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

Pendry Hotel, San Diego

It wasn't that long ago on our travels when people learned we lived in San Diego we'd get responses like, "Oh, that's near Mexico, isn't it?" or "We've been to LA. Is San Diego near there?" But in the last few years, people that we've met around the world now know exactly where San Diego is because they've visited - and they loved it! It seems hotel developers have gotten the message too and the city is in the midst of a hotel boom. San Diego's downtown already has its share of good convention and family hotels but could definitely use more properties in the luxury, boutique or cool-factor categories. The Pendry Hotel hits the mark in all three categories as we found out when we stopped by for lunch after attending the San Diego Travel and Adventure Show last weekend. The 12-story hotel has an ideal location in the Gaslamp Quarter on the corner of 5th Avenue and J Street and is just a short walk to the San Diego Convention Center and Petco Park.

Pendry is an offshoot of the luxe brand, Montage Hotels and Resorts, a management company which oversees such distinctive properties as Montage Laguna Beach, Montage Beverly Hills, Montage Deer Valley and Montage Kapalua Bay. Pendry is the company's second brand which skews to a younger clientele with its edgier design and personality. A second Pendry hotel, in Baltimore, is slated to open this month and there is a third in the works for West Hollywood. I can't ever remember a time when San Diego got a cool hotel before L.A. did.

The tenet of the Pendry brand as it states on its website is simple luxury, clean design, well-crafted restaurant experiences, vibrant bars with a perfect balance of polished comfort and modern edge and a taste for rebellion. It was all on display as we were lucky enough to get a peek inside after we introduced ourselves as local travel agents to the concierge in the lobby. Ryan offered to show us a couple of the hotel's 317 guest rooms and invited us to take a look at the rooftop pool deck and spa before heading off for our lunch at the hotel's Provisional Restaurant.

The lobby reminded me of a grand train station from the Art Deco era with its wood paneled ceiling, curved polished lobby desk, tufted velvet settee, mosaic-tiled floors and wrought iron and brass accents on furniture and lighting fixtures. The lobby was bright and airy with large windows, lush plants and an inviting sitting area with a fireplace situated beneath a giant birdcage pendant light.

We rode the elevator to the second floor where Ryan showed us a Premier Room with large windows and modern furnishings in soothing ocean-inspired colors. The king bed was dressed in luxury linens and the nightstand held a Bluetooth-enabled Nixon speaker for streaming music. The only separation between the bed and bath was the floor-to-ceiling glass shower enclosure which could be concealed with a curtain. I thought it was odd but after pondering for a moment I realized this feature speaks to Pendry's slightly rebellious character and I think its young, edgy clientele would likely embrace the concept. The bathroom had luxurious touches like a marble vanity, chic Waterworks accessories and custom amenities from the east coast parfumerie MiN New York.

On the third floor, Ryan showed us one of the Deluxe Suites which featured a separate living room with wet bar and floor to ceiling windows offering views of the city skyline. The luxury bathroom included a dual marble vanity, MiN New York bath products and a dual-head, walk-in shower.

We passed through the spa on our way to the rooftop deck and Pool House lounge which overlooks the Gaslamp Quarter's bustling 5th Avenue and city views beyond. The Pendry's penchant for simple luxury and clean lines are evident on the deck. The poolside lounges and cabanas are decorated with classic striped cushions, pillows and light, billowy drapery. There is also a 1,082 sq.-foot Cabana Pool Suite with full kitchen, dining room and entertainment area that opens up directly to the pool deck. The bedroom has 180-degree views of the Gaslamp Quarter.

We didn't get to see Lionfish, the hotel's fine dining restaurant specializing in seafood and prime cuts or the Oxford Social Club, a cocktail lounge open Thurs. - Sat. from 10pm-2am. We checked out some of the special event spaces, looked in on Nason's Beer Hall (which wasn't open at the time) and Fifth & Rose, the elegant and chic bar just off the lobby. I was really impressed each space had its own personality but blended well together. The design team did a great job bringing together classic elegance, industrial detailing and modern flare throughout the property. 

We bid farewell to Ryan and went to have lunch at Provisional, the all-day dining option in the hotel. It's a restaurant-marketplace with dining room and bistro seating or carry-out options from the coffee/pastry bar or gelato counter. We ordered light lunch from the Cafe Menu and added two beers from the nice selection of bottled craft beers. The staff was amazingly attentive (and because we live in San Diego we can attest that some wait staffs tend to be a little too laid back) and saw to our every need. We asked our waitress if Provisional had been busy since opening and she said lunch was their busiest time as it draws a good local business crowd and many residents from the numerous nearby condos. We shared a gelato and our waitress gave us two samples of coffee from the elaborate cold-brewing contraption on the counter. We had inquired about it while we were having our lunch and she just thought we'd like to try it. Nice!

I know new hotels can have service issues when they first open but every employee we encountered was exceptional, poised and exceedingly helpful. We had just stopped in to check out the hotel and have lunch but ended up getting a tour and were treated as if we were guests. Obviously, we didn't stay at the hotel but will definitely come back to try the other restaurants and have cocktails before a show, concert or ballgame at nearby Petco Park. If the Pendry staff is this nice to "drop in" visitors I can only imagine how well it takes care of its guests.