TOAD's (Not so Wild) Ride to Becoming Oxford's First Distillery


On our trip to England last August we spent one night in Oxford which didn't give us a lot of time to explore but we did squeeze in a walking tour of the university and then ventured about 1.5 miles beyond the city to a new craft distillery where a talented team of visionaries was launching its first bottled spirits after years of building every aspect of the business from the ground up.

Five years is how long it took Tom Nicolson to lay the ground work and build the team that today is The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD), the first legal distillery ever in Oxford. Nicolson, the founder and CEO of TOAD gave us a tour just days after the distillery released its first bottles of Oxford Dry Gin and Oxford Rye Vodka. TOAD is also in the process of crafting an absinthe made with more than twenty organic botanicals and a rye whiskey that has been laid down but needs to age.

Nicolson, donning a wheat straw pork pie hat, picked us up at our hotel in the center of Oxford to transport us to the distillery just a short drive away. The distillery van was easily recognizable as it pulled in front of our hotel with its TOAD logo and illustration of the distillery's dapper, amphibian mascot, George, wearing a boater hat.

The distillery sits on a site which dates back to the 18th century when it was owned by a local family and the property was known as Cheney Farm. An original threshing barn still stood on the property now known as the Old Depot in South Park and is under the control of the Oxford Preservation Trust which has leased it to TOAD. 

There were a couple of carpenters working on projects around the property and the distillery seemed to be in "soft opening" mode with shipment boxes stacked on the floor and marketing materials laying around. Behind a counter, Chief Operating Officer, Tagore Ramoutar, was unpacking boxes of glassware and stocking the tasting bar where we would later sip the new vodka and gin. Nicolson and Ramoutar met at a networking event for start-ups in 2014 and soon after began working together on detailed plans and a strategy for Oxford's first craft distillery. Unpacking boxes seemed a rather mundane task for an experienced entrepreneur and new venture expert who had already notched many business successes on the global stage but Ramoutar had a relaxed smile on his face and looked as though he was having a great time as part of this distillery venture. 

Nicolson too, came from an impressive business background. His career in the music industry and creating successful recording studios in London had fueled his passion for business and creativity but in 2012 he was ready for a new challenge. That's when the wheels for the inception of TOAD were put in motion. He had become interested in craft distilling and started to investigate the possibility of opening his own distillery. Nicolson had come from a family with a history of working in the wine and whiskey business in Scotland for generations, a tradition that ended when his father left the industry to pursue life as a vicar. Nicolson joked that his father gave up one kind of spirit for another. After talking to people in the industry and doing his own due diligence, Nicolson decided to fully commit himself to opening Oxford's first craft distillery. 

We made our way to the distilling building where two impressive and gleaming copper stills with towering distillation columns were housed. These were not run-of-the-mill stills, they were custom designed and hand made. As Nicolson proudly patted the larger of the two he told us these stills had been designed and built by a man named Paul Pridham, one of England's last great steam engine boiler makers of the South Devon Railway. Nicolson had reached out to Pridham who worked for two years to create these custom, hand-riveted stills. The large 2200-litre still is named Nautilus and the smaller, 500-litre still is named Nemo - a clever nod to the author Jules Verne and his novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

As Nicolson explained the distilling process he told us about the farmer who provides the grains TOAD uses in making its spirits - grains which distinguish TOAD's spirits from those of any other distiller in the world. The story of their origin was quite fascinating.

John Letts, an archaeo-botanist and well known organic farmer from Oxford discovered various ancient grains in the base layer of thatch removed from a medieval house from which he began to develop genetically diverse seed mixes of wheat, rye, oats and barley. Nicolson and Letts first met in 2013 at a farmers' market where the farmer was hoping to attract artisan bakers to buy his flour made from sustainably-grown, ancient and heritage grains. Nicolson was intrigued with Letts' approach to growing grains for this flour but saw another angle. "I think you're missing a trick," he told Letts, suggesting maybe these ancient grains could be used for distilling spirits. The two kept in touch and in 2015 TOAD signed an exclusive contract with Letts to use his populations of ancient heritage grains (in perpetuity) for distilling. All of the heritage grains come from fields within 50 miles of Oxford. TOAD claims to be the only distillery in the world to use populations of these types of grains in is distilling. 

Next, we took a peek inside the 18th century threshing barn where the rye whiskey would eventually be laid down to age after the distilling process. This is the only building from the original farm that is still on the site. Instead of seeing it as a preservation nuisance, Nicolson sees it as an enhancement to the story of TOAD and its historical connection to community of Oxford. 

We made our way to the lab where the work of Cory Mason takes place. It was a modest-sized room filled with beakers, scales, bottles, grain bags and other ingredients. Mason was not on site that day but he, like the other members of TOAD, comes from an impressive background. Nicolson and Mason met back in 2013 when opening a distillery was still just an idea but the two "clicked" and seemed to share the same vision. Mason, an award-winning Master Distiller who made a name for himself in New York City with management roles in bars and restaurants including "Employees Only," (once voted one of the best cocktail bars in the world). He honed his distilling skills at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and his long list of accomplishments include developing more than 15 commercially released spirits. Today he is the Master Distiller of TOAD. 

