Ever wondered what a tasting tour of a distillery involves? Dive into the interesting and unique relationship Portsmouth distillery has with the city’s maritime history, heritage and local habitat.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Portsmouth distillery whose passion and commitment for Gin & Rum has created a delicious range of hand crafted, artisan spirits that would tempt anyones taste buds into submission. I found out about the story behind this unique business nestled on the South Coast of Hampshire, UK.
Situated in the grade II listed Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth Distillery have lovingly combined maritime history and botanicals from the local habitat to offer a specialist range of artisan spirits. I enjoyed a tasting tour of the local business and found out how a love of drinking rum in the carribean turned into a business venture.
Pour a drink (G&T anyone?), sit back and delve into a day at Portsmouth Distillery…
The Portsmouth Distillery is the brain-child of two former Royal Naval Officers whose love of Rum took them on a journey to build their very own distillery. On my tour I heard the story of how Vince and Giles had enjoyed ample amounts of rum in the Caribbean during their time serving in The Royal Navy.
After setting up ‘The Rum Club’ (a members club for lovers of all things rum), Vince was made redundant from the Royal Navy in 2017. With his business partner Giles, they decided it was the perfect time to take the plunge and turn their passion into a business.
In 2018 The Portsmouth Distillery was born. Ideas turned into reality and a well executed brand was created that pays homage to the wonderful history found in Portsmouth and Fort Cumberland.
Fort Cumberland’s History and Heritage
Situated on Eastney point, Portsea Island, Fort Cumberland was built in the 1700’s and completed around 1812. The fort that remains today supersedes the first fort built on the land and was part of a review of the nation’s defences against attack after the Jacobite Rebellion.
Fact – The fort took around 29 years to build!
Fort Cumberland is nestled amongst 24 acres of land and is recognised as a ‘scheduled monument’ and Grade II listed building. Owned by English Heritage, it’s quite a hidden treasure due to being set back in the large open grounds, making it hard to see.
'Portsmouth is one of four locations in England where there has been continuity of fortification over at least five centuries. Along with Plymouth, Portsmouth has the most widespread defensive network and concentration of 18th and 19th century forts and batteries' - Historic England
Find out more on Historic Englands website here.
Pentagonal shaped (five points), the fort offered an ideal vantage point for soldiers to ward off potential enemy attacks around Langstone Harbour. It is known as one of the finest examples of this type of fortification in England (known as a bastion fort).
The fort tells an interesting story of England’s maritime history and how the cities coastline was utilised for its strategic location on the South Coast of England. The 1700’s saw an increase in tensions with France along with the political unrest in Europe. Despite this the fort never got attacked by the enemy during this period.
Find out more about the history of Fort Cumberland here.
Portsmouth Distillery is situated in two of the casemates found at the fort. These are secure chambers generally built beneath the ramparts. The renovation came with a set of guidelines you would expect to be attached to renovating part of a grade II listed building.
Core characteristics were retained during the development and clearly visible how much dedication had gone into the project. I was told that the electrics had to be upgraded and the walls treated and painted with specific paint (I did wonder who put the electrics in initially and for what purpose but I never found out!).
Casemates were used to store gunpowder, provisions, and housing troops. They were usually vaulted and designed to be impenetrable.
One of the renovated casemates is now home to the distillery and the mighty ‘Suzy Wu’, a large and very shiny copper still (seen in the image below).
There is also a combined merchandise shop and bar which had a small seating area where you could sample some of the goods or even try a carefully crafted cocktail! Now we’re talking!
The second casemate stored some of the barrels which I was told keeps them at a perfect temperature. It was also where our group was taken for the tasting session.
Want to know more about Casemates? Click here.
Some interesting facts about Portsmouth Distillery
- The 41% strength of the spirits was chosen to represent the forts five-pointed shape- 5 = 4 + 1 = 41%! - It’s not all about Rum and Gin at the distillery. The company also produce ‘Fort cider’, a carefully crafted blend from handpicked apples which is completely additive free! - The distillery’s ‘1968’ white rum was named after the year that both Giles and Vince were born. I loved the 'flower power' art- work created for this to reflect the 60s era. - Portsmouth Dry Gin includes a deliciously infused selection of locally foraged botanicals such as Elderflower, Gorse Flowers, and Sea Radish (which I learnt is part of the wasabi family). This fragrant gin is so good it won an award in 2019! - The distillery is the first one on Portsea Island for hundreds of years. - Cinnabar Spiced Rum is named after the Cinnabar moth which can be found around the fort. It is often mistaken as part of the butterfly family. The label for this rum reflects the colours of the black and red colours of cinnabar.
