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Innovation, choice and showcasing local ingredients is driving sales of gin – Dr Ulrich Dyer

Our love affair with gin continues to flourish with a predicted £3bn gin empire in the UK by the end of 2020. Dr Ulrich Dyer, founder of the Woodlab Distillery, examines how innovation, choice and buying local is keeping our glasses well and truly topped up. Eleanor McGillie reports.

According to a Wine and Spirit Trade Association report British consumers purchased more than 60 million bottles of gin in the 12 months leading up to June 2018. The Association has also revealed that £2.1bn worth of gin was sold in the UK in 2018.

The figures are staggering and our love for gin is definitely not waning. On the other hand, sales of Prosecco and other sparkling wines have reportedly dropped by three million bottles as consumers are turning to artisan gins as their drink of choice.

And, according to HM Revenue & Customs, tax revenues from sales of spirits have overtaken those from beer for the first time amid record sales of gin with British drinkers downing 12% more gin last year.

Dr Ulrich Dyer, a Harvard post-doctoral fellow and chemist from Yorkshire, is a distiller, strategist and scientist based in Benburb, Co Tyrone. He credits innovation, more choice and consumers choosing to buy local, for the success of the booming gin industry.

Ulrich is the owner of The Woodlab Distillery where the Symphonia gin range is distilled. It’s a range which was launched in June 2018 and was recently recommended by the food and wine writer for The Guardian, Fiona Beckett, who highlighted Symphonia as one of the standout Irish gins.

Symphonia No 1, a dry gin, is a beautiful harmony of flavours including basil, rose and dandelion flowers. Symphonia No 2 is an Armagh Bramley Apple Gin and is truly unique, while Symphonia No 3, the Fruit Cup, is a summer fruit drink inspired by the raspberries and strawberries grown in his garden.

Ulrich’s story is one of innovation and sense of place and it is this story which is attracting consumers. He spent 30 years working as a chemist in laboratories discovering treatments for asthma, HIV, influenza and cancer. But he always had a desire to break away and do something creative within the food and drink sector but was unsure as to how to become involved. Like many, he was watching with great interest, the rise of craft gin. He researched how he could get involved and make gin in a way which would combine his passion for the Irish countryside with his background and passion for science.

“I spent months studying the industry,” said Ulrich. “I was reading stories, sampling gins, reading profiles on gin distillers and studying how they were making an impact in craft gin. One thing which stood out was how consumers are looking for more locally-produced gins – gins which represent the location where they are made and the passion they are made with. This very much mirrors the trend in craft beers which has undergone a transformation away from the anonymous beers of the past.

“I wanted to do something innovative. I started thinking about provenance, the locality and how I could produce gins in the most environmentally friendly way possible. I was looking around me, in my own garden and in the hedgerows, to see what I could use.

“I wanted, where possible, to use ingredients grown in the area to give my spirits a real authenticity so I came up with the idea to use my scientific knowledge to analyse the flavour molecules in commonly-used gin botanicals and then identify suitable replacements which grow locally.

“One example is in the recipe for Symphonia no 1. I wanted to find a replacement for cubeb pepper, a characteristic flavour you will find in gins, which is grown in Indonesia. I discovered that dandelion has the same flavour molecules so I replaced cubeb pepper with something we have growing in abundance in the hedgerows around where we live.

“Another example of innovation is my approach to distillation. I use two distillation techniques to preserve flavours which are lost during traditional distillation.

“The first technique, vacuum distillation, allows me to distil botanicals at room temperature which preserves the delicate molecules in basil and rose for example. How they are distilled can dramatically alter the flavour. For example, when it is distilled cold, ginger brings fresh citrus notes, but, when it is distilled hot, the heat transforms the taste into spicy, ginger biscuit elements. That is just one example and it was by distilling each of these botanicals separately, under optimum conditions, that I was able to tease out the desired flavours.”

The second technique Ulrich uses is microwave extraction which is a highly efficient distillation process which was recently introduced in the perfumery industry. Ulrich adopted this to produce his gins, which, for him, seemed an obvious extension of the technique.

He added: “To my knowledge, no other gin maker has adopted this technique yet. It utilises the fact that many botanicals have water molecules within their cell structure and the microwaves very efficiently heat up these water molecules exactly in the same way we use a domestic microwave and allows me to produce ultra concentrated distillates.

Dr Ulrich Dyer distils the Symphonia No 1, No 2 and No 3 range from The Woodlab Distillery in Co Tyrone

“Using these techniques gives us a wider palette of flavours we can use in the spirits compared to those gins produced from traditional methods and we use significantly less energy to produce our gins.”

The Woodlab Distillery is not your typical gin distillery. It’s not what you imagine, yet, when you are in there, you can feel the creativity, the ambition to succeed and there’s an air of invention.

The Symphonia range was launched in June 2018 at World Gin Day at Junipalooza in London and Ulrich’s unique story captured the attention of the Gin Guild in London where he was invited last year to speak to an audience of all Master Distillers of gin.

In March this year, he took the Symphonia range to London Borough Market as part of the Food NI Taste The Greatness of Northern Ireland initiative.

He said: “The reaction to the Symphonia range in London was outstanding. We poured approximately 5,000 samples to gin enthusiasts who were keen to try something new and also were very interested in our story of innovation. We had a wall of people, four or five deep, waiting to taste the Dry Gin, our Apple Gin and our Fruit Cup. It was incredible and the feedback on all three was brilliant.

“It’s really phenomenal to watch how the gin market is growing. Consumers now have more choice than ever before and there is a gin out there for everyone, even those who have never previously considered gin. They want something more interesting than just a simple glass of beer or wine. They want the more sophisticated experience which they will find in gin and cocktail bars. People now seek that cosmopolitan experience.

Dr Ulrich Dyer picking dandelions at The Woodlab Distillery in Co Tyrone where he distils the Symphonia gin range.

“It is also truly remarkable how this age old spirit boosts job creation and the economy through the establishment of gin distilleries, gin bars, gin tours and gin experiences.

It’s people like Ulrich who captivate the attention of the sophisticated gin drinker.

“It’s not rocket science,” he says. “I simply extract the essence of the Irish countryside and bottle it. Admittedly it’s a different approach and the end result is some gins which people seem to love. It’s not just me. There are other people in the industry doing remarkable things and it is down to their creations which are shaping the route of the overall gin experience.”

To buy Symphonia online, visit www.symphoniagin.com

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