Please tell us about yourself
With an advanced science background, Abhishek Banik makes the ideal head distiller at Chatham Dockyard’s Copper Rivet Distillery
Tell us how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I grew up in Kolkata, in West Bengal, where I did my schooling. I then studied Biotechnology at Bangalore University, which introduced me to fermentation science; distillation was covered under Chemistry. In India we are not taught about alcoholic beverages, but it didn’t take me long to link fermentation and distillation and develop an interest in this sector.
After finishing my degree I applied for the Masters of Science in Brewing and Distilling at the International Centre of Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh. I worked as a research associate there, then enrolled for a PhD, during which time I was also employed by the University as a teaching assistant and worked on many government-funded KTP projects.
Tell us about Copper Rivet
Copper Rivet Distillery was set up by the Russell family, Bob and his sons Matthew and Stephen, and launched its first spirit in November 2016. Their dream since 2005 had been to establish their own distillery in the Chatham area.
The Copper Rivet Distillery sits on the banks of the Medway in Chatham’s Historic Dockyard. It is housed in a Victorian Pumphouse which is home to three stills, all named after Matthew and Stephen Russell’s grandparents: our Gin still is called Janet; our Column still is Joyce and our Whisky still is Sandy.
What process do you use?
Our first gin was distilled in September 2016 and the range now includes Dockyard Gin, Vela Vodka and a cask-finished English grain spirit called Son of a Gun. Masthouse Whiskies will be available from 2020, once they have matured in barrel. We are one of only six UK distilleries to control the whole distillation process from grain to glass for our vodka and gin. Our water is filtered through chalk beds to let Copper Rivet’s yeast deliver its signature fruity esters during fermentation. Local farmers, the Burdens, have been contracted to grow and harvest the cereals we use for our spirits – wheat, barley and rye. These are grown on the Isle of Sheppey and near Canterbury.
How do you promote?
Our emphasis has been on outreach at local community events such as the Oyster and Dickens Festivals. We also host regular tours and work closely with the team at Visit Kent.
We bring a wide range of media to the distillery and at other times we take the distillery to the media, holding tastings in top London bars.
How many staff here?
Copper Rivet Distillery now employs 15 people including a team that focuses on the visitor experience, an events team and trade sales as well as brand ambassadors. Including myself, there are three permanent members of staff in the production team. We also have three part-time team members.
How do you market?
Dockyard Gin, Vela Vodka and Son of a Gun are available via a number of online spirits retailers and direct from the Distillery. They are also served in a number of bars and restaurants in Kent and London. In 2017 we had a big programme of sponsorships with food and sailing festivals and markets at which we could let the public taste our spirits. Tours around the distillery are also really central to spreading the word.
A typical working day?
It starts with preparation for brewing and distilling, jobs like weighing the grain for brewing, while simultaneously prepping for distillation. Once this is complete we start brewing, which involves milling the grain, mashing in with hot water, temperature profiling the mash then lautering it to separate the sweet wort from the spent grains. This can take up to six hours.
A wash distillation, which involves distilling the wash at eight per cent alcohol by volume to separate and concentrate the alcohol to up to 25 per cent abv can take the same amount of time and is often done alongside the brewing.
The days when we are doing a spirit distillation take 12 hours and we tend to do these twice a week. We start just after 8am, and finish around 6.30pm, but some days could be as late as 11pm.
Have you won any awards?
Our Vela Vodka won a Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirit Competition in April 2017, just six months after it was first launched. All three of our products, Dockyard Gin, Vela Vodka and Son of a Gun, scooped silver awards at the 2017 International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC) too.
Marks out of 10 for the job?
11 out of 10! I get to spend each day working in an industry I am passionate about and to experiment with new flavours and tastes and make exciting spirits for everyone to enjoy!