Oxford receives its first distillery, its first gin and a plan for a second with a University link
Driven partly by the need for commercial sustainability for the University’s Botanic Garden, Director Simon Hiscock has awarded a trailblazing new Oxford distillery, TOAD, a 25-year license to produce spirits in partnership with the Garden, starting with an ‘Oxford PhySicke’ gin.
Like other early botanical gardens, Oxford’s garden was founded in 1621 as a ‘physic’ or physician’s garden full of medicinal plants, which were used for teaching students. Botany, or plant science, as it’s known today, had yet to be established – the purpose of the garden was purely medical. Teachers and students at Oxford used the plants in the garden to prepare tinctures and potions – the forerunners of modern pharmaceuticals. Anti-cancer drugs come from yew; aspirin from willow.
Gin was historically used for its medicinal qualities – the alcohol was a way of getting people to take their medicine, in the form of botanicals. King William of Orange introduced this Dutch and Belgian ‘ginevra’ drink to England.
After meeting socially, Hiscock and TOAD’s founder Tom Nicolson hit on the idea of a partnership in which TOAD would create a bespoke Oxford University gin, using botanicals which are either grown in Oxford’s Botanic Garden, or which were named in its original 1640s list of plants it cultivated. On the list – written in Latin– are juniper, angelica, ‘and a lot of other interesting botanicals that can be put into a gin recipe,’ says Hiscock. Eventually the gin’s juniper will be grown at Harcourt Arboretum – the 130-acre cousin of the botanic garden at Nuneham Courtney – but in the meantime the gin will be made with wild juniper from the Chilterns, he notes.
TOAD, Oxford’s first ever legal distillery, launched this July at a purpose-built site in South Parks where visitors can watch spirits being tumbled in traditional ‘stills’, breathe in the yeasty scent of freshly milled and fermented grains, and watch master distiller Cory Mason at work concocting blends from a huge range of botanicals. This is one of a handful of distilleries in the UK to prepare its own neutral spirit on site and the only distillery in the world to use sustainably grown ancient heritage grains – in this case from bio-diverse fields within a 50-mile radius of Oxford. Many of TOAD’s botanicals across its product range will be hand-picked from the Oxford Botanic Garden and even some yeasts destined for TOAD spirits are currently being cultured from yeasts foraged from the Garden.
TOAD’s first product, Oxford Dry Gin (pictured left ), went on sale in July, but the PhySicke gin produced for the Botanic Garden and inspired by its unique history is expected to launch later this year. It will, says Tom Nicolson, ‘capture the essence of pre-recreational alcohol – when flavoured tinctures played a central role in medicine and wellbeing.’ The exact blend of botanicals is currently being perfected in a laboratory at TOAD headquarters by Cory Mason. ‘There are some unusual ones that won’t be divulged,’ says Hiscock.
Their plan, Hiscock reveals, is to follow up the gin with a ‘Black Pine’ whiskey, inspired by the garden’s huge black pine beloved by Tolkien, which fell down in a storm in 2014. The tree was said to be Tolkien’s inspiration for the ‘Ent’ tree-like people in Lord of the Rings. ‘We’ve still got a lot of the wood and we will use some to make the wooden stoppers for the bottle,’ says Hiscock. The amount of barley needed for the whiskey would be too great to be grown in the Botanic Garden but will be farmed locally using heritage grains.
The Botanic Garden and TOAD may also bring vodkas flavoured with unusual historic plants from the garden to the market in the future. ‘We would like to have more exclusive products linked to Oxford’s Botanic Garden,’ Hiscock says.
The Oxford PhySicke gin will be on sale at the Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum, as well as at the distillery and selected bars and retailers.