Read more about the Cinnabar moth. Photo courtesy of the Butterfly Conservation.
Have you heard of the story of why rum is sometimes called ‘Nelsons Blood’?
After the Battle of Trafalgar, Lord Admiral Nelsons dead body was said to be laced in a rum filled casket for the return trip to England. It has been documented that the ships sailors would take a drink from it to keep them going during their journey. Hence the nickname for 'Nelsons blood'.
Find out more interesting facts about rum here.
Finding out about the distillery process
After arriving and a brief introduction into the history of the fort, we were shown into the distillery room. We were walked through the meticulous process involved to create the delicious Gin and Rum the company now has stocked in a variety of outlets across the UK.
Co-founder Vince’s passion and knowledge of the distillery process was remarkable, a real testament as to why the company has been doing so well since starting up just two years ago. Not that I had any idea what was involved prior to my visit that is. There certainly seems to be an art to it!
Vince told us that the company decided to produce Gin as well as Rum because it is relatively quick turn- around in terms of the distilling process (Rum can be laid down for years to age).
He also remarked that Gin has become hugely popular and a firm favourite amongst the British since the ‘Gin Revolution’. Have you seen how many types of gins there are on the shelves in the supermarket now? It’s a rainbow of coloured bottles. Crazy.
One little snippet of info I thought was pretty cool was that the distillery ships sugar cane in from Costa Rica, instead of using the more commonly used molasses for their rums. This i'm told gives a smoother finish on the palette unlike the coarser tastes associated with less expensive, molasses- based rums.
Ok, so who is old enough to remember getting a little tiddly on Bacardi white rum? Cough cough..
Did you know it is common for Rum to be aged in oak wood Whiskey barrels? Portsmouth Distillery have just laid down rum in Jim Beam Bourbon barrels which they hope to be ready in 2022.
Time to tempt the tastebuds
After finding out about the distillery process we then proceeded to arguably the best part of the day which was the tasting! After hearing about some of the botanicals sourced from around the fort I was really keen to try them. As someone who is not a huge fan of dry gin, I was particularly interested in trying some of the other varieties.
I especially enjoyed the Forum Rum which had been distilled twice and combined the flavours of both gin and rum. It’s what is known as a 'garden rum' and best served with tonic and lime. Let me tell you it was a taste sensation! It was light, fragrant and infused with a gentle balance of both without coming across odd. It is something my taste buds have never encountered before!
Forum Rum’s botanicals include: Elderflower, Gorse Flower, Sweet Orange Peel, Lime Peel and Coriander
Do you know where the phrase Mother’s Ruin comes
from to describe Gin?
In the 1700’s there was a quite a different gin revolution to the one we see today. The drink was hugely popular and known as the poor man’s tipple. It was widely consumed by women who couldn’t seem to get enough of it, often neglecting their children in favour of the drink and promiscuous activities. Gin drinking was cited as causing major problems in London at the time with gallons being sold on the black market. In 1736 after the drink had caused significant social decay, a ‘Gin Act’ was created by the government which forbid people producing the liquor without a licence. This didn’t stop the problems outright of course!
Find out more about the fascinating story of Mothers Ruin here.
A quick trip to the bar before home time
During our tasting session we also found out how to pair the drinks with different garnishes, types of mixers such as ginger beer along with how to create delicious cocktails with them. Suddenly, after all that tasting we all got a bit thirsty and had a drink in the bar before heading home feeling slightly more lightheaded than when we arrived.
Shhhh…I will let you into a little secret. When I snowboard I keep a little flask of rum in my back pack which I pour into my hot chocolates on the mountain. It warms my cockles and it’s so tasty! Until now, that rum hasn’t been Portsmouth Rum so maybe it’s time to take a piece of my home-town to the Alps!
I hope you have enjoyed finding out about Portsmouth Distillery. It was great finding out about this local business and how they are keeping the spirit of Portsmouth alive through their products. You can check out their shop online if you fancy trying something from their range.
So, the BIG question is are you a Gin or Rum lover? Tell me what your favourite tipple is in the comments below and I will tell you mine!
Take care everyone.
Fancy reading some more? Read about my last trip to the Dorset coast
Here's my favourite photo whilst visiting Dorset
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Further reading and resources
Read more about Portsmouth's forts here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Palmerston_Forts_at_Portsmouth
Fort Cumberland & links to other areas of interest:
Read more about the history of the fort on Historic England’s website:
Discovering Fort Cumberland by Portsmouth Company, Strong Island