Sheffield Distillery is based in the beer garden of popular locals pub, The Commercial on Station Road, near to the banks of the Blackburn Brook in Chapeltown; and fittingly, the idea to start the distillery was formed right there at the pub during a gin tasting event.
Paul Harrison is the assistant manager at The Commercial, and is one of a group of five spirit lovers behind Sheffield Distillery.
He describes how, after a few drinks at the tasting, the group thought “we could do this” and began discussing the possibility of taking a leap and starting a distillery themselves.
"We were in the middle of a tasting, we’d had a few drinks and thought: ‘Why don’t we give it a go,” explains Paul.
The other four members of the group are The Commercial’s landlord and director, Paul Menzies; along with the pub’s other director and brewer at Chapeltown’s White Rose Brewery, Gary Sheriff; Gary’s grandson, David Sheriff and Roger Audley who became the fifth member of the group when he invested in the distillery last year.
The group were united in their vision to “make spirits properly,” by hand using “smell; taste; sight; intuition; knowledge and passion.”
Paul and his father are both big fans of whisky, with Paul decribing himself as a “bit of a nerd” when it comes to distilling; and much of the knowledge he has, which is put to good use at Sheffield Distillery, has been self-taught.
He explains how the ultimate aim of Sheffield Distillery is to eventually produce a range of whisky, but Paul admits they are currently at least three to five years off being able to do that, due to the maturation process, the process of leaving a spirit for a certain amount of time.
For now, Sheffield Distillery is primarily concerned with their selection of gins and vodkas, which have gained national recognition at the International Spirit Challenge awards, competing with giants of the spirits world such as Pernod Richard who own Absolut vodka; Beefeater gin; Martell Cognac; Havana Club rum; Malibu, among others.
Most recently, this year they have won the gold award for their Assay Vodka in the Super Premium Wheat Category, as well as bronze awards for their Assay Strawberry & Black Pepper Vodka in the Vodka Flavoured - Berry category and for their Assay St Clements Gin in the Distilled Flavoured Category
A pretty impressive feat for an operation run from what Paul jokingly refers to as a “shed in North Sheffield.”
Paul and the rest of the group took the decision to distill using a copper pot still, which was selected firstly because it is the only way you can make a single malt whisky; but also because it creates a “clean product with an exquisite and syrupy mouthfeel” and the kind of bitter texture you want from a gin.
“The copper acts as a purifier. There’s a chemical reaction that happens that puts out some of the chemical compounds, and the copper nullifies certain compounds.
“The more time it takes, the more it is exposed to the copper, and the better the alcohol will be,” explains Paul.
He continues: “We distill our spirits very slowly. Alcohol evapourates at 78.5C, and we try to keep the temperature at 80C for as long as possible.”
The name Sheffield Distillery was registered in 2017, but the group did not start distilling until September 2018 due to it taking a little while to get the paperwork in order and to get the distillery fitted out with all the equipment they need.
Paul et al used that time to educate themselves further on the distilling process.
He says the Distillery’s still and condensing tank was made by a specialist coppersmith in Portugal; while the rest of the work and equipment was carried, and/or fitted, out by members of the team, including Gary who’s an engineer, as well as professionals including an electrician.
The distillery itself is housed within an old office previously used on building sites, which is on stilts, that Paul jokingly refers to as a “shed”.
Paul describes himself as a “purist” who likes “high quality spirits”; and believes you should be able to really be able to taste the juniper in gin.
“A lot of gins on the market almost try to hide the juniper,” he notes, adding: “All of our gins are heavy in juniper, and the flavours in our other gins come off that, depending on what gin we’re making.”
Early on in Sheffield Distillery’s journey, they gained permission from the Assay Master to use the Sheffield Assay mark, bringing with it the “mark of quality” to their brand.
Their Assay collection, referring to the institutions set up to test the purity of precious metals that have come to be known as a “sign of quality”, contains four gins and three vodkas, including a dry gin, a liquorice gin, a rhubarb and custard gin, and a St Clements gin.
The St Clements gin forms part of their collection of four Assay gins they are hoping to bring out soon with each one representing the location of the UK’s four Assay offices in Sheffield, Birmingham, London and Edinburgh.
Paul describes how they have tried to reflect the history of each of the four Assay offices through the flavours and tasting notes present in the gin.
The St Clements gin, which is available to buy from their website now, represents Sheffield’s office, with the name chosen as a nod to St Clements – one of the city’s patron saints – and as such, the gin benefits from the use of fresh clementines and lemons during the winter months when clementines are in season.
Notes of liquorice are also present, which Paul describes as an “homage” to iconic Sheffield sweet manufacturer, Bassetts.
Meanwhile, their Assay vodka collection includes a roasted rhubarb vodka, a strawberry jam and black pepper vodka and their flagship vodka which won a Bronze Medal in the Super Premium Wheat Category at the International Spirits Challenge 2020 and a Gold Medal in the Super Premium Wheat Category at the International Spirits Challenge 2021, and is slow distilled in their copper still.
Other tipples from their collection include a Lemoncello, a Clemencello and an Lemoncello gin, all of which have been made using fresh lemons and clementines, peeled by hand; and sound simply perfect for summer.
Last May, Paul was sadly involved in an accident at the distillery which resulted in a fire, that led to him suffering from second and third degree burns over 40 per cent of his body.
This meant the distillery was unable to produce “next to nothing” during the following June and September, while the Health and Safety Executive came out to compile a report on the “freak accident.”
Despite this, and the closure of pubs and bars, Sheffield Distillery experienced their “best year ever” last year, which Paul attributes to people drinking more at home during Covid lockdowns.
Word of Sheffield Distillery’s fantastic collection of spirits is continuing to spread, and you can currently purchase their vodka and gin from Sheffield stockists including Mitchells Wines in Meadowhead; Craft and Berry on Ecclesall Road and The Commerical too of course.
Those who prefer to shop online can also order via their website at: https://www.sheffielddistillery.co.uk/