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Community spirit

Using pure Scillonian water and local ingredients, the first and only rum distillery on the Isles of Scilly is bottling the true spirit of island life.

Words by Hannah Tapping

Above | Christopher Tirrell

My link with Scilly goes back many years. Brought up a stone’s throw from the Cornish fishing village of Cadgwith, I spent my childhood messing about either in or on the water. We would watch the fishing boats land their catch and eavesdrop on the conversations spoken with thick Cornish accents on the ‘stick’, the wooden bench opposite the net lofts where the world was put to rights by the cove’s salty sea dogs. If we were lucky, on regatta days we would be rewarded with a ride out in one of the fishing boats followed by listening to an evening of Cornish songs, as the fishermen raised a toast with a rum and shrub. Many of the Cadgwith fishermen had strong links with Scilly, some spent long summers there, returning to the cove with tales of their Scillonian compatriots. It seemed a magical world away and one that as children we longed to experience.

We began holidaying on Scilly when I was 11 and our annual family pilgrimage for the last two weeks of August was greatly anticipated. We stayed in a little chalet on the island of St. Martin’s owned by Jinny and Cuth Stevens and for two weeks every year we had our very own island paradise, yet we were just 28 miles from the Cornish mainland. In those days, life on Scilly was simple. We walked to get our milk each morning in churns from Carron Farm. There was no mains electricity and the hum of the generators was the soundtrack to our walk to the Seven Stones pub of an evening, where rum and shrub was of course the local tipple. Shrub, for those that don’t know of this heady cocktail, is a local elixir that dates back to the 1600s when rum was a brisk smuggling trade in Cornwall. If the night was too stormy to bring the contraband ashore, the smugglers would sink the barrels of rum to the sea floor to be retrieved when the waters calmed. Sometimes, sea water ingress would taint the rum, but no-one wanted to the waste the contraband and so a sweet, spiced liqueur was made that could be mixed with the rum to take away the taste of the saltwater.

As is oft the case within Cornwall’s communities, coincidences appear around every corner. I was delighted to discover a rum distillery has been started at the very farm on St Martin’s from which we would collect our milk, set up by Andrew Walder, together with wife Hannah, parents Steve and Julia, who own the family farm, and none other than Jinny and Cuth’s son Richard, Andrew’s cousin by marriage.

Once a thriving flower business, Carron Farm was sadly hit by the fact that early daffodils could be imported by air more cheaply than they could be from Scilly and so its fields, along with the majority of flower fields across the islands, had become pretty much redundant. Andrew had followed a career in the Merchant Navy, with the British Antarctic Survey in the Antarctic. His wife Hannah remained in Scilly with their young family, but after the birth of their third child Andrew knew it was time to ‘come home’.

“We were trying to think of a business that would regenerate and diversify the farm,” explains Andrew, “and so initially we came up with idea of SC Salt, creating a business where we could use the fields at the back of Par Beach. As producing sea salt is really energy inefficient (because you’re basically boiling or separating off all the water) we wanted to harness the power of the sun on Scilly for natural evaporation, using solar pumps to pump the water out of the sea up into the plant. It was something of a testbed operation but with some grant funding, we put polytunnels in the fields behind Par Beach to house the salt pans and it’s now a thriving small business, selling online and in shops and delis around Scilly and Cornwall.”

While successful, SC Salt proved not to be hugely scalable and so Andrew knew that to achieve the family’s goal of creating a sustainable and scalable business for the future of the farm they would need a rethink. During his time at sea, Andrew’s ship The Ernest Shackleton needed an engine replacing, so while in dock in Scotland, a crew visit was organised to a local whisky distillery. It was after spending time there that Andrew’s fascination with this incredibly technical process began. So, not surprisingly given the islands and Andrew’s seafaring history, rum came to mind.

Above | Christopher Tirrell

“We started talking about the idea of a distillery and that it would be really interesting to think about creating a plough-to-bottle, really authentic, provenance-based distillery where you’re literally growing the ingredients, using local water, fermenting and distilling everything from scratch all on St. Martin’s. As well as using produce from all around the different islands,” says Andrew. “It’s exactly the same principle as flower farming. We asked ourselves, what benefits do we have on Scilly that you don’t have elsewhere, that you don’t have on the mainland and further afield? It is the fact that the islands rarely get frost, so you can grow crops that you would never be able to grow elsewhere in the British Isles. We planted trial fields of sugarcane, which were prolific, it looked like you were in the Caribbean! So we started to scale that and then started to grow barley, of which we have harvested the first trial crops from the fields overlooking the Eastern Isles, with the ultimate aim of making the first Scillonian plough-to-bottle whisky.”

Andrew and his father Steve spent two years just testing, as the key thing was to get the base fermentation process right. The whole thinking from the beginning was not to rush anything. “There’s a long lead time with all of this, but it’s based on the idea of seeing the field systems back in action again as well as not transporting backwards and forwards from the mainland, So that was the original idea, and we received European Regional Development Fund grant funding for the distillery setup. We repurposed the packing sheds and old flower glasshouses on the farm and installed a professional distillery setup. It was much bigger than the scale that we had planned to start off with, but we knew that if we could grow it, we could have a business the same as any successful Highland distiller, employing local people and using local farmland and produce.”

Top left | SC Dog Bruce Christopher by Imogen Bone

Top right | SC Dog William Gibson by Sue Lewington

Bottom left | SC Dog John Nance by Imogen Bone

Bottom right | SC Dog Capt'n Stevens by Imogen Bone

While that was the main vision for SC Dogs, another big part of the project was based around the island community. Scilly is a place where everybody gets on with their day-to-day lives, but when someone needs help then the island communities immediately come together. “It’s really quite emotional when this happens” says Richard, “and so we wanted to echo that community spirit in what we were trying to do; not only working with other local businesses but championing each island and celebrating its community and people.”

“We settled on the brand name SC Dogs. SC is obviously the fishing boat prefix for the Isles of Scilly, and the sea dog reