The Oxford Artisan Distillery, or TOAD as it’s fondly known, are doing amazing things with whisky at the moment. In recent months they launched their original rye and followed up with two different limited edition batches of rye and a limited edition corn. Now, they have released a fourth limited edition batch of rye too! This embrace of US style grains is fascinating and unlocks a whole other world of flavour profile. I love the opportunity to try something a little bit different. What I didn’t anticipate however, was how much there was to learn about TOAD and the wonderful things that are doing. The distillery had been on my radar for gin (they currently have four gins under their belt). But they make vodka and whisky. And, the opportunity to try batches #2 and #3 of their rye whisky was just too good an opportunity to pass up.
I was sent [gifted] a bottle of each with a wonderful amount of info. It is always such a help when writing pieces if there is sufficient info sent with the product. I’m all for researching myself, and certainly will either way, but to give that base info to start simply means you are going to get a more in-depth article overall, ensure the reader gets the all info that you want included, and really make the most of the cost of sending bottles out.
Firstly, TOAD are the UK’s first certified Organic Grain-to-Glass distillery, according to figures released by the WSTA in 2020. That’s a pretty big claim. Not only this, but they work with ‘heritage grains’, another strong selling point. The grains have been revived from historical sources by a leading archeo-botanist called John Lett. They are grown sustainably on 350 acres, known as land races, which are both close to Oxford and on prestigious estates such as Highgrove and Sandringham. The distillery’s grain contributes to biodiversity and soil health in the English countryside and is the result of John’s lifelong research on ancient grains. John has spent a large part of his lifelong research on ancient grains. He takes 30-100 varieties of grain, mixes them up, and grows them together exclusively for the distillery, in the same field, at the same time. These sustainable fields are like what you would have seen in medieval times, so not only is this rekindling the grains but also farming methods.
And this is only scratching the surface of the incredible lengths the distillery goes to. Their stills, Nautilus and Nemo, for example, are something to behold. They didn’t want to import stills, and so commissioned them from scratch, collaborating with Paul Pridham and South Devon Railway Engineering, who are known as some of the last great historical industrial coppersmiths in England, and a particularly famous for their refurbishment of the Flying Scotsman. As they state on their site, “Taking cues from the best of distilling practice, the romance of steam, Victorian engineering, old diving helmets and imagery from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, [their] two copper stills were born; Nautilus, [their] 2,400-litre still, and his 500-litre partner-in-crime, Nemo, weighing in at 940kg and 380kg respectively, together with two five metre tall, 40-plate copper distillation columns.”
The first batch of the inaugural rye whisky, Batch #1, released at the end of April, sold out on launch day and went down a storm with drinkers. Then we move onto the limited edition Batch #2, one of the bottles I received. It is bottled at 47.4% has the distillery’s classic Oxford Rye house-style, “herbal and floral with creamy butterscotch notes, nutty and spicy banana bread, but with an elevated sweet wine flavour of berry jams, dried fruits, leather and tobacco.” It’s smooth with a rich weight behind it, a sipper with strength in character.
The whisky in this batch was matured in virgin American oak casks and freshly emptied Vintage Port casks. Having spent many fields in production, the Port casks bring the very best characteristics of Portugal’s famed Douro wine valley to Thames valley and the character of the spirit. Master Distiller, Francisco Rosa shared these comments: “The goal with this whisky was to bring you to Oxford; which for me is rye fields and old libraries. It’s herbal, nutty and cured. Like our diverse fields of grain, this is a diverse experience of sensations.” Now, I’m not sure about you, but when I read this comment, I got so excited! The nerd in me loves the evocation of libraries and old books. They are magical places, full of history and also new ideas and innovations. Plus, this is a really beautiful concept to incorporate the ideas of the local area into a whisky. Francisco added that, “The first release was our pure expression of rye – virgin oak, fruity, with a herbal and bready character. With this batch, I wanted to highlight a different side of our rye – the herbal nuttiness and rye goodness, while also bringing a decadent and musky hint of Vintage Port. Showing their years the Port casks add a layer of complexity, without overtaking, only complimenting.”
