Full name: Stephen Geoffrey Russell
DOB: 26 April 1977
Birthplace: Chatham, River Medway, Kent
Twitter Handle: @rivetdistillery
Fun Fact: A lover of nutrition, sailing, rugby and gin. At the end of a summer job, was the longest serving employee on a Bordeaux bottling line …
So, let’s start at the beginning. We could say that you come from something of a drinks dynasty. Your Dad, Bob, opened Kent’s first wine bar back in the late 70s, and he’s working with you and your brother Matthew today to make this thing a reality. You mentioned that you’d been involved with his business when you were a lad, but would later go onto a career in banking. Was opening a distillery always part of the plan or something more recent? Who’s idea was it originally and how’s the experience been so far?
That’s right, whatever we’ve done in life – school, social, university or early careers – the family business has always been a feature. It was the topic of conversation at the dinner table, it was our weekend and school holiday jobs. I don’t really feel I’ve ever NOT been attached to the industry – even if not in it. The idea of creating our own spirits brands has always been in the
The idea of creating our own spirits brands has always been in the background; but it became a serious pursuit about 6 years ago. Like many collective decisions it’s hard to pin point who’s idea it was, but given Dad’s long history in the industry, I think he must take credit.
The experience so far has been amazing. Of course we’ve had frustrations and setbacks; but to come to the point where we have three amazing spirits -Dockyard Gin, Vela Vodka and Son of a Gun Cask Finished English Grain Spirit – and to see the reception they’re getting – whether that’s locally, among some of the top bars in London or on the Global Awards Stage – is just wonderful. It is making all the effort to go the extra mile (as we do at Copper Rivet Distillery) well worth it.
Building on from that, you’ve been open a few months now and things are looking quite splendid as far as I can see. Please tell us a little about the various things you produce and what you’re looking to create in the near future? The vodka was quite something!
Right. We make four spirits and like only 5 other gin distillers in Britain), Copper Rivet Distillery distills all of the Spirits from field to glass ourselves, using local grain grown specifically for us, to our specification. Our spirits are distilled in three stills designed by our team and wrought locally. We do all of this to maintain total control of the process and to drive through exactly the profile of Spirits we seek and at an outstanding quality.
We are producing:
Vela Vodka – smooth, sweet, creamy and peppery notes. As an English Grain Vodka it’s already a rarity. The flavour is very distinctive. And we’re proud to be able to say that it’s been recognised as world class, having just been awarded Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Son of a Gun is our wildcard. It’s a Cask Finished English Grain Spirit. How? Create a new make (Whisky), distill to 94.8% ABV to purify and smoothen, age for 2 months in used American Oak Bourbon Barrels, charcoal filter and let it rest for a week. It produces a smooth, sweet, rum, raisins spirit at 47.4% ABV which is incredibly versatile for mixologists (can be used in almost style of cocktail) or makes a beautiful Whisky-style drink neat, or over ice.
Dockyard Gin is a beautifully easy drinking English Gin which is refreshing, floral, sweet and has a peppery spiciness. We usually serve it with pink grapefruit which adds some light citrus and bitterness. It’s very moorish as a g&t but makes an excellent Martini, Vespa (in combination with Vela Vodka) or our signature Elderflower Collins.
Masthouse Single Malt Whisky – we’ve just laid our first batch to age so, in truth, we don’t know what it will be like. But we can tell a lot from the ‘new make’ which was extremely malty. Given the nature of Son of a Gun we’re very, very excited about Masthouse Single Malt Whisky which already has the potential to be category defining.
There’s something for everyone! So long as you love beautifully made, ultra crafted (even) spirits.
Your Head Distiller, Abhishek Banik has actually invented his own (patent pending?) still design for the Copper Rivet Distillery, right? Could you tell us a little more about how you met him up in Edinburgh and what he’s like? He sounds like an exciting guy…
Abhi is amazing. And yes, it’s true. When we started working together and discussing stills he told us about this idea he’d been working on – essentially to create a single still which (for our gin) combines maceration and vapour infusion techniques. There is other technology too, but I can’t say too much just now. The logic and the theory of what he presented made sense – so we said ‘let’s go for it!’
I met Abhi at the International Centre of Brewing and Distilling at Herriot Watt University in Edinburgh. It seemed a logical place for me to look for a Distiller! I was being shown around by a senior member of the faculty and Abhi was teaching a practical distillation course to students. He worked with us for quite a while as a consultant and when we eventually got the keys to Pumphouse Number 5 he moved to Kent and began to work with us full time as we started to resuscitate the building and give its new life!
Our goal is to create a Spirits centre of excellence here in Chatham and having Abhi as the foundation of that is key – you start with the best! We’ve then added to his team a local boy who graduated in chemical engineering from a Russell group university as our Assistant Distiller and have just added another engineering graduate from our local university. Abhi’s expertise as an educator and a communicator are obviously incredibly important – and we’re on the way!
Asides from you folks, what else in good in terms of food and drink in Chatham? Anything we should look out far
There’s an increasingly great food and drink scene. It might be unfair for me to name names but I will. Powder and Magazine is just on the opposite side of the river to us in Upnor by the castle and is great, Topes is a Rochester perennial, the Flippin Frog in Rochester is great with an amazing music scene to add the feel, Brettingtons is a great surf and turf and cocktails place.
Then further afield I have to give a mention to The Swan at West Malling and The Dog at Wingham. There’s so much going in Kent just now it’s fantastic for food and drink lovers.
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the distilling business?
At present we distil whenever we need; but we have the space and the scale to distil 24 hours a day, when we have developed the business.
What’s your greatest/most memorable professional moment been, so far?
The obvious answer is finding out we’d won the coveted Double Gold for our Vela Vodka in the San Francisco Spirits competition, in May 2017 – just 6 months after we distilled our first spirit – that was an amazing validation of all the extra effort we’ve put into our spirit. But, honestly, it’s every time I see someone taste the spirits, any of them, for the first time – there’s this slow realisation which emerges on their face … this spirit is good, this spirit is really good – wow. Seeing people experience the spirit like is incredible for all of us.
Where do you get your ideas?
I’d love to say it’s when I am sailing out on the Medway in my boat. But it’s on those rare occasions I get with my brother and Abhi and we’re just ‘riffing’. My favourite sentence is ‘wouldn’t it be great if …’. Everything we’re doing, which is out of the ordinary or going the extra mile, came from one of those – let’s say more relaxed – moments together where sentences started with those word.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had, how did you overcome it, and what did you learn from it?
It took us 6 years from having the dream and distilling our first drop. It is an expensive business, and the challenge has been not to rush a great idea. Quality is everything.
Who’s the person who’s most inspired you in your work – food industry or otherwise? Is there anyone that you draw inspiration or strength from? Do you have any specific culinary influences?
The business is my dad, my brother and myself. I can’t speak for them but my Dad is my hero and my inspiration in business. I say that for many reasons but he’s been in the business so long, and always been an innovator. I have an enormous admiration for brother who’s driven this thing harder than anyone. Otherwise my main culinary influences South and East Asian – I suppose we wouldn’t have had those without the ships built at Chatham and the work they did in opening up the trade routes for Britain.
What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?
I enjoy making something world class in an area which has been in the doldrums. We aim to be part of its brighter future, and employ local people. I don’t enjoy red tape, but we’re cutting through it!
What advice would you give to aspiring drinks entrepreneurs who’d like to do something?
Drink and food make fantastic businesses; and they are always needed. Know your market before you jump. Decide what will make you special and doing everything you can to deliver it. Walk the walk.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing instead?
I already lead a double life. I advise companies financially around the world. It keeps me fresh, and open to new ideas and trends!
If you could get anyone to try your drinks (fictional or real, living or dead) who would you pick and which of the drinks would you like them to try?
Winston Spencer Churchill. He settled in Kent and knew Chatham (as First Lord of the Admiralty), and he knew his drinks.
What’s your ultimate aim and goal for the distillery? If you could achieve anything with it, what would you pick? Money and reality are no obstacle, so shoot for the moon…
We’ve always said the distillery isn’t for us. It’s for our kids and in my Dads case, his Grandchildren. Our dream is to create a distillery which endures into and through generations. Our belief is we can only do that by making the very best spirit first and foremast.
Where next for you and the Copper Rivet Distillery?
Son of a Gun – our new cask Finished English grain spirit – has sassy packaging, and is almost clear. It is a maverick, the unexpected, we call the irreverent spirit – and it’s great with modern foods and cocktails. I think it will open all sorts of doors for Copper Rivet.
Anything I missed that you’d like to include here? (include as much or as little as you’d like).
I’ve had fun, but my G&T has gone!
And we always ask three customary ridiculous questions…
If you were forced to fend off an alien invasion and singlehandedly save mankind using only the tools available at the distillery, how would you do it?I would give them our 97% neutral alcohol, uncut, and made with all those delicious Kentish grains. The aliens would very soon be my friends.
I would give them our 97% neutral alcohol, uncut, and made with all those delicious Kentish grains. The aliens would very soon be my friends.
If you had to eat one food for the rest of your life (assume that your metabolism becomes specially adapted and this is literally the only thing you could eat) – what food would you pick and why? Raw fish, sushi or soused herrings. Excellent with our Dockyard Gin, and exhilarating with our attitudinal Son of a Gun.
Raw fish, sushi or soused herrings. Excellent with our Dockyard Gin, and exhilarating with our attitudinal Son of a Gun.
You have acquired a pet dragon and are morally obliged to look after it. It is 25 ft tall at the hips, spits fire, eats half a ton of raw meat a day, and likes long walks. What would you call it and what would you do to keep it entertained and housed?
I would call him Jagger, after that great vocalist born in Kent. He will sip our spirits and so be singing from the rooftops, and shriek from the stills. Jag (as I’d come to call him with affection) would be great addition to the team. Perhaps we’d even create a spirit in his honour.