Poetic License: The craft distillery based in Sunderland

In recent years gin has become a fashionable drink. To understand why, I turned to the Sunderland-based Poetic License distillery.

Luke Smith is the master distiller at Poetic License, which launched in September 2015 at the Boutique Bar Show, a trade event in London.

“We had a phenomenal reception and things have continued to snowball since then,” says Luke, who agreed to answer a number of questions.

Neon distillery sign at Poetic License in Sunderland.
Neon distillery sign at Poetic License in Sunderland.

Why do you think gin has become such a fashionable drink over recent years?

The distinct and individual flavours are much easier to identify than in a lot of other drinks, like wines or beers.

Even people who don’t drink gin can immediately taste the difference between the spirits due to the different mix of botanicals each gin uses and I think that is satisfying.

Our Northern Dry Gin, for example, is cardamom heavy with big juniper and citrus flavours too, while our Old Tom is spicy and more peppery as well as being oaky, having been rested with sweet sherry casks.

Both are gin but they are totally different and it is this variation that makes it such a versatile and exciting spirit.

I think the rise of the craft gin is also part of it. The choice and the quality of the gins now widely available is phenomenal.

Picnic gin, a limited edition gin flavoured with strawberries and cream.
Picnic gin, a limited edition gin flavoured with strawberries and cream.

How did you get into gin making?

I have always had a passion for craft drinks and had been making home brews and distilling on my mam’s hob at home for a good few years…as a hobby.

I was at market stall, selling ginger wine I had made on behalf on the garden centre I was working for, when I happened across a chap from Sonnet 43 Brew House (Durham Road, Coxhoe; tel. 0191 377 3039). We got chatting and, as it happened, they had a vacancy he thought I’d be a great fit for.

So, I began working there in 2013 — part of my week spent on telesales, in the sales office, and then the other half getting mucked in at the brew house. I did this for around a year-and-a-half, frequently bringing in samples of my homemade concoctions for everyone to try.

These caught the attention of Mark, the brewery owner, and he was sufficiently impressed. With a mutual love of craft drinks and him having set-up and had good success with the brewery, he was keen to move into distilling and so he asked if I wanted to help set it up and be its distiller.

I jumped at the chance. After I underwent an intensive distilling course to refine my skills, Poetic License was born. So, by chance, I landed my dream job.

Seaburn Lighthouse is a short walk from the Poetic License bar.
Seaburn Lighthouse is a short walk from the Poetic License bar.

How many people work in the distilling side of Poetic License?

It’s just me!

I come up with all the recipes and distil them myself on Gracie, our 500-litre still. The whole distillery is made up of just a handful of people.

We are a small but passionate team, though we are on the look out to grow that team at the moment. We’re looking for the right people with a real passion for gin and loads of personality.

What sets Poetic License apart from other gin distilleries?

Our thing is big flavours. We like to craft drinks that are going to stand out.

We’re a bit unusual in that we don’t just have the one gin, like many distilleries.

We have a core range of 3 spirits (Northern Dry Gin, Old Tom Gin and Graceful Vodka), then seasonal spirits (Picnic Gin and Fireside Gin). We continually experiment with flavours in a range of products we call The Rarities – one-batch runs of whatever we fancy making. As such, I think we’re getting known for the memorable flavours we create.

With this being our approach, I think it’s fair to say we aren’t for everyone, and that’s fine. That’s the whole idea behind Poetic License — we’re using ours to create spirits we enjoy and we hope other’s will use theirs to create tasty concoctions with the spirits.

We like to think we produce spirits for the free-thinkers, the people who don’t play by the rulebook and who crave something different. We identify with these people as ‘wild spirits’ — like-minded individuals who are open to perhaps something a bit weird but a bit wonderful.

Daybreak over the River Wear and city crest of Sunderland, bearing the Latin motto 'nil desperandum, auspice deo' meaning 'do not despair, trust in God'.
Daybreak over the River Wear and city crest of Sunderland, bearing the Latin motto ‘nil desperandum, auspice deo’ meaning ‘do not despair, trust in God’.

What characteristics do you appreciate in a good gin?

I love the variety in gin. I’m fond of a traditional, solid juniper-forward gin but also enjoy tasting the flavours new and unique botanicals can offer.

However, for me, the important thing is the flavours must be balanced. In a gin, all botanicals should sit together harmoniously so that all flavours, even big ones, still balance and no one element is overly dominating. In my opinion, Pothecary do this very well – huge flavours but with great equilibrium.

I also like when the gin develops with dilution — whether with water, ice or tonic. The flavour developing is the sign of a good craft gin.

You don’t get this with mass-produced spirits which are fairly one dimensional, due to the large-scale process they use to make them.

If people wanted to try a good G&T which north-east bars do you recommend?

We have our own bar of the same name, within the Roker Hotel, that serves all the Poetic License gins, both as our suggested serves and with our bespoke cocktails.

You can enjoy them while you nibble on some soul food sharing plates. If you time it right, you might just catch me distilling the gin while you sip your G&T too.

A Newcastle-based venue I like is Dacantus (30-32 Grey Street, NE1 6AE; tel. 0191 261 8111). Their range of gins is fantastic, with lots of more Mediterranean style gins available and a delightful tapas menu to accompany it.

Do you enjoy gin festivals?

I did attend a few myself before Poetic License launched and loved the experience of getting to try lots of different gins.

As it happens, I am usually the other side of the table, we attend pretty much all northern festivals as well as some key southern gin festivals ran by Gin Festival.  This doesn’t stop me thoroughly enjoying them though.

They’re great for speaking to gin enthusiasts, getting them trying your gin and getting candid feedback. The distillers who do the tastings all usually go out for a drink afterwards so we aren’t missing out on a night out either!

Fireworks at Sunderland International Airshow. The seafront is on the opposite side of the road to the Poetic License bar.
Fireworks at Sunderland International Airshow. The seafront is on the opposite side of the road to the Poetic License bar.

What do you think is the most prestigious bar your gin is stocked in?

We’re on the gin list for all The Botanist bars and our local is Newcastle (Monument Mall, NE1 7AL; tel. 0191 261 6307). This was the branch that ‘discovered’ our gin. The head bartender tried our gin and liked it so much he recommended it for the group’s gin list.

It’s great bar chain and the Newcastle venue is in a really great spot a few floors up overlooking Grey’s Monument with quirky garden-themed menus and interior.

Where is the distillery based and does that have any impact on the gins you produce?

We are based on the Sunderland coastline, at Roker, in Tyne and Wear.

The still is positioned behind glass and in full view of punters visiting the Poetic License bar, so they can watch me make the gin while enjoying a G&T or one of our unique cocktails.

Our location doesn’t currently influence the gin we produce. We focus on sourcing the best quality botanicals for the flavours we want to achieve in our core and seasonal ranges of spirits. We do have a botanical garden on-site, though, and we do intend to take inspiration from what grows locally with our range of one-off spirits we call The Rarities, so watch this space.

A bottle of Poetic License Northern Dry Gin.
A bottle of Poetic License Northern Dry Gin.

Further information

The Poetic License still is located within a bar with that name at the Best Western Roker Hotel (Roker Terrace, SR6 9ND) in Sunderland.

Sunderland is one of the candidates to become the 2021 UK City of Culture. Find out more about the city’s attractions on the See It Do It Sunderland website.

Photographs illustrating this online feature are by Stuart Forster.

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It seems that few features about gin are published without a passing mention of William Hogarth’s Gin Lane etching of 1751. (This one almost did but failed on the last line.) You can see that famous work at the Tate Britain art gallery at Millbank in London.

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