How to be a Sustainable Gin Distillery.

Will Edge

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Will Edge on sustainability, how to choose gin and upcoming trends in the rum trade.

Will Edge was a committed infusion hobbyist long before he founded Greensand Distillery. Now, as the master distiller, he produces an award-winning gin alongside a range of well-crafted spirits and liqueurs. Will’s ethos has always been to make sure that sustainability is at the core of his business and the lengths he goes to are truly admirable.

Podcast Highlights

“We do everything through the lens of sustainabiltiy”  

As a distiller, one of my ethics is provenance. We want to represent the flavour of the local area and the weald in particular. Having this name which physically encapsulates the area we are trying to represent in our flavours kind of makes sense to me

“I’ve always been passionate about sustainability. I grew up in a quite a green household which I think was incredible and is incredibly important if you have that ethos from day one then it kinda lives with you”

You know one of the core things about Greensand Ridge is that we make most of the spirits exclusively from surplus produce from other businesses

“I wanted the cored gin to represent the flavours and aroma of walking out of the distillery into the fields and woods. All those aromas to be representative of the spirit.”

Key Resources From Our Interview With Will Edge



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Full Transcript 

Chris: Will, thanks for joining us today on the back bar podcast, I hope you’ve been well? 

Will Edge: thank Chris, yep very well thank you 

Chris: fantastic, so I wanted to start off by talking about yourself and how you got started in the gin industry

Will Edge: yeah, so I came to the industry from the enthusiast’s hobbyist side really, I’ve been making booze all my life ever since you could buy those plastic tubs in boots in the UK where you can ferment premade beer mash. but you know over the years I got pretty sophisticated, I was making really good ciders, really good wild-fermented beers and I decided about 7 -8 years ago that this was something I wanted to take seriously so I started a degree in brewing and distilling. which is a degree that most trained distillers do in the UK, at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, so as soon as I started that I began to take it very seriously and I thought if I’m serious enough about it to do a masters degree and my evenings and weekends then let’s give it a real go. so I had that practical background in terms of brewing and making alcohol. this kind of technical aspect. it was just the commercial side which I had to start thinking about. and that kinda led me to distill quickly. 

Chris: fantastic, and so obviously we know you as greensand ridge gin which is located in Sussex in the weald, you’ve become quite popular I would say in such a short time, you’ve won a number of awards as well. whats in the name of Greensand Ridge, where did that come from? 

[03:58]

Will Edge: the geology of the South of England here, we got this great kind of fertile fruit and an arable growing area called the weald and it spans most of two counties. kent and Sussex. and around that, there’s this quite well-known line of chalk downs called the north downs and the south downs. a lot of people know that as being the edge of the weald region, just inside that you’ve got this secondary ridge called the Greensand Ridge before you get into this area called the weald. as a distiller one of ethics is provenance we want to represent the flavours of the local area and the weald in particular. having this name which physically encapsulates the area we are trying to represent in our flavours kinda makes sense to me, 

Chris:  yeah ok 

Will Edge: its a kinda brand name we can own to an extent but it’s also a geographical identify that people can get their teeth into. 

Chris: that’s great I mean I’m a Sussex boy myself I grew up in Eastbourne and Brighton so I do know the area well and I’ve actually been to your distillery too and it’s a beautiful venue. the whole place, it’s just, I really like that sense of providence you are trying to encapsulate in the bottle. The venue itself the distillery, it was an old victorian coach house am I right is that correct? 

[05:29]

Will Edge: yeah, it’s a beautiful building, it has a big courtyard in the middle where we do a lot of fermentation and hard graft and around the edge of the distillery buildings, and to look at it, it’s a real old characterful building. working in a distillery and being a distiller the hours are very long, its quite physically demanding work. especially if you kinda doing it right like we are without all the bells and whistles of automated systems that some of the larger distilleries have. if I’m kinda working all those long hours I want to do it in nice surroundings, I don’t want to be trudging down into an industrial estate at five in the morning.

Chris: no definitely not!

Will Edge:  the compromise with these buildings is sometimes we have to kinda take the long cuts that if we had better access to services, but overall it’s a lovely place to work. 

Chris: great, so you’re known for being a strong advocate of zero waste and renewable energy, what sparked your interest in sustainability? 

