Since opening last summer, Maidstone Distillery is making its mark on the town centre by producing three spirits, running a shop, hosting distillery tours, and most recently, opening a bar. Founders Darren and Sam Graves tell Kent Gin Co. about their desire to honour the town's long history of distilling while giving it a modern twist.
Why did you decide to set up Maidstone Distillery?
Darren: Both Sam and I left our jobs over three years ago. I was a distilling hobbyist at the time. We’re both spirits enthusiasts and we like understanding where our drinks are from, and their back stories. We always had an interest but I don’t think for one second we thought we were going to set up a distillery.
One day I just searched: “What’s the history of distilling in Kent?” I think I even squirreled it down to: “What’s the history of distilling in Maidstone?” not expecting to find anything, and I couldn’t believe it! I found a document written in 1951 by a gentleman at that time who was lamenting this forgotten industry of distilling in Maidstone. As I read more, I realised it wasn’t just one distillery, there were two really famous distilleries in the town; two fascinating families that had run these distilleries over many decades. Actually, this industry became a lifeblood of the town for 250 years, and that really got under my skin.
We thought we could really champion this and really take it forward. Certainly for me it was a hobby and a passion but it was ignited by this idea that distilling had been a really significant industry, something the town should be proud of. I think some people are quick to judge the town and not really see it for its strengths, and hopefully, what we’re trying to do is bring a bit of interest into this history but with a modern spin on it. I don’t want to get lost in the past.
How much do you reference the history of Maidstone’s distilling past?
Sam: We do that across the board really. We have four brand pillars, which are community engagement, customer experience, quality product, and history and legacy. Our logo is George Bishop - that’s him standing in the door with his hat aloft, being welcomed into the third Maidstone distillery, which is what we are, in the history of 250 years. What we want to do is with each spirit tell a story of something significant locally.
So George Bishop, there’s a significant story about him and the first Maidstone distillery; Ranscombe Wild is about the Kent countryside, then with the Sharps Toffee Liqueur, there was such an amazing legacy of sweet making in Maidstone, which is very well known. But what we want to do is to have a modern twist to those and make it appealing to all generations.
Darren: I wouldn’t say all of our products are going to have a historical link, it’s more about the authenticity and picking up the mantle and doing the distilling as best as we can.
How much of a learning experience has it been to open and run your own distillery?
Darren: It’s been a huge learning curve, every aspect of it. From not only the distilling, but the branding, the marketing, operating a shop, running tours, it’s all totally new to us. We work with a gentleman called Gerard Evans; he’s a master distiller. He gives us the technical backup, if you like. He helps us design our recipes, and everything we formulate we do it in our distillery and he’s there to help us and guide us. He’s been in the industry for over 10 years and is something of a botanical expert.
Do you think your distillery has filled a gap in the market of Maidstone’s venues?
Darren: I think Maidstone does appeal in terms of its night time economy to younger people at bars and clubs. I would almost certainly say for those who are 30, maybe 35 and older, there’s perhaps a more limited range of leisure activities. I think we do appeal to that demographic and in terms of independence. Frédéric Bistro is a fantastic independent; Vesuvius restaurant is another great independent, but there aren’t a great number of independent businesses in Maidstone, unlike some places like Canterbury and Tunbridge Wells. We’re hopefully contributing to that independent scene and I think people want that, and want to associate those things with their town. Sam: People like to experience things. It’s so vital to customers now; experiential days out, something you can do which is more than just buying something in a shop. In Maidstone, that’s something people can come and do here. It’s in a town centre location, it’s easy to get to and it can be combined with a day out in the town.
How have you adapted to the challenges of the past year?
Sam: A product that we brought in during lockdown was the virtual tasting experience. We had to close our doors to tours which we sorely missed; on a weekly basis, we were meeting so many people and people were getting a chance to experience the distillery. In the absence of that, we launched the virtual tastings which have been very popular. They get a chance to taste a miniature of each of the gins and get an overview of how we distil them and the history behind the distillery. Darren: The virtual events went really well and the direct customer sales have been really strong. We’ve been increasing our exposure through retail outlets, we got into hand sanitiser. It’s something we joke about - we actually made hand sanitiser before we made and sold our first spirits. That was a good thing for us to come from this crisis. We made thousands of litres and we were supplying the large rail networks locally. We haven’t done that more recently, we’re focusing on our spirit production.
What are some of the biggest changes that you’ve noticed in the gin industry?
Darren: Gin is a very interesting category. It’s had so much energy behind it recently. It’s our national drink and we’re all much more aware of that now; there’s some real innovation going on. The purists making more traditional London-dry style gins, contemporary gins, they’re experimenting with unusual botanicals, much like our Ranscombe Wild. There’s flavoured options out there for those with a sweet tooth and there’s liqueur spin offs. Some are even using barrels and maturation, ageing gins, and using different distilling techniques as well.
We’re using a traditional copper pot still, but people are using vacuum distillation as well, so there’s some incredible innovation going on. That’s been bolstered by the craft nature of distilling. It’s an exciting place to be for consumers, there is so much choice and variety, it’s quite an exciting thing. Sam: Cocktails with gin is a whole industry in itself; it’s such a versatile spirit. There’s some Instagrammers out there and they show some beautiful cocktails you can make with gin. And they’re so varied. I think that really helps the gin craze, because you can buy a bottle of gin and you can experience it in so many different ways. Even down to Fever Tree, which we work with, how many different kinds of tonic water there are. With the same bottle of gin, you can enjoy it in a myriad of different ways, it's so versatile.
Five final thoughts
Sam: George Bishop - we’ve made a gin that we love. Darren: It depends on the mood because I do like Ranscombe but it’s a slightly lighter drink. George Bishop has quite a robust profile. Favourite mixer and garnish? Sam: Fever Tree. We recommend the standard Indian tonic, either refreshingly light or full fat. In terms of garnish, it's lovely with a bit of dried grapefruit or orange. It really brings out the citrus notes in the gin. Darren: I would agree. It works with a neutral tonic. Favourite cocktail? Sam: A Ranscombe Wild gin mojito. Darren: A martini but with the George Bishop. It’s delicious neat, and I love it in a martini Favourite bar or pub in Kent? Sam: We love going to The Swan in West Malling. It’s a really nice dining experience and there’s a bar as well. It’s a very special night out, you get dressed up for it, and it’s good fun. Who would you want to share a gin with? Darren: It’s got to be George Bishop. I’d love to hear what he thought and to pick his brains. Hopefully he would be proud of what we’re trying to do. Sam: For me, it would be Dame Kelly Holmes. I follow her on Instagram. She looks like such a fun and bubbly person, and she loves gin!
Maidstone Distillery has opened Bishop's Bar, which can be found at the Corn Exchange, Market Buildings in Maidstone.
For more information about Maidstone Distillery and its spirits, visit: https://themaidstonedistillery.com.