Interview: Jon Chadwick, founder of Durham Distillery
June 25, 2022
The centre of Durham is changing. A new multi-million-pound project to move Durham Distillery, complete with a huge craft distillery for gin and whisky, and an underground visitor centre and conference area, is finally nearing completion in the Prince Bishops shopping centre. The endeavour is the brainchild of former Teesside NHS chief executive Jon Chadwick, founder of the company and a man with an eye for the unusual and nose for the botanicals of the region, which make up his award-winning drink. The new distillery, buried beneath Durham High Street and stretching across the city to the riverside, has been five years in the planning, and has been an extraordinary challenge for Jon and his team. Like his gin, the development has needed time, care and attention to detail. Here, Colin Young visits the site to see how the final stages are coming together.
“Turns out, no matter how hard you would think it would be to fill in all the forms to get permission to build a distillery, full of explosives and, basically rocket fuel, within 200 yards of a UNESCO World Heritage Site…” Jon Chadwick says, pausing and preparing for the punchline.
“It was a lot ******* harder than that!”
Jon is sitting in the snug of The Shakespeare, in Durham’s Saddler Street.
Up the hill and round the cobbled corner is Durham Cathedral. Head in the other direction, to the newer Prince Bishops shopping centre, and you’ll shortly be in Durham Distillery.
The opening is just weeks away.
“No disrespect to the rest of the North East, but this is the coolest thing to happen in the region this year,” says distillery founder Jon.
“And it is happening in Durham.”
They’ve been serving ale in the much-loved Shakespeare since 1190, and it is the most haunted pub in Durham, if not the UK.
Once the preferred pre-and-post performance drinking establishment of the acting world on their visits to the city’s theatres – hence the name – The Shakespeare underwent significant refurbishment around eight years ago.
Although the dusty framed photos of many famous theatre actors, directors and patrons may have been lost, the spirit of the place has been maintained.
It’s not the ghosts that interest Jon, though the pub has played a major role in his company’s past.
Jon, who was the NHS’ youngest chief executive when at the head of Teesside’s health authority in the noughties, knew he was coming to the end of his time under the former coalition Government.
He undertook a lengthy, life-changing holiday to the US, aware he would need a new challenge on his return.
The former Durham Johnston Comprehensive School pupil, who was by then ready to return to his roots, came back full of ideas, innovations and excitement.
And he has hardly stopped since.
He says: “I went on this incredible trip over several weeks, going through Boston, Cambridge, Providence, New Jersey, New York, the East Coast – stopping in all those Ivy League towns like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Brown.
“And there were these gorgeous craft micro-distilleries, making mainly bourbon, and in areas and cities very, very similar to Durham, and it struck me while I was on the journey, it would really work in County Durham.
“I just thought it would be a brilliant business model to bring to the North East, and to Durham in particular, because I’m from here, and it’s the nearest we have to a Harvard or Princeton – lots of students with college scarves and boats on the river.
“The real inspiration came from Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn, and the Chichibu Distillery in Japan, which were closer to what I wanted to build in Durham, rather than looking at the whisky distilleries in Scotland.
“So I sat down in the snug in The Shakespeare with ‘Distillery Dave’, and we tried to come up with a drink which would reflect the natural produce available to us around Durham.
“We drank beer rather than gin that night. And it was a long night.
“But we started to come up with the spices we thought we would need and which we could hand pick, as well as some of those I just really liked, like cardamom.”
‘Distillery Dave’ is David Wilkinson, the distiller extraordinaire hired from Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh, to help create the first Durham Gin.
The pair balanced hand-crushed juniper with flavours from the fields around the region – elderflower, angelica, celery seed – and blended those with spicier, modern notes like pink pepper and cardamom.
After building a micro-still from laboratory glass to test combinations and sampling dozens of gins from around the world, it wasn’t long before the distinctive taste of Durham Gin was born at the original craft distillery on an industrial estate in Langley Park, near Durham.
Even the first bottles carrying the new Durham Gin were carefully and lovingly created – taking inspiration from Durham Cathedral’s Rose Window – designed by Newcastle company Wonderstuff to literally catch the eye.
Using the dark blue of the juniper and the pink of the peppercorns, there is reverse printing on the back label, with a two-part front label that creates a new window.
“It was very cool and very clever,” says Jon.
“There’s clever physics going on.
“It relied upon the fact there is the refractive index of gin, so the roundel is distorted and that is then brought back to its full circular state as it is refracted through the gin when you look through the front of the bottle.
“And it only works with clear liquids, not with the coloured ones, which is a bit of a shame.
“It’s just something we wanted to do to be a bit different.
“When you have something as beautiful as the Rose Window to use as inspiration, why not do it properly? It is what we have always strived for.
“I wanted a distinctive brand that would stand out so that we could compete with the big players and the internationals.
“It certainly helped put us on the map – along with the taste, of course.”
Durham Gin quickly found itself on the shelves of Fenwick and Majestic and since its launch, the company has added a number of other products, such as a mango version of the gin, concocted during the recent lockdowns, and the Summer Fruit Cup.
Jon has also ventured into vodka and work has started on a new Durham whisky, another first, to coincide with the opening of the city centre distillery.
That has been five years in the planning; a painstaking process which has involved sourcing different sites within the city boundaries, and coming close to using the new riverside development as the base.
In other words, all the way from Tony & Guy to the Oxfam shop on Elvet Bridge.
The Prince Bishops development is due to open in July, and will include a two-storey spiral staircase, an entrance area with AV presentation on the history of Durham and distilling, a conference centre for corporate events, or ‘pay-day Fridays’, and cocktail classes.
The new visitor centre will feature functioning gin and whisky stills, and, says Jon, the odd drink.
“One at the beginning,” he says.
“And one at the end in a lovely bar and, who knows, maybe one by the whisky stills as well to educate on the cask ageing, and so on.
“We want to be completely transparent, so people can find out how craft spirits are really made with none of the make-believe and nonsense you get with so many spirit brands out there making stuff up randomly.
“We wanted to strip all of that away and almost educate people and tell them how it all works, so nothing is hidden from view.
“It is all about the provenance.
“That is really important to me, and I think it is important to our customers as well.
“And we wanted to reflect the sense of Durham – the bit of it that is super-intellectual, the cathedral, the Venerable Bead, the university – and the other part of the city which is very blue-collar, craft and graft, and historically, mining and heavy industry and very down to earth.
“Since the miners’ strike, we have lost any ability to talk about that half of the city.
“We are happy talking about 780AD, but we can’t talk about the 1980s and the recent past because it’s all too difficult and traumatic.”
Jon adds: “I genuinely think the people will be wowed by it.
“We spent five years in every single attic and basement in Durham, five years trying to get this right and making sure we get it right.
“We haven’t seen anything like it in the North East – and certainly not in Durham – and in terms of reinventing retail, this is probably the most ambitious project in the UK.
“It has taken time, it has not been easy, it has been a bit of a drain financially.
“But it will be worth it, I promise you.”