There is room to grow on the property and Nicolson has plans to add a bar, restaurant and visitor center. He's been busy getting the word out about TOAD and in addition to the regularly scheduled distillery tours, Nicolson has been inviting the local community to a few "Open Days" at the distillery where folks can get a behind-the-scenes look at the operation. Nicolson invites local food purveyors, beer breweries and car clubs to help with the festivities all the while educating his local guests about TOAD. He wants very much for TOAD to be part of the community and he wants the community to be part of TOAD. To prove it, the distillery will open up its shares to the public in an attempt to raise £1million in a crowdfunding campaign some time this fall. We just might buy in too!

We finally made our way back to the tasting room where Ramoutar was waiting to treat us to tastings of the newly bottled Oxford Dry Gin and Oxford Rye Vodka. Both were so smooth and very easy to sip straight up. We could taste a very slight toffee flavor in the vodka which Ramoutar explained was from the ancient grains. We tasted the gin mixed with some tonic, lemon and lime and it really was the best gin and tonic I've ever had. We bought two bottles of gin to take with us to the Cotswolds where we planned to hike for the next few days.  


The name of the distillery provided a basis for the apt acronym, TOAD, a happenstance not lost on Nicolson. One of his favorite books as a child was The Wind in the Willows, the story of friendship and adventures of a band of anthropomorphized animals in the English wood including the frolicsome standout character, Toad, who may or may not have been a source of inspiration for the distillery mascot, George. Similar to the characters in the children's book, Nicolson and his colleagues seem to be enjoying their own adventures and camaraderie as they build their distillery business in the English countryside. Cheers to them!



For information about The Oxford Artisan Distillery and tours click here

For information about our four-star accommodations at The Buttery Hotel click here

Lift Your Spirits with a Trip to Alameda Island

Faction Brewery's 4,000 square-foot deck is kid and dog friendly.

Faction Brewery's 4,000 square-foot deck is kid and dog friendly.

Situated along an abandoned airstrip across the bay from San Francisco, a handful of craft distillers, brewers and wine makers have set their sights on reviving small-batch libations while offering tastings and tours out of WWII-era hangars on the site of Naval Air Station, Alameda which was closed in the 1990s. On a stretch of Monarch Street, dubbed "Spirits Alley," St. George Spirits, Hangar 1 Vodka, Faction Brewery, Building 43 Winery and Rock Wall Wine Company have created a convivial block where wine, beer and spirits enthusiasts can meet up to raise a glass and take in the sweeping view of the San Francisco skyline.

Coincidently, it was a sweeping ocean view in San Diego that had led us to this very spot. After tasting a cocktail made with Hangar 1 Vodka at a restaurant overlooking La Jolla Shores we were intrigued to find out more about the brand and learned about the tasting and tour facility in Alameda. We were already planning to be in the Bay Area for a family gathering and so we booked a tour to visit Hangar 1 for a tasting. We took a scenic 20-minute ferry ride from the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco to Alameda and then made the 15- to 20-minute walk from the ferry landing to Monarch Street. It was then we realized there was a whole craft collaboration happening along Spirits Alley.

In 1982, St. George Spirits was the first small American distillery to open after Prohibition and it was first to occupy space on Monarch Street when it moved its operations in 2002 to the 65,000-square-foot hangar that is now its current location. Its artisanal spirits include gins, vodkas, absinthe, whiskeys, rum, brandies and liqueurs. Unfortunately, its tasting room was closed on the day we were there so we didn't get to have a look inside. We did have time to kill before our tour at Hangar 1 so we redirected our attention across the parking lot to the lively crowd drinking beer at Faction Brewing and made our way over to see what was on tap - we found 27 beers ranging from pale ales and IPAs to porters and stouts. 

The taproom of Faction Brewery.

The taproom of Faction Brewery.

Open since 2013, Faction Brewing began with just a 6-tap kegerator and a few seats but now boasts a 20-tap direct draw system, a 30-ft. redwood bar and plenty of seating inside and out. A variety of food trucks make appearances to supplement the modest menu of ready-made snacks available for order at the bar. Faction offers pints, tulips and tasters on site as well as 32 oz. and 64 oz. growlers and bottles to go. We found two seats at the end of a community table on Faction's 4,000 square-foot deck to enjoy our beer and made fast friends with others at the table. The brewery is owned by a husband-and-wife team and the place has a family-friendly vibe. Just beyond the deck, kids played games while adults imbibed and there were even a few baby strollers parked tableside. The majority of the crowd looked to be locals meeting up with friends, celebrating family birthdays or taking a day take trip out of the city to catch some sunshine in the East Bay.