[06:40]

Will Edge: I’ve always been passionate about sustainability, I grew up in quite a green household which I think was incredible and is incredibly important if you have that ethos from day one then it kinda lives with you. all the while, I set up this distillery actually not intending for the sustainable aspect of the distillery to be leading the branding or the marketing point of view but we’re doing things so differently at the kind of leading edge of the industry that its kind of demanded of us that we do talk about it. which I’m delighted to. for me, if you’re not building a business like a distillery or any business with sustainability absolutely essential to what you do, then you are not doing it right. we do everything we do through the lens of sustainability and that makes us incredibly different from other distillers in the industry and hopefully, it’s not that way forever. 

Chris: no, I feel like its, I mean it has been for the last year such a large topic now, sustainability. not even distillers but even on the bar front, the front lines. it’s big, it is big. I think there is still more to be done for sure. the ban on the plastic straws that is definitely the right step in a direction that we want. what other things do you think we should be doing more of in the industry?

[08:08] 

Will Edge: yeah, I think you’re absolutely right, I see a lot of bars that are doing zero waste serves, which is incredible. zero waste is one of those things we don’t talk about a lot because there’s no certification for it, its a bit misunderstood term but bars that are doing zero waste, its quite hard to do. it’s really admirable. as an industry, I can as a distiller and business, we can change everything we have the ability to change its the things that are out of hands that only as an industry working together are able to force change. that’s the tricky stuff, and one of the big things is distribution. if we want to use zero-carbon distribution, well it doesn’t exist. if we want to go out there and say we are going to carbon offset all of our carbon emissions in the distribution chain for all our clients on their behalf, well we can’t even do that! Distribution networks are so complicated, there are so many handoffs of products before it gets to the end consumer that you just don’t know what’s happening or what carbon intensity is being used. yeah, that’s a really tricky one, some of the stuff. I agree plastic straws and zero plastic is incredibly important. even some of the citrus alternatives that are being used, but I think sometimes there are things that are done or being presented to the consumer as some great step in the right direction for sustainability but actually sometimes that might be not much better than the status quo.

For example, we are asked a lot of we can do bulk supply of spirits?

Chris: Right. 

[10:22] 

Will Edge: a lot of the carbon intensity is in the distribution, if you’re swapping out 6 bottles of glass for a 5-litre plastic tub of spirit, if it’s not returned to us and resued then it’s actually not much better than the glass which can be reused and recycled. There isn’t a kind of clear advantage in terms of sustainability for a lot of the bulk packs.

Chris: ok, I mean what other practices to you put in place to be sustainably conscious at the distillery. I know one of the things you mentioned before was about feeding boars with your organic waste? 

Will Edge: yeah, yeah that kind of circular economy aspect is really important to me. working with other local business, using waste streams. you know one of the core things about Greensand Ridge is that we make most of the spirits exclusively from surplus produce from other food businesses. we work with a lot of farms to take their waste or their fruit that can’t be sold to supermarkets. so we are paying farmers for an unused food source which we then use and extract the sugars from it to be used in distilling. then our waste goes on to feed local smallholdings. the solid waste are pressed apples that go on to feed local animals, the liquid waste we collect and that goes through to make gas for the grid at a local anaerobic digester plant. 

Chris: Wow, that’s incredible.

[12:26] 

Will Edge: yeah so by the time that produce has grown, we’re almost an intermediate step in that process, we are extracting the sugars and aromatics qualities. its a benefit because a lot of businesses just send their waste fruit to smallholdings or even just dump it or plow it back into the fields, if you do this over time it changes the PH of the soil and makes the orchards less yielding. if you send it all to smallholdings, too much of that sugary liquid-filled fruit will give the animals sore stomachs so if we are taking out all that sweet liquid and just providing them with the vitamins and the roughage then it actually is better for them.

Chris:  sure, I mean yeah. I think you nailed, trying to find multiple uses of products rather than using it once and discarding is not the way to go anymore. I think there still needs to education in terms of how to use the product afterward. I was interested in what you said about the change of PH in the soil, that kinda crazy? 

[13:41] 

Will Edge: I mean as you drive around this part of the world you are seeing all these orchards empty and when I talk to consumers they say oh it’s great you know we see all these orchards with fruit left on the trees and its a real shame. actually even the orchards that have all the fruit picked, even some of that can be waste. most of the farmers who are serious about what they do, if they leave fruit in the orchards, especially plums and soft fruits like raspberries, then it just introduces pests. so everything will be picked and then dumped. so even to see an orchard that had all its fruit picked doesn’t mean its all going to be used. it can be tough for the farmers if there are issues in the food system it always ends up at the producer’s door. their always the ones that are having to pay.

