The Victorians had a thing for waterworks. The machinery which transformed society and industry, they clad in buildings as good as palaces. Crenellations, towers, ornate brickworked structures like gussied up churches, they window dressed the plainer iron and clank beyond with the architectural equivalent of a crinoline.
One such building, Pumphouse Number 5, sits behind The Historic Dockyard in Chatham, right on the River Medway. Hidden by modern carbuncles, gravel splashed out in front instead of lawn, its true glories as a building are really better seen from across the river in Upnor. Which is how Matthew Russell came across it, picnicking with his family, and decided to buy it and turn it into a bastion of another Victorian obsession: gin.
The Copper Rivet Distillery has been producing spirits for a year now, and like a filled shot glass, it’s small, serious and packing quite a punch, having just won double gold this spring at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition for its vodka. But it’s the gin that intrigues, and for which people are coming, to see how this popular spirit travels from grain to glass. Copper Rivet offers tours of the distillery five days a week (the other two being production days).
Out front, a small, parquet-floored, high-ceilinged bar area serves shots and cocktails in a clean, warm environment, wryly akin to a simple temperance chapel. Bare wood and copper fixings give it a simple, lightly rustic elegance. But through a TARDIS-blue door lies the distillery. A peek through the window reveals calm, quiet, and three huge, beautiful, copper stills straight out of steampunk.
The first thing that hits you when you walk through the door is the smell. Warm, deep, yeasty. Essentially, the early stages of beer production. We are talked through the machinery, following the flow of grain through hopper to tun. There has been a resurgence of traditional breweries and distilleries in recent years. A backlash against the stranglehold of multinational, mass-produced bland beers and chain pubs. Kent, once the home of the hop for nearly all UK beer, is picking up once again, and Copper Rivet ensures that, for its spirits, everything up to the point of added botanicals is produced and sourced locally.
We peer into a huge, silver fermentation tank. A perfect circle of liquid lies far below, pale, cloudy yellow, like a planet. It scuds and fizzes and I think of Jovian storms and Belgian pubs. Indeed, it could become beer at this point. But after less than a week, it’s on to the stills, to become spirit.
The stills are wonderful. Each is named, like a pet hen: Sandy, for whisky, Joyce, for vodka, Janet for gin. Named after Russell family members, each has an anthropomorphological character. Sandy looks like the copper silhouette of a wizard visiting from Trumpton. Joyce is slender and impossibly tall. And Janet looks like BB-8 with Pob ears, a bespoke design to allow botanicals to be both macerated and infused (gin is normally produced with either one process or the other).
The whole process is fascinating. A tactile experience, and a story filled with science, nature and history, shared by an enthusiastic guide. After the academics, there is the tasting. The whisky won’t be ready for another three years, but there are tasters of the gin (cardamom notes), vodka (grappa-like) and Son of a Gun (a plain spirit which has spent time in a whisky cask and has a resultant Scotch kick), before a proper G&T with a twist of pink grapefruit served in the bar afterwards.
The whole experience is delicious. I leave happy and giddy, and not just because I’ve had a cool glass on a balmy summer’s night.
The Copper Rivet Distillery offers tours from Wednesday through to Sunday at £12 per person, including an après-tour G&T. Go to www.copperrivetdistillery.com for details.
Photo by Nigel Henbest