The Ginterview: Stephen Russell, Copper Rivet Distillery

Copper Rivet Distillery started in 2016 as a family business, and its location in the Historic Dockyard Chatham is one recognised by locals and tourists alike. Founder Stephen Russell tells Kent Gin Co. the story of how the distillery came to be, how its iconic location has influenced its produce and what trends are currently shaping the gin industry.

The Ginterview with Stephen Russell from Copper Rivet banner. Blog written by Natalie Marsh.

Tell me about how you came to establish Copper Rivet Distillery.

My dad has been in the booze business for my whole life. He had a wine bar in Rainham which was the first of its kind outside of London. He started sourcing his own booze for it and then he opened a couple of off-licences, and from there he started a wholesale business. There’s another alcohol business that my brother started with my dad in 1996 and we thought wouldn’t it be great to have our own brands that we make in the way that we want to make them, and we started working on this in earnest in 2011.

Craft gin was already quite a big deal, but one thing that we noticed was that in the craft gin world, there was an absence of craft in our view. And we felt that if we were going to do it that we would need to bring some authenticity to it. So that’s when we set about designing Copper Rivet Distillery. In the process, we realised that actually almost all of the equipment that you need could make whisky as well. Well made English whisky could be something that could be very interesting in the future.

Dockyard Gin

Which product came first?

The whisky followed the gin but only shortly afterwards. In the early days, it took a huge amount of work and repetition to get consistency, so you couldn’t have switched from making the first few batches of Dockyard Gin one day and then distilling whisky the next day. The reality is you can’t sell whisky for three years after you produce it, so the first period was gin making and vodka making.

You’re in an iconic location at the Historic Dockyard Chatham. How important is the dockyard’s heritage to your production?

We found the Pumphouse after months and months of looking at various sites and it became really important. We always knew we were going to make our spirits from grain to glass, or farm to glass, but when we started work on converting the Pumphouse, we started to dig into the history of the dockyard. It became a genuine inspiration for us to think that in that neighbourhood you had some of the most advanced engineering and that influenced some of our decisions.

We were always going to be grain to glass, but being in that location made us think at every stage: ‘OK, what can we do that would be the extra step that we could take to be really crafty?’. Certainly I think being in that location with its heritage, you don’t get the sense that when they built HMS Victory, they were looking to cut corners.

How have you scaled up since the distillery’s inception?

From the plant perspective, we’ve built scalability from the beginning. Our capacity in gin making is much larger than it is in whisky making. We’re still only four years in. At the moment we’re not able to simultaneously make gin, vodka and whisky. Something we’re looking at and working on is how can we tweak that plant so that we can make all three products simultaneously. We’ve got space to add more fermenters and we’ve got roof height so we can increase the size of our stills.

What is your best-selling product?

Dockyard Gin without question. But the Strawberry Gin and the Damson Gin are also ones that people just absolutely love. We make strawberry gin using fresh Kent strawberries and there’s no added sugar in our gin. The challenge is that Kent strawberries are not available all year round, so once we sell out, we have to wait for the strawberry harvest.

I think the Damson Gin is very special - it’s another one that doesn’t have added sugar. We don’t like additives in our products and what we do in place of added sugar is we age the product in oak casks so it takes on that vanilla instead of sugar.

What are the biggest trends you have noticed in the gin industry?

One is that in the ‘craft’ world, you have seen more and more grain to glass producers. I honestly think we were only one of few when we started. It’s still a minority but it’s been a growing theme and we get approached quite a lot by people who are thinking of going down that route. The flavoured gin, pink gin, is another; and then the third I would say, which is just massive, is gin liqueur. They’re low in alcohol, sweet, easy to drink and they’ve got some great fun flavours.

Do you think consumers are becoming more conscious about what they’re buying?

I think there’s an element of exploration. I do think there are people who like the idea of knowing that there are low food miles. Sustainability is something we’re working on very hard. Food miles are obviously key to our carbon footprint. I think it’s nice to think that the grains are grown in Kent, and they might even know the fields where they’re grown and that’s quite romantic. I think there’s an element of that but I still think it’s relatively small.

How have you adapted to the challenges of the past year?

We do still make sanitiser. Things have normalised in the PPE world; there was obviously that emergency phase. It started for us in late January, we were already working on this. And for us, it was a sense of what we could do to help and keep ourselves feeling useful and busy. The pandemic has had a massive impact on us, because we get more than 15,000 tourists visit the site every year, and we had a cafe, which closed in early March and hasn’t reopened. The foundation of our business is actually serving the on-trades, which has obviously been closed.

We’ve completely gutted and transformed our cafe, and what will open in April, outside at least, is The Pumproom at Copper Rivet Distillery - a little relaxed fine dining and bar venue, which I think will be more fitting for the type of drinks we produce. We’re a bit starved of decent fine dining in northwest Kent. We’re also much closer to London than the rest of Kent, plus we have the distillery experience that will draw people out of London and I think that will help put Kent gin on the map as well.


Five final thoughts

Favourite gin?

Dockyard Gin

Favourite tonic and garnish?

Fever-Tree refreshingly light tonic, and then I mix between fresh strawberry or pink grapefruit

Favourite cocktail?

Vespa Martini, made with Vela vodka.

Favourite bar or pub in Kent?

My favourite pub is The Dog at Wingham and then my favourite restaurant is The Sportsman in Seasalter [near Whistable].

Who would you want to share a gin with?

Nelson. He would have been hanging around Chatham Dockyard preparing HMS Victory before heading off to Trafalgar. He’d be a pretty interesting kind of guy. He's seen the world, he was a leader of his time.


Check out Copper Rivet Distillery online here: Website: Instagram: Facebook: Twitter: Want to learn more about Kent gins? We run monthly tastings, available here. Copper Rivet Dockyard Gin features in our private tasting box too. For more information, click here.

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