Chris:  so let’s start talking about the products you have on offer, and we’ll start with the main one the London Dry Gin. This is a gin I used a lot back in the day when I was in the hotel trade at Gravetye Manor. you have 8 botanicals that are sourced within a mile of the distillery and are all pretty unique, so cobnut, honey.. how did you choose these botanicals?

[15:06]

Will Edge: yeah, so I wanted the core gin to represent the flavours and aromas of if you walk out of the distillery into the fields and woods, all those aromas to be representative of the spirit. its those kinda two flavour profiles, the florals and woodland herbaceous notes of the forest. so for that floral character, honey gorse flowers, and rosehips and for the woody characters oakmoss and poppy seeds and hawthorn berries and then, we use bay leaves to knit between them. cobnuts are used to provide a lot of texture to the gin so it’s very silky. 

Chris: amazing, so 2018 saw you release 2 new cask-aged gins, the PX and the Rye Cask. how has their entry to market been? have they been well received? 

Will Edge: yeah, they are really well received, the rye cask gin won aged gin of the year at the UK spirits award. 

Chris: Congratulations very cool

Will: thank you, in the distillery, I kinda set up, I’m the founder and distiller so everything goes through this filter of quality its not you know I’m the CEO and I’ve got a distillery team and im putting pressure on them. 

Chris: right ok

Will Edge: to push spirit out the door so even with our aged spirits where we are giving them the time they need to age properly not just putting them in the smallest cask possible so that they get the flavour intensity and none of that softening power of time. so the rye cask has gone very well and the gin we age in Pedro Ximenez casks that very cherry gin, is a bit more of a specialist spirit but it’s my all-time favourite Negroni spirit. I think sometimes the gin in a Negroni is playing second fiddle to the vermouth and Campari but the PX, the richness of the PX cask really cuts through. 

Chris: fantastic, before we go into the other products, what do you think the state of the gin industry is currently? I mean its sort of, I feel like its hit a peak over the last 10 years. is it going to go any further? is there anything else we can see from it? 

[17:33] 

Will Edge: yeah its an interesting one, the gin industry, a lot of the time what I see form a producer point of view is that kind of localness if I can put it like, will trump quality and how its made so we’ve got this slightly curious situation where brands are being brought to market that is just contract distilled in the big distilleries miles away and you know they don’t necessarily look great or taste great but they are presented as a local brand and often people are busy, buyers are busy they don’t have time to look behind the scenes or interrogate the identity of a spirit brand properly 

Chris: yeah 

Will Edge: so that kind of local spirit will be purchased ahead of something like ours, which you know we make it ourselves, it’s a high-quality spirit, it’s sustainable, all these good things. that’s a bit of a challenge I think, I think there will be a bit of shaking up in the industry, in the short term its a bit of a shame the category is being corrupted a little bit by what I call the stocking filler part of the market. with the flavours and colours and stuff. 

Chris: oh yeah, yeah I get what you mean. 

Will Edge: which you know people will buy. lots of people have a sweet tooth and probably don’t like gin! 

Chris: haha its, yeah the stocking filler I agree. it’s a shame that it came to the point where branding and marketing overtook the quality of a product. 

Will Edge: people often say to me, you know I’m thinking about doing it what do you think? and I just try to be encouraging and just say like in the beer market a good brand and a good spirit can always succeed and I think a really good product well made will find the way. it will take a lot of hard graft but I think you can make it work.

Chris: interestingly I actually think that the next big spirit wave will be rum which is going over a big change in terms of the laws of production. and I think there is also brandy especially cognac, having been there recently and seeing some of the changes I see them doing. I mention this because you actually produce a Rum and an Apple Brandy so it would be great to talk about those two.

[20:17] 

Will Edge: yeah, so we make two fruit brandies actually, we’ve just bottled last week our plum brandy which is our version of slivovitz or a Țuică if you are in Romania. when I was really young we had a traveling band of Romanian folk musicians who stayed at our house when they were just doing a few concerts. and they brought us a gift which was brandy and I was intrigued, and it was before I appreciated spirits properly, but it had a plum in the bottle and it smelt amazing. years later when I was drinking and enjoyed spirits properly it was still in the cupboard because my parents weren’t big spirit fans and I was bowled over, just an incredible spirit. in homage to that memory, we bottled it with a single damson in the bottom and that adds a fraction of sweetness back to that bottle, it’s double matured first in marsala wine casks and then in bourbon casks for a year each. so its a really outstanding spirit, more generally I think absolute agree with you brown spirits and especially niche spirits are due to a bit of resurgence. when it comes to rum I think we are going to go through an interesting period especially in the UK. the producers are looking for ways to diversify their spirits portfolios and they’ll no doubt be looking for it. now if you are a small gin maker and then you want to start making rum, well the technicals of making it, the skills you need and the economics are completely different. 

