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The Steeplechase Distillery

'I was brought up in Cheltenham. Racing was and still is such a massive part of the town – you can see how the town is taken over for those few days of the big race meetings and comes together simply for the racing.’ Racing is the biggest inspiration behind the award-winning Steeplechase Distillery, which is situated in the heart of town, just shy of three miles from the home of National Hunt, Cheltenham Racecourse. In Montpellier, next to a cobbler’s shop, behind a cloud-coloured door, down a narrow staircase is the bright heaven that contains the dream of Adam Mitchell – gin distiller and lover of horseracing.

In this cool, airy cellar, the copper stills sit tall and proud and bottles of gin glint like diamonds. Limited prints of muddy, wintery racing scenes and Desert Orchid adorn the walls. Cushions and tub chairs continue the racing theme with splashes of colours, not dissimilar to jockeys’ silks spilling onto the paddock on a dull January afternoon. Cocktail menus, embellished by the horseshoe in an octagon insignia, list the gins and recipes on offer. At the bar, gins, different liquors and tonics line up like gems in a jeweller’s counter.

The stills appear as oversized experiments; Adam is in fact, a chemistry teacher by profession. His spare time is split between racing and producing gin. What started out as a lockdown project during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 blossomed into opening the distillery itself in March 2022. Each gin is thoughtfully titled with a reason and a story; there are links between the ingredients and names. Adam explains these personal reasons: ‘It has to make sense why they are named as they are and this is why there are big winners that haven’t got a gin named after them’.

Adam, 32, had a busy childhood in Cheltenham with two brothers and a sister. His mum now lives in south Wales, and helps a lot with the distillery, while his dad lives in Cornwall. Adam lives with partner Laura Murdock, whose grandfather, Ron Williams, owned the nine-time winner Nuns Jewel, trained by Milton Bradley in the late ‘80s and early '90s. Literally on the doorstep of his beloved racecourse, Adam lives in Prestbury, 400 metres from the track and often walks round its perimeter.

A lot of the inspiration lies in the racecourse, and many promotional photograph shots were taken there: ‘using the backdrop of Cheltenham Racecourse was easy for the product shop. Before they replaced the white rails that used to go all the way round the racecourse, I took photos of new bottles with that background but a tall, grated fence has since been put up’. This year, the Steeplechase Distiller is continuing to grow, working alongside Cheltenham Racecourse with personalised bottles of the Gold Cup for 2024 and recently brought out Ravenswell Gin in honour of trainer Fergal O'Brien.

Where does your love of racing derive from? For years, my Granddad has been a racing fan and always goes to Cheltenham. When I was much younger, I remember being at my grandparents’ during weekend afternoons, watching the racing on the telly. That’s where my love of racing started.

What is your first racing memory? I remember the first time I stepped into Cheltenham Racecourse. I was seventeen with a couple of friends, at the October or November meets for the weekend. I just recall seeing the pictures and the shots of it all on TV and then being there in person; it was really sublime.

Do you have a preference between Flat or National Hunt? I’ve never really got into the Flat. I’ve got friends in the south-east who have been to Epsom, but it still doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve only ever been to watch National Hunt – it’s the one that got me and nothing compares to it.

Favourite racecourse: There’s only one in my eyes: Cheltenham. There are a couple that I would love to go to in the future. I’d love to see some of the different atmospheres at a couple of the Irish courses, and I’ve not been to Aintree.

Which is your favourite meeting at Cheltenham? There are two outside of the Festival: there’s the November meeting – the buildup starts there for the season proper - and for the same reason, the Trials Day. This is such a nice meeting where you get to see some of the horses that’ll be back in six weeks’ time for the Festival. You get to feel the direction in which those horses may go.

What are your best memories of the Cheltenham Festival? It’s going to be a recent one: when you see a British horse like Constitution Hill do what he did in the Champion Hurdle in March – it’s fantastic to watch.

When I first started going racing, it was in the age of Sprinter Sacre and he was phenomenal to watch. Constitution Hill is certainly going in that direction.

Who is your favourite Gold Cup winner? There were two I grew up with and they’ve grown into the premise of where my gin brand started.

Best Mate is the first racehorse I really remember hearing about and watching – he’s the horse that really got me into racing. Kauto Star was such a favourite in these parts that it would have been really wrong for me to miss him out.

What do you love best about a day out at the races? The atmosphere – there are very few sporting events like it. There’s the Cheltenham Roar, and for me it’s that excitement of them coming down the hill and turning towards the second last. There’s nothing like it – it makes the hairs at the back of my neck stand up every single time. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been or how many times I’ll go in the future, I’ll always feel that rush and excitement.

How did you come about making gin? I got into craft gins about seven years ago, just through discovering something new. Initially, the local Cotswold Distillery got me into gins; I discovered them about two years after they started out.

I had some time over the first lockdown to play around with gin and it was having an abundance of time at home as well as needing something to do and keeping busy. It seemed a potentially sensible option as a hobby but it quickly grew out of control. As soon as I’d bought my first still, I was contemplating a brand.

And why gin (and not other types of alcohol!)? Time, energy and patience. Gin is the easiest one to start making. You can start it by legally buying in a nutri-grain spirit and once obtaining the licenses, effectively changing that spirit with the botanicals. Juniper has to be there in a gin but other botanicals will make up different recipes.

I’d love to make a whisky one day – it just needs an incredible amount of space, storage and time. whisky needs a minimum of three years to be made but I’d still like to make a proper English whisky in the future.

Until then, I’ll stick to the gins, which I enjoy drinking anyway.

How did you learn the distilling process? Before Covid, Mum and I would regularly attend gin tours, always buying craft gins for birthday and Christmas presents. By going on these tours, the scientific side really began making sense – I knew I could do it myself – it was then just about finding the flavours that I could put in them. With a lot of reading and researching, it was all self-taught and self-found.

The distilling process wasn't tricky to pick up and was made even easier by being a chemistry teacher – I knew the fundamentals of what was going on and understood the basics and principles of what I needed to do. The lockdown gave us the opportunity to experiment with the flavour profiles, which we really enjoyed.

What types of gin are you making at the moment? We’ve got quite a range, including a couple of award-winning gins. We very much centre around traditionally distilled gins using a couple of pot stills and traditional methods. It’s really great to have such a range with all different profiles, and I loved coming up with the recipes.

There’s a London Dry Gin that won at the World Gin Awards. It is the gin that gave birth to the brand’s name. Steeplechase fences are constructed with spruce and that is the signature botanical in our London Dry.

The gins that are named after the racehorses are Best Mate, that has recently been named as a blush gin – it’s a bit sweeter and the raspberries, redcurrants and blackberries give it their dominant flavours.

Kauto, named after Kauto Star who was always my passion project, was the first recipe that I wrote down on paper. I was adamant that the recipe would work and it’s still our best seller. It’s got a more exotic flavour – kaffire, lime leaf, lemongrass and pink peppercorns, but it’s also combined with heather and lavender: it’s a beautiful gin.

I’ve got a gin named after Frodon, which I launched during Women’s History Month in 2022. With Bryony Frost being one of the leading female UK jockeys and Frodon being one of my favourite horses, I wanted to make a gin symbolic of their partnership. That’s a hibiscus gin – an English garden gin that contains the rosemary, sage and thyme that my grandparents’ grow. The use of fresh herbs give it a really clean, crisp flavour.

Next is Dessie, named after Desert Orchid. As he won a King George on Boxing Day, I wanted to name a winter gin after him. It contains vanilla, fig and clementine because vanilla comes from the orchid plant, I tied that in with the name of the racehorse. The clementine gives it sweeter notes, as well as it being a dry and crisp gin.

Our spring-summer release was a hops-dried gin named Arkle. I named it after hearing the old anecdote that Arkle was partial to a bit of Guinness. From day one, I wanted to create a gin with hops, which are the basic components that make Guinness, at the heart of its flavour.

Do you have a favourite gin you make? Kauto is my favourite – it was the one that I thought would work, made work and did work. It’s my favourite drink – it’s perfect mixed with ginger ale.

How did you choose the Gold Cup winners to name your gins? The names are all do with the recipes and whatever clicks with me. Best Mate was a show off, so I wanted that to be our colourful pink gin. Kauto Star being French-born and English-trained made sense for Kauto as it's heather and lavender-made. It’s about finding the connections with the horses – I can sell on a story but it has to be meaningful and thoughtful as well.

Have you met any racing heroes through your gin? I met Bryony Frost at an event before this year’s Festival. She was doing a Q&A at Aston Martin, who are her sponsors and we’d previously done a couple of events for them. We organised the drink reception so I was able to give Bryony a bottle of Frodon and got a bottle signed in return, which was lovely.

What gin would you like to make in the future? I’d love to make – and it will take me into the realms of Flat racing after all – a gin named after the horse Alcohol Free. I would like to make an alcohol-free spirit or ‘gin’. That’s potentially in the pipeline but it’s not as easy a process as I would like it to be.

As well as that, I’ve got different ideas on which directions to take – we have a Navy strength gin named The Thoroughbred and whether I move on with that idea more is to be seen. I’ve got an idea to have an origins collection, about the origins of the Thoroughbred so that might go down the whisky route because of the aging process involved.

I’m always thinking of new ideas and besides, there’s one defined racehorse at the moment that I want to name a gin after…

Do you have a favourite craft gin? Cotswold Gin is always the one on my shelf and then there’s one made up in Scotland called Lina & Lime Gin – that’s a beautiful gin, really citrussy and well made.

What tonic do you recommend? We work with and stock the whole range of tonics called Navas, a small producer from Cornwall. They make a really beautiful range of tonics, working alongside the Eden Project Foundation, which is where all the botanicals for their tonics are grown.

How have you been marketing your gins? My Mum and I do a lot of face-to-face events as well as going out and about to farmers’ markets. We’ve gone further afield, targeting events to their proximity to racecourses – earlier this year, we were in Exeter and Reading, so near to Newbury. I’d love to go further north but time doesn’t permit it.

What’s the importance of social media in your marketing strategy? We’re on social media but that in itself is a third full time job – so I do what I can there.

What are you hopes for the future? I think, the plan is to phase out the teaching. At the moment, gin is very much my passion and it’s something tangible that I’ve built on the sidelines. It’s challenging but hopefully, one day I can do it full time.

Favourite pub: Going back, I loved the Jolly Brew Master in the Suffolks, just off the back of the Bath Road in town. I do like the Plough Inn in Prestbury as well.

Favourite drink (aside from gin!): I do like a Guinness for my sins, otherwise I stick to gin.

Favourite meal: I do like steak – you can’t beat it when it’s done right.

Favourite holiday destination: I’ve just got back from Marrakesh and that was beautiful. One place I’ve been to in the past and would like to go back to is Bali.

Other hobbies/interests: I like baking – it’s therapeutic. I do like to cook but I find the methodology behind baking fits into my personality better. I like a lot of sports – I like watching football and playing golf. But, it’s just finding time!

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