For 12 years Jon Chadwick worked in the higher echelons of the NHS.
He has done everything, from pulling together medical cover and security for the athletes at the London Olympics (while on secondment to the Department of Health in Whitehall) to being chief executive at Langbaurgh Primary Care Trust on Teesside.
It was part of his job to educate the public about the dangers of alcohol misuse and help tackle Britain’s binge-drinking culture, which sucks around £1.7bn a year out of the NHS.
But when the 46-year-old decided to take redundancy and change career direction he picked a line of work that was at odds with his former vocation. He launched County Durham’s first distillery producing his favourite alcoholic tipple, gin.
The first 70cl bottles of handcrafted Durham Gin produced in a converted industrial unit at Langley Park went on sale a few weeks ago. Produced in small batches of just 200 bottles at a time, the gin clocks in at 40% alcohol by volume.
It’s no boozy lightweight and the incongruity of moving from the NHS to making what was once dubbed “mother’s ruin” – for the misery and madness gin drinking brought to the slums of Georgian England – is not lost on Jon.
With a wry smile he says: “I suppose you can describe me as a gamekeeper turned poacher.
“I have gone from writing the NHS’s alcohol strategy to distilling my own. But realistically you aren’t going to stop people drinking. People have been drinking in the UK and all over northern Europe for as long as there has been stuff to drink.”
So rather than see a nation of teetotallers, Jon believes that while consuming too much is undoubtedly bad for you the answer is to encourage people to “drink less, but drink the good stuff”.
“We kind of beat ourselves up and we get lured into thinking we are a nation of drinkers. But the amount we are drinking as a nation is getting less. The alcohol strategy is working.
“We are never going to get to the stage where we are all abstemious, so what we need to do is get people away from binge drinking and cheap alcohol.
“What we have is a gin of genuine integrity that is handcrafted in small batches using traditional methods and made with the highest quality ingredients by people who are truly passionate about what they are doing.
“We don’t buy in the gin from elsewhere and rebottle it. We select the botanicals ourselves and each batch of gin takes three days to make at the distillery. By the time it reaches the drinker it is premium gin that tastes very special.”
Gin had fallen out of favour and flavour for many years as it lost ground to the likes of vodka. But Jon is part of a new wave of distillers who is helping to make the liqueur trendy again with new aromatic concoctions that appeal to a younger and more discerning audience.
He believes craft micro-distilleries will become increasingly important in an industry that has come to be dominated by a handful of multi-national suppliers.
“We like to think that in the future our customers will choose their spirits based on a knowledge and understanding of their provenance and characteristics,” Jon says.
The idea to launch his own distillery came on a trip to New York two-and-a-half years ago when he was drinking one night in Brooklyn with friends.
“Over in America there are loads of micro-distilleries, so in the same way that micro-breweries have come along and are now an established part of our drinking culture, so in the States micro-distilleries are equally big,” he says.
“I commented on how great it would be to do the same in the UK and in one of those unguarded moments said I was going to make Durham Gin. Durham sounded like the sort of place where you should be able to buy a locally distilled gin.”
Redundancy gave Jon the chance to pursue his dream and Durham Distillery was officially incorporated in February last year. It took 12 months of testing and perfecting before the first bottles were ready to launch on to the market.
The three-man venture – Jon, Mike Berriman, who deals with sales and marketing, and distiller David Wilkinson, who recently graduated with a master’s degree in distilling from Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University – is privately funded.
There is nothing romantic about the distillation process even if those who make and ultimately drink the gin are passionate about it.
“We own toe-cap boots and ear defenders,” Jon says, “but what we do have at the heart of the operation is a 400 litre handmade copper gin still which we had to import from Spain. We commissioned it specially.”
But while the still – affectionately known as Lily – may have travelled nearly 1,000 miles, many of the gin’s ingredients, with the notable exception of the juniper berries, which have to be imported from Italy, come from closer to home.
While the exact recipe is a secret, Durham Gin contains 10 separate botanicals, including time-honoured flavours like juniper (Jon hopes to soon begin growing his own bushes) and some more unusual ones like pink peppercorns. There are also cardamom, celery and coriander, reflecting gin’s original mix of “very traditional English flavours with more exotic ones from across the empire”.
There’s spring water from a natural well near Durham City and pure grain spirit.
Jon is also working closely with Durham University’s Botanical Gardens.
The result is a soft gin with a long and smooth finish and a slightly floral rather than perfumey nose, thanks to the inclusion of elderflower.
Jon is confident the gin will do well commercially. “We are a small operation, which means we don’t have to sell millions of litres a year to break even, and by doing a really good product and making it locally we think we can build a local brand that people will identify with.
“We also feel that with everything we have been hearing about food and how it is produced, people are becoming increasingly disappointed by the big guys. People want to know where their food is coming from, what’s in it, who it’s been made by, where it’s been made and that it comes from their local region.
“And it’s not just food people are worried about. I think we care about our alcohol as well and that is being reflected in the rise of the micro-breweries as well as niche restaurants.”
If the gin takes off as Jon hopes then he may look at developing vodka too and moving the distillery into Durham itself.
The high quality of Durham Gin demands a better standard mixer. Jon recommends Fentimans or Fever Tree mixed roughly one part gin to three parts tonic.
But he says the drink makes an excellent old-fashioned Martini or even an aperitif drunk neat over ice to accompany smoked salmon or a salty cheese like Doddington’s Berwick Edge from Wooler.
Jon has joined the Scottish Craft Distillers Association, as he sees Durham Gin having more in common with small distilleries north of the border than the big spirits companies.
His ultimate ambition is to become the North East’s distiller of choice “for people who care about the provenance, quality and craft of the products they consume”.
Durham Gin costs £25 a bottle direct from www.durhamdistillery.co.uk