Chris: right 

[22:40] 

Will: so how do you make to spirit profitably when it’s a difficult thing to make and the margins are much less. what we are starting to see with rum in the UK is people importing generically made neutral rum spirts. even redistilling that rum so they can call it a rum that they’ve made or just flavouring it in various ways. I think in the UK we are going to see a small part of the market do what we do, distilling the molasses and distilling the rum and barrel aging it and making a credible golden rum from scratch. but the larger part of the market will bring in already made cheap rum and then kinda doing what happened to the gin industry, going into, well I’ve already seen a recent release from a relatively known UK brand make a Carribean rum. 

Chris: we won’t name anyone! 

Will: no the released a ‘coco and cardamon’ rum or something like that which is a Carribean rum but flavoured. my gut feel says we are going to jump straight in rum to the flavoured category. 

Chris:  yeah, you might be right. 

[24:13] 

Will: yeah possibly but there will always be those nerdy producers like me who want to make it from scratch and hows will be the rum for the aficionados and the flavoured rums and the big spiced rums will be for the rum and coke crowd. nothing wrong with that but not me.

Chris: not you at all no, I love the fact that you said you were nerdy as well about all of this because I am very much the same, just talking about alcohol and I’ve always had a keen interest in the production side really, its helped a lot because you get to go through the marketing and flavours and get to learn a bit more. actually I’m interested in the rum you have, the molasses where do you source them from? 

[24:56]

Will: yeah so as a sustainable distillery we try to represent flavours of the area and be a good steward of the local environment. what business do we have making rum? well, I’m fortunate that we have Europe’s only can sugar refinery about 20 miles from the distillery.

Chris: wow ok! 

Will: So it’s a crude form of cane sugar, basically, the first refinery of the sugar very raw as import and then they further refine it into table sugars and syrups and other things so we actually have a local supply of the bi-product molasses on our doorstep. 

Chris: that’s fantastic! 

[25:42]

Will: so that’s the only reason we make rum is because we have that local supply of the raw material. if were importing molasses from North Africa or the Carribean it just wouldn’t make sense.

Chris: how did you stumble upon them? was that just by chance or did you know they were in the area? 

Will: yeah in London if you fly out of London city airport you drive past the sugar refinery on your way. it’s staring you in the face literally. 

Chris: brilliant 

Will: like all these things you know where you have these guys who will supply tankards of molasses to anyone they want and a small distillery like ours who take 1000 litres at a time, there’s this disjoint on how people want to work together. so sometimes these things take a  bit of figuring out but nothing is beyond the woods of man. I actually go about making our rum a slightly different way. I’m not trying to compete with that Caribbean rum flavour there’s no need, the best rums in the world are made in the Carribean. tropical aging and all that incredible wood and al those skills. we don’t need or want to compete with that, so when we are making our rum, we ferment mostly with wine yeast to get most of the character and then we add a bit of rum yeast to use up as many sugars as we can. so what we are trying to do is force floral and honey flavours into the spirit. as opposed to those rich tropical fruit, high ester kinda rums you get in the Caribbean.

Chris: right 

[27:34] 

Will: so our Rum to taste is quite a delicate for rum fans it got a kind, it’s delicate, floral the honey character. we don’t sweeten or flavour at all so its, it is a bit of a different character to a Caribbean rum. you know people who do a blind tasting, people are on the fence as to whether its a brandy or rum. and that’s good for me because I feel that we have created something that gives identity to the local environment and we are using local produce and we are also within the category not trying to abe or copy anything. we doing something of our own.

Chris: yeah and I feel that’s the problem right now, people like R L Seale who really trying to like navigate the rum industry forward, it does seem to be the additional sugar, the caramel, the colouring that’s the big issue I think when it comes to rum but it’s not what the consumer are used to. so yeah it’s going to be a hard challenge I think but we will see what happens. 

[28:35]

Will: yeah certainly like, you know just like in cooking sugar to a spirit just adds mouthfeel and it develops character sometimes so you know to me that’s the job of the mixologist, take the raw material and add long, strong and spice and sweet and shrap. so I don’t want to add a lot of sugar to our spirit, in fact, we add that damson to the plum brandy to add a little bit of sweetness back to it. that’s the way I like to d it if we feel a spirit needs balance then do it in an interesting way don’t just add sugar. one spirit that we add s tiny amount fo sugar to which is our raspberry Eaux die vie. 