The Faction Pilsner and Brixton Pale Ale we tried were very good but when we went inside to get another the line for the bar had grown long and now looked like a queue for an airline flight. So, we went across the street to take a look inside Building 43 Winery with its large metal door welcomingly open. The space was a former locker for military explosives but today it's a tasting room for handcrafted, small-batch wines primarily from the Sierra Foothills. We each ordered a glass of wine and took a seat at one of the high-top bar tables in the lounge area. In keeping with the history of the building, the winery interior is rustic yet refined with art and objects reminiscent of its military roots. You can order wine by the bottle, glass or tasting flight and enjoy it at the bar or in the various lounging areas - inside and outside. The winery was more suited toward couples with its intimate setting but there was also a party going on in a private room. We finished our wine and headed back across the street to Hangar 1 for our tasting tour.

We entered the hangar and checked in for the tour in the tasting room. The previous tour was just wrapping up so we browsed the bottle shop just off the bar. The bottle shop is a necessary adjunct for Hangar 1 to sell its vodka on premise. Due to post-Prohibition laws still in effect, sales of the liquor can only take place through a third-party distributor which they were smart to share hangar space with. We met up with Jacob, our witty and engaging guide and entered the lab to begin the tour. Jacob told us about the master distiller at Hangar 1 Vodka - a women named Caley Shoemaker who began her career in crafting spirits with a whiskey brand in Colorado before bringing her deft hand to Hangar 1 Vodka. She is a professed "spirits nerd" who loves to experiment with the fresh ingredients she sources from local farmers in the Bay Area. Jacob was a bit of a chemistry enthusiast which came through during his explanation of how the distilling process works while the alcohol rises through 18 chambers of two very large, gleaming, copper distilling columns. 

We moved on to my favorite part of the tour which was the "see, smell and taste" curio chest. The botanicals on the cabinet included fruit in jars, stems with fresh leaves, dried chipoltes, pink pepperberries, grains and even a jar of honey - all ingredients used in making Hangar 1 vodkas. . Jacob explained the process of Shoemaker's selection of fruit as he passed around a jar containing Budda's Hand used in making the Hangar 1 Citron vodka. The distiller chose Budda's Hand because it is not as acidic as regular lemons. The Makrut Lime vodka is infused with the leaves of the plant rather than the actual fruit because the leaves offer the most flavor and aroma. The story behind the flavor profile of every vodka was very interesting, especially the Distiller's Exclusives which are only available through the bottle shop at the distillery. Those included Pink Peppercorn, Chipolte and Honeycomb. Hangar 1 even has a vodka made from fog. Its Fog Point Vodka has a very limited run and won't be available again until the fall. It retails for a hefty $129 per bottle but 100% of the profits go back to water conservation efforts. If you don't want to buy the whole bottle you can order a Fog Point Martini for $43 at Epic Steak restaurant in San Francisco made with Hangar 1 Fog Point Vodka.

There is still a lot of available space for expansion and only the vodka bottled in Hangar 1's   signature graduated cylinder-style bottles are filled at the hangar. The bottling area was modest in size and was not in operation during our tour. With the knowledge we had gained we headed to the tasting room for the real reason we were all there - to drink some vodka.

We tasted six different vodkas including the Straight, Citron, Mandarin Blossom, Pink Peppercorn, Chipolte and Honeycomb. As Jacob poured our tastings he also offered ideas for drink recipes we could make with each of the infused vodkas. The tasting room is set up for walk-ins to have tastings at the four-sided, stylish industrial bar too but there are no cocktails available. And don't expect more than six small pours because there are strict laws governing how much alcohol can be served in distillery tasting rooms. However, Bonnie who manages the bottle shop said there are plans in the very near future to have a portable bar outside that would serve cocktails under the separate third-party license. 

At the conclusion of the tour we took a look around the tasting room which was fitted out with a vintage flight yoke, bomber jacket and a retail area with t-shirts, hats and accessories and also left our information so we'd know when the next batch of Fog Point Vodka was available. We ran out of time to visit Rock Wall Wine Company so we'll have to do that on our next visit.

And although Spirits Alley might seem like a great place for a nightcap the area does have a 7p.m. curfew due to a little, politically-connected neighbor named the California Least Tern. In the 1970's the birds decided the former airstrip on Alameda Island was an ideal location to hang out and it has become a very successful breeding site for the species. So much so, the government set aside 624 acres for the birds in 2014. This means the surrounding buildings cannot undergo any refurbishing that would disrupt the birds. So the structures and facades along Monarch Street will maintain their "authenticity" and you won't find electricity bringing light or music to this stretch of road.

Hangar 1 Vodka - 2505 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.871.4951

St. George Spirits - 2601 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.769.1601

Building 43 Winery - 2440 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.263.0399

Rock Wall Wine Company - 2301 Monarch Street, Alameda, CA 94501 - Ph. 510.522.5700