible to organise a bespoke tour and book out the distillery for a group party. The outside area is vast and wonderfully sheltered from the coastal winds. The distillery was on course for a wonderful summer until Covid-19 hit and due to the location in a National Heritage property there will be further delays until opening. This must be a little frustrating with an outdoor space that would have been fantastic for social distancing. However, rather than dwell on any delay, Vince is staying focused on when things are fully functional again. He’s full of ideas for starting tot clubs, the 40th anniversary of both finding and raising the timbers of the Mary Rose are approaching. And, they are providing HMS Queen Elizabeth, the current Royal Navy’s Flagship, with a white labelled Fort Gin run. All in all, there is a lot to look forward to.
When I attend a distillery to write, I have a mystery to unravel. What will I find? What sort of story can I write? There is an enjoyable pressure to this, a thrill as such and I confess, I have felt more of a pressure than normal on this piece. I wanted to write something special and I needed Portsmouth Distillery to give me what was required to write it. On saying goodbye and leaving the distillery, I felt more than satisfied and I think that shows, as this is by far the longest article I’ve written on this blog to date and honestly, I could have written more. Another of Vince’s principles is transparency and he happily went into great detail on their processes and ideas, something I really admire. After beginning my gin journey five years ago in a ‘distilleryless’, naval city, I finally have a true local. It’s a distillery that’s loyal to it’s location and it’s heritage, highly principled and full of ingenuity. And, one that is beautifully creative with concept and process, making wonderful spirits steadfast in their own character. Portsmouth Distillery is my local, the jewel in the crown of Fort Cumberland and it has definitely been worth the wait.