#21 Exploring down South

On the banks of river Medway: Copper Rivet distillery


TL;DR: Although some of them have been around for many years, English whiskies still feel like the new kid on the block, but what a kid! On this trip, Teresa visited Copper Rivet distillery, in Chatham, and what a nice visit! 

In recent discussions, probably around WhiskyTube or somewhere else on the web, we heard statements like this a few times: “if there’s something to keep scotch whisky producers on their toes, it will be the rising of English whisky”, more or less. Jokes aside, the growth of whisky production South of the border is quite impressive. Last time we checked the English whisky map there were forty (4-0!!) distilleries, seven more since the previous time.

Our experience with English whisky has been quite good so far. Among the first ones we tried there was Bimber, whose crispy and nice character (at least, the ex-bourbon cask matured ones we tried) made it quite sought after recently (also, stay tuned to the blog for our visit to the same owners’ new distillery in Speyside, Dunphail…coming soon!!!). Earlier this year, we visited the Lakes Distillery: its product is very cask forward, but very tasty and balanced as well. One of the best we tried so far is definitely the Cotswold single malt – the bottle we had evaporated quite quickly. It is produced in small batches (5-6,000 bottles), 46%, unchill-filtered, no colour added, vintage year mentioned on the bottle, reasonably priced and available everywhere: what more to ask? We also tried the ex-bourbon cask matured cask strength, quite yummy too!

Something we liked about the English distilleries we encountered so far is that they tend to be very transparent: while their single malt whisky is not ready, they market something else (gin, vodka), and if they use other whiskies, they are quite clear about it (such as The One blended whisky series). Unfortunately not all producers make it clear which is their own spirit and which is sourced…pointing westward.

When a Victorian pump house becomes a distillery: Copper Rivet.

It was also because of these positive experiences that we were very happy when Stephen Russel from Copper Rivet distillery invited us to visit them. Copper Rivet is the only spirit maker in Kent, so an opportunity not to be missed. In October, a couple of months after Stephen’s email, I (Teresa) went to London for work, so why not try to make it there?

I took a train from St. Pancras late on a late afternoon, direction Chatham. Not a very long train ride (40 mins or so), but long enough to enjoy the landscape on this very sunny, almost summery day. The bus stop was right outside the station, but I had to wait quite a bit for the right bus to arrive, which afterwards made me wonder whether taking a long stroll wouldn’t have been easier. Anyway, the Dockside area was in sight, finally!

Once a flourishing industrial harbour, Chatham Dockyard closed in the 80s. Later on, it underwent a revamp and is now home of residential buildings, shops and restaurants, as well as a living museum under the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust. At the end of dock 5, I recognised the brick building I had seen on the distillery website – good, I was in the right place! Stephen later explained that it used to be a Victorian pump house, a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering.

The entire distillery in one shot.

I was welcomed in the small reception (and shop), and I realised no one else was there (well, I could have guessed it from the late hour and the empty car park). So a private distillery visit, yay! Stephen brought me outside and started telling me the story of Copper Rivet. The distillery is essentially a family venture and, quite a peculiar feature, almost a DIY project. They started production in 2016, and everything from grain to bottle is built around a ‘low and slow’ concept, which also implies staying local whenever possible. They source barley from farmers in the area (within 2o miles), which is then malted at Muntons, of course separately from everything else for full traceability.

Stephen then showed me the production area, a big space with a part-glass roof. Mashing is done in brewers’ mash tuns at a low temperature, followed by a very long fermentation (around a week) – again, ‘low and slow’.

Mashing station.

Interestingly, they are equipped with a pot still and a column still, which gives them the opportunity to experiment with distillation. Different from all distilleries Gianluigi and I visited so far, the stills were built by coppersmiths in the area (so no classic Forsyth or Frilli).

Meet Sandy, the pot still.

Stephen remembered, almost amused, how assembling the column still was quite the challenge! For maturation, they use ex-bourbon casks, sometimes in combination with virgin American oak, because the idea is to produce a gentle, very drinkable whisky, even at a young age. Before moving on to the tasting, I noticed another still, which they use to make gin. Another interesting craft project.

Meet…the gin still (sorry I forgot your name!).

From the production area, we entered the cocktail bar and restaurant they run alongside the distillery, the Pumproom. A big but nonetheless very cosy place, with a beautiful view on the marina…Not bad at all as a place for the tasting! First off, a wee taste of vodka (yes, they also produce vodka from scratch like Arbikie, although not from potatoes but from grains) and of their briefly aged spirit (Son of a Gun, reduced at 47.4%), to get a sense of the spirit produced – very fruity in my opinion.

To warm up the palate.

Then, the whiskies: a single malt whisky (~5y, classic double pot distilled, 45%), a column malt whisky (~3y, mix of column and pot distillation, 45%) and a grain whisky (~3y, combination of wheat, barley and rye, 42%). All uncoloured and unchilled filtered, as clearly stated on the labels, together with information on grains provenance and barrels composition – big shout out for such transparency! My favourite was the column malt whisky because to me it better brought out the fruity character of the spirit, but actually, they’re all very good sippers.

Young whiskies, yummy whiskies.

Overall, a great experience with an excellent host. Also, a unique opportunity to start filling our gap of knowledge about English whisky, a more and more interesting and bustling world. This calls for more trips down South, definitely. Until then, slainte!

Copper Rivet distillery tour and tasting

Price: £15.00 pp (October 2022, but I was invited)

Duration: 1h

Tasting: Vela Vodka (mix of wheat, barley and rye, 40%), Son of a Gun spirit (mix of wheat, barley and rye, 47.4%), Masthouse single malt whisky (~5y, classic double pot distilled, 45%), Masthouse column malt whisky (~3y, mix of column and pot distillation, 45%) and Masthouse grain whisky (~3y, mix of wheat, barley and rye, 42%)

Target: anyone

Value for money: very good (assuming the public tour is similar to the one I had)

Highlights: the beautiful location and the experimental production process

Link: https://copperrivetdistillery.com/