TOAD claims that by being the only distillery using these heritage grains, their whisky has a flavour that cannot be achieved by using commercial grain. This makes sense to me and is just more weight behind the stamp of identity that sets TOAD on another level. The dedication of grain to glass, and beautifully unique commissioned stills. The tender nurturing of returning heritage grains to the field, and rekindling something almost lost to time. The way of working with the environment to enrich, rather than plunder, shows a real love of the land s well as the craft of distillation.
To create the batch #2 expression, the grain ratio was made up of 90% maslin (a mix of 70% rye and 20% wheat from populations grown together in the same field) and 10% heritage malted barley – which was harvested in the summer of 2017. The grain was not milled but instead flattened in a very loud, eccentric traditional mill from the 1920s, which is yet another lovely attention to detail. The resulting course flakes were then made up in to an 8,000L watery porridge.
Spring fermentation has delivered richer fruit characters compared with Batch #1’s winter fermentation, which was undertaken in 5000L Hungarian oak vats. The porous oak helps the distillery to have a consistent and stable in-house fermenting culture, allowing microflora to give fruitier flavours and creamier notes. The mash was then double distilled in Nautilus and Nemo, where the grains get backed into smoky sourdough notes. Then, finally, the new make spirit was matured in American oak casks and freshly emptied Vintage Port casks
So that’s batch #2. Absolutely glorious! And now let’s take a look at batch #3.
I know, right?
Back in August, the distillery followed up with the launch of batch #3, a special release to celebrate the distillery’s four year anniversary. For the special anniversary bottling, the liquid was first rested in American Oak casks before undergoing a second maturation in Moscatel wine casks, sourced directly from Portugal. The Moscatel (Muscat) grapes are turned into a sweet, fortified wine in the Peninsula de Setubel region. It is a particularly aromatic grape variety with citrus, flowery, lychee and pear flavours amongst the pronounced sweet and fruity notes.
The idea was to bring a completely different side to the grain, the wine cask influence gives a floral and stone fruit character, adding a rich sweetness to the rye. With an intriguing and complex profile, Batch #3 is packed with notes of “fruity gummy bears, peach, apricot and banana bubble gum, then swathes of honey and stone fruits, touching off with white chocolate, a zing of tea tree, and nutmeg with smoky hints of oriental BBQ”. There is an absolutely stunning sweetness to the spirit which softens and rounds of the complex and interesting flavour profile.
On this release, Francisco Rosa said “The sweet fruity flavours from the rye spirit and the Moscatel cask combine seamlessly in a floral bouquet of summer gardens. Our first batch was a classic take on American rye whisky. Batch #2 was more complex and inspired by Oxford, and with Batch #3 I wanted to bring more cask influence to our rye spirit. This batch of rye whisky suits this season impeccably – it breathes a wealth of freshness and summer fruits, with such beautiful complexity and vibrancy of flavours, it’s absolutely lush. Perfect to toast our first four years!”
Absolutely lush. He’s not wrong.
The mash is made in the same way as batch #2. In this instance, the organic heritage grain used for this batch was harvested in the Autumn of 2017, just after the distillery’s opening.
I have to say, I was so excited to try those and they have just blown me away with how beautiful they are. Soft and round, full of incredibly well thought out and put together character. From conception to execution, these spirits are the result of meticulous care and conscientious work that spills over with integrity.
And right now TOAD are operating under the full steam of their momentum. They’ve released batch #4, ‘The Graduate’. Another nod to Oxford and it’s expansive history in esteemed education. It’s the highest abv yet, 51.3% and it is suggested that it can be enjoyed neat, with a dash of water or in classic whisky cocktails. Francisco Rosa commented to say “With it’s Oxford origins, this whisky perfectly captures the exuberant energy of out distillery, as well as the value and significance of what we are achieving at the Oxford Artisan Distillery. This is Oxford Rye Whisky post-education.”
Other than the Oxford Rye, these batches are limited edition so if you want some, I’d suggest you move quickly. Batch #2 has gone but batches #3 and #4 are available on their site at the moment. To be honest, I’d get myself over to their website anyway. They have got so much on there! Lots of amazing products and info on what they do, and how they do it! It’s a fantastic resource and really interesting for anyone wishing to learn more about farming and sustainability in the distilling world. They also do distillery tours and I know I for one am itching to go! Maybe I’ll see you there.