• Adnams’ brewer John McCarthy on being its chief distiller

    John McCarthy is clearly not happy sitting still. Having trained as an electrical engineer he has moved careers to work first in the brewing sector with Adnams, and then now he has re-trained as the company’s chief distiller as the esteemed brewery looks to branch out and tap into the burgeoning world of craft and premium spirits.

    John McCarthy is clearly not happy sitting still. Having trained as an electrical engineer he has moved careers to work first in the brewing sector with Adnams, and then now he has re-trained as the company’s chief distiller as the esteemed brewery looks to branch out and tap into the burgeoning world of craft and premium spirits.

    mm By September 13, 2018
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    Few of us have the opportunity to change careers, never mind do it three times as John McCarthy has.

    Talks us through your career. How did you end up being a distiller?

    Before Adnams, I was based in Suffolk as an electrical control system engineer. I trained as an electrical engineer, straight from school. My job role at Adnams evolved from engineer to distiller. After working with Jonathan Adnams on the design and build of the distillery, I naturally had an interest in the distilling process and was tasked with developing our first gin recipes. I worked in our lab two to three days a week during the distillery build and, after extensive tastings and trials, created our recipes for Adnams Copper House Dry Gin and Adnams First Rate Gin.

    When did you join Adnams and why?

    I joined the Adnams engineering team in 2001 managing the upkeep of control systems.

    I was tasked with individual projects such as designing and installing the new automated yeast room for our brewery.

    John McCarthy with one o his recent creations
    John McCarthy with one of his recent creations the award winning Longshore vodka

    How have you seen the business develop over the years? What have been the big landmarks?

    The installation of the new brewhouse in late 2006/early 2007 allowed Adnams to really expand its range and innovate more. This also freed up a bit of space in the building for the installation of the distillery which was designed to fit where the old brewery coppers were – hence the name “Copper House Distillery”.  Behind the walls of our Victorian-looking brewery, we’ve got some of the most advanced and energy-efficient brewing equipment in Europe. Our distillery, the Copper House, sits within the Adnams brewery in Southwold. It’s the most energy-efficient distillery in the UK and also generates water and steam for the brewery, forming an integral part of our overall sustainable production system.

    Why did you want to move over to becoming a distiller?

    The role change was more of an evolution. I still continued parts of my engineering role for quite a few years, but primarily I now focus on distilling with my team of five operators.

    What training/courses/education did you have to do that?

    During my time as distiller I studied for and achieved the Diploma in Distilling awarded by the Institute of Brewing and Distilling.

    I have also become a member of both the Gin Guild and the Worshipful Company of Distillers, which apart from holding fantastic events are also a valuable knowledge resource.

    What were the steps involved in setting up the distillery, particularly as it is in the same building as the brewery?

    It was quite an undertaking, not only the distillery itself, but integrating it into the brewing processes. As a grain to glass distillery, the beer wash produced by the brewery has to be brought into the distillery and waste streams transferred out. Also we needed to consider the storage and transfer of the products we were to make, together with services like water and steam.

    Sun, sand, beach and vodka
    Sun, sand, beach and vodka…all in a day’s work for Southwold’s famous brewery turned distiller, Adnams

    What did you decide to make initially in the distillery? How did you go about making the first batches?

    The idea was to produce gin from a grain base (our beers), so the first step was to produce vodka from which to make it, to what are very exacting requirements. We had lot to learn, but that has helped us make award-winning ‘grain-to-glass’ spirits.

    You have already had great success? What have been your biggest personal achievements moving over to distilling?

    Winning the IWSC Gin Trophy in 2013 was the most memorable of the achievements for me, and to win the Vodka Trophy twice since then has been amazing. Whether big awards ever translate to increased sales or not, they are judged by your peers, so it’s a very nice compliment and proof you are doing something right.

    What have been the biggest challenges?

    Developing new recipes is always fun so I wouldn’t really call that challenging but I guess it is. We have just installed a system to reduce the amount of water we use to remove heat from the process, that’s has had its moments. Ask me the same question in a couple of months and I’m sure I will have something else.

    Have you got to know other distillers/learn things from others? If so who and what 

    Too many to mention. Through the Livery and Gin Guild I have met and call friends lots of the big names of the distilling world. Also many new distillers have visited us in Southwold looking for answers to questions for their own projects. We are always happy to help, as we were helped by others.

    What next for you and the distillery? Are there any other products you would like to make?

    We have a couple of seasonal products within the pipeline, one launching the end of August and the other pre-Christmas.  We always strive to innovate and create interesting new products. We currently have a delicious limoncello made from our award-winning Adnams Longshore vodka and have previously made spirits such as Triple Sec and Absinthe.

    The Tardis-like interior of Adnams' distillery
    The Tardis-like interior of Adnams’ distillery

    Where do you sell the spirits you make? All through the Adnams business or outside as well?

    We sell all our products through our 12 stores within East Anglia and our online store (adnams.co.uk) where we can distribute to all of mainland UK. It is available to enjoy at all our managed properties as well as many pubs, bars and hotels across the country.

    We also have lines listed within UK supermarkets and over 25 foreign markets all over the world. 


    What is your own favourite style of gin/vodka to drink?

    I like a classic juniper charged London Dry Gin, but not always the same one. Different days call for different gins, although I’m not a big drinker of the flavoured gins which seem to be in vogue at the moment. It’s a category which has its place, and I totally understand what attracts people to it.

    Favourite spirits drink?

    I would have to say Gin most of the time, but lots of factors will have a bearing on what will be in my glass. Sometimes I like a Whisky Old Fashioned stirred properly with an orange garnish. If I’m watching The Big Lebowski, I’ll want a White Russian!

    But mostly, it’s a Gin and Tonic.

    Where are you drinking it?

    I’m quite happy to have a G&T in the evening just at home, or “quality control” as it’s known. I also spend a bit of time in London, which has some amazing bars which can make just having a quick pit stop into an amazing experience.

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