Chris: the Raspberry Ghost right? 

Will: yeah, that’s right, the Raspberry Ghost. it’s a beautiful spirit

Chris: it’s delicious 

Will: yeah, it’s incredible, it’s a raspberry spirit but its completely clear, its goa vodka character to it so it’s just a single distillate of raspberries and it doesn’t have the kind of artificial raspberry flavour you get with a lot of infused spirits. 

Chris: yeah you’re right 

[29:50]

Will:  now, I found when I first made it that kind of raspberry aromatic quality sat really separate to the spirit, and they were kind of two separate flavour profiles the alcohol character and the raspberry character, and I just found that the smallest amount of sugar, like a quarter of a gram per litre just kind of binds those two characters together and make it more of a whole spirit so that’s the only spirit, you know there has to be a definite rational not just give consumers something because they have a sweet tooth like putting a massive 12 grams per litre of sugar like el dorado 12 years old. 

Chris: it’s a crazy amount of sugar.. you mentioned mixologists are you working on any collaborations with bars or bartenders in the area?

[30:41]

Will:  yeah that’s something I’m wanting to a do a lot more of, we took on ahead of sales here, Chris, who used to run bars in London and he’s a great guy and its a really good, counterpoint to me as a producer without a lot of mixologist training, he’s kind of a trained mixologist so I feel its a good addition to the team. and we are just about to start working with a brand promotion agency and their core set of skills in working with bars and promoting bars and trade. so I feel like I need to outsource those set of skills, I’m so busy the days are so long, as much as I want to be out and about talking to bartenders and promoting the brand, that’s the difficult part of being a founder distiller I just don’t get to get out as much I want to 

Chris: sure 

[31:49] 

Will: that’s where we need bar representation

Chris: so you’re very big in the southeast and London I would say but do you export much? because funnily enough, I’ve actually seen you in Bangkok and Singapore, the Greensand Ridge gin.Singapore was atlas bar, you know in the big gin tower with 1000 gins and last time I was there they showed me and I was like omg there it is, greensand, so you’re obviously getting out there you know? 

Will: yeah, that kind of thing is lovely to hear, we work with a few distributors here in the UK that I know they supply around the world so that thing is likely to happen but itas lovely to hear. we do a little bit of volume to Germany and Denmark and now a little bit of Singapore but we’ve been concentrating on building our brand in the UK. but yeah the export market is absolutely ripe for us and we are ready to go, so it’s just a kind of time thing we are pretty young as a distillery you know we are three years old but I think now is the time to start looking further afield I feel the distillery is now a well-oiled machine, but that’s probably only happened recently. I find ina sense we’ve finished building the distillery in terms of getting those suppliers filled up and finding where we store our casks for a long time just all of those, all of the infrastructures of running a distillery takes a long time to build

Chris: yep

[33:47]

Will: it feels like now we are ready to start chasing down those opportunities a bit more. 

Chris: Fantastic and final thoughts, what is the future for greensand where do you see it going as a driver? 

Will: yeah I was chatting to my dad the other day and I was saying, I was talking about some new agreements we are signing and about palettes overseas and things and he said to me, wasn’t this supposed to be an enthusiast business where you supply the local area? 

Chris: and now it has grown into something big! 

[34:26] 

Will: I think once upon a time I thought that might be the case. I think as this business has grown, I’ve felt more and more confident as the quality of the spirit has reflected back to the enthusiasm of the people we work with. I’ve had bigger and bigger visions for how this business can be, but you know this business is going to be shipping three container loads a month to California ever. we are business where we make everything with hard graft and all of our spirits are very high quality and we don’t want to shortcut that. so I would like greensand to be distillery where we are generally leading the way as distillery should operate. making amazing and sometimes unusual spirits at decent volumes and just not compromising on our ethic. I don’t feel we need to conquer the world, its good we getting a bit of a name out there. it’s sometimes hard to see from the outside how far a reach its getting. 

Chris: yeah honestly you’re doing a great job, your product is amazing and I think your ethos and what you doing for the industry is really good so keep pressing on man honestly. 

Will: yeah thanks, Chris I really appreciate it. 

Chris: Will, thanks very much for coming on the show, and we will talk to you very soon. 

Will: my pleasure thanks, Chris. 


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