The Jurassic Park of Whisky – How a little distillery in Oxford revived 14th Century grains to make whisky! - Oxford Artisan Distillery
Distillery Spotlight: Oxford Artisan Distillery
Region: Oxford, UK
Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.
This scene of Dr. Grant holding up a flare just before the T-Rex goes apesh*t still lives in my nightmares.
The 90’s gave birth to many things, TV-series Friends, amazing books like Harry Potter, rap was in its golden era, the Internet was fast becoming a thing so we could hit friends up on MSN messenger, in fact, the whole lot of us here at 88 Bamboo are from the 90’s.
So what’s the theme here? I would say the 90’s represented a zeitgeist of anticipation. Anticipation for how the Internet would change things, anticipation for what the millennium would bring, how life would be like. And with anticipation and just a hint of optimism, the world went into overdrive, crafting incredible stories over what the future could hold.
John Hammond with the amber (and mosquito) that created my childhood. Weirdly, I never have similar feelings towards any mosquito I’ve actually encountered.
One of the stories I’ll never forget is Jurassic Park. I loved Jurassic Park as a kid. Sure I was scared of the T-Rex – I often dreamt myself being chased by one, even till today in fact. But damn was it cool, how there was this hidden world of dinosaurs, brought to life from a single mosquito in a piece of amber (in real life mosquitoes were just a nuisance). Just blew my mind!
Undeniably even as we look to the future, there is always an inherent fascination with what the world was like before all that we knew existed. It would essentially be a whole new world, much like the future would be as well.
How I felt watching the movie.
Well, a tiny craft distillery out of Oxford, UK, is perhaps as close as we’ll get to Jurassic Park.
Oxford Artisan Distillery was born out of a chance encounter with archaeobotanist grain expert, John Letts, who introduced the team to ancient heritage grains.
First off, I just wanna know how is it we don’t have archaeobotanists coming to schools to introduce such jobs to us as kids? All we got was accountant.
Archaebotanist John Letts spent the last 15 years bringing back heritage landraces.
Accordingly, John discovered back in 1994, more than 200 well preserved examples of traditional wheat and rye landraces. Landraces are land areas that hold a diverse mix of crops that came from all over the world through nomads and have adapted to local growing conditions.
These landraces were hidden in the bottom layers of thatched buildings that dated back to the late Medieval periods, 1375 – 1550 AD.
These varietals were thought to be long lost when England industrialised in the early 1800s.
This was as commercial crop farming required farmers to clear the land, plant a single varietal to enhance crop yields, and regularly employ the use of pesticides and herbicides to ensure only the desired crop exists on the farmed land.
The team at Oxford Artisan saw that there was nothing natural about this process, even if it was necessary at the time.
John’s research showed that in spite of poor conditions, these heritage grains that he had discovered were able to grow to over 1.5 meters tall, almost twice the height of current grain crops.
“The tall stems of older cereals are matched by their much larger root systems, which allows them to absorb moisture and nutrients from deep below the soil surface. This means they are better at surviving drought, but will also grow very tall and fall over if grown with fertilisers or in rich soil.”
Ultimately the goal of Oxford Artisan Distillery is to bring back these long lost heritage grains through more thoughtful and ecologically sustainable farming methods that encourages biodiversity, and of course make amazing spirits.
On the left, modern grain, on the right, heritage grain. They are not the same.
Seems far safer but obviously way less cinematic than bringing dinosaurs back. Can’t picture crops chasing after me. Love-hate relationship averted!
It’s been a painstaking process for John and the team, as they worked to collect thousands of samples of these newly discovered (well 1994 is pretty new compared to 14th Century) heritage grains alongside other grains that would have grown naturally alongside them, from gene banks, farmers and collectors around the world.
Biodiversity is at the heart of the distillery.
These were subsequently organically planted and harvested for over 15 years to mirror and recreate the diversity that once existed. This all became ready for distillation in 2014.
The team then works to turn these hard-grown grains into whisky, gin and vodka!
“Here at The Oxford Artisan Distillery we want to support research into new ways of growing grain without agri-chemicals and that enhance biodiversity. The climate is changing, and the way most grain is grown today is not sustainable.
With every bottle we sell the demand for John’s grain grows, and more land is turned over to his innovative and restorative production methods. We are proud of our work together, and by using his grains we are demonstrating with actions - and not just words - that cereals can be grown profitably, using environmentally friendly methods.”
Now at the end of the day, one must be wondering, does the whisky taste any different?
According to the team, the whisky produced has a signature maltiness, caramel undertones and a silk-smooth texture.
The Time Machine!
Nautilus and his best bud, Nemo.
Tue to the “Artisan” in their distillery name, the team even put together their own stills, which they affectionately call “Nautilus” and “Nemo”. Throw out everything you know about how whisky pot stills look like, because these look like they were salvaged off the set of Jules Verne’s novel-turned-movie, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
The stills were designed to a noticeably steampunk aesthetic, of Victorian engineering and old diving helmets. The two copper stills, Nautilus, a 2,400-litre still, and Nemo, a 500-litre still, were designed and created in collaboration with Paul Pridham and South Devon Railway Engineering, historical industrial coppersmiths from the UK.
Fun fact: The diver’s helmet-styled porthole on the stills were actually salvaged from a ship decommissioned in India.
Oxford Rye Whisky - The Inaugural Release
The distillery’s inaugural whisky, Oxford Rye Whisky, as it is called, punches in at 46.3% abv and is bottled at the standard 70cl, aged for 3 years. It is limited to 502 bottles.
“Our whisky began life with a diverse maslin grain harvest in 2017, with several different grains growing together in the same field including multiple ancient heritage rye strains, wheat strains and even a few oats and a few thistles, such is the result of letting nature take its course in a healthy, diverse field.
It is this authenticity, transported straight from our fields, that gives our whisky its flavour. We like to say we’re farming a new approach to spirits.”
The whisky is rooted in American Rye Whisky (90% Maslin, of which 70% Rye and 20% Wheat, and 10% Heritage Malted Barley), and enjoyed an extended fermentation in Hungarian Oak vats which contributed fruity and creamy notes.
The toasty sourdough crust flavors are the result of flaking the grain rather than the standard process of milling it, which created coarse flakes that was then turned into an 8,000-litre porridge and stirred vigorously by oar, an Oxford tradition.
It was finally matured in two virgin American Oak casks for 3 years.
“This whisky perfectly showcases our distillery terroir. The huge flavour impact of our grains: herbal notes from the rye, nutty caramel from the wheat and sweet malted barley combine with oaky vanilla.
The long fermentation in our Hungarian oak vats, where lactic acid bacteria from our fields have been enjoying their new home, contribute creamy and sour notes, bringing praline to the table.
The flaked grains which become baked around Nautilus’s steam coils, gift the whisky with extra toasty, sourdough flavours. Yin and yang, the whisky offers refreshing rye and warming Christmas spices, creamy banana bread and nutty, vanilla notes. Layers of cream, bread and herbs.”
The whisky is also certified organic and is the only English distiller to use genetically diverse populars of ancient heritage organic grains. The distillery itself is also the first certified organic grain-to-glass distillery in the UK.
Ultimately, sustainability is at the heart of the distillery.
The team uses a mix of rye, wheat and barley grain, varieties that were common before 1904, when the advent of modern farming changed how crops were sown and grown.
In the past, farmers grew genetically-diverse landraces that adapted to local growing conditions over many generations. The team’s ‘heritage populations’ are also diverse, resilient and adaptable. Each plant in the field is different, creating a crop which is more vigorous, healthy and hardy than modern monoculture crops – without the need for chemicals.
“Our heritage grain is grown sustainably, eschewing pesticides, chemical fertilisers and even manuring. There is low to no crop rotation and the crop is undersown with clover. All of this contributes to an abundance of wildflowers, insects and birds across our farms.”
Every part of the team’s landrace sustains the agro-ecosystem – from microorganisms in the soil, to insects buzzing and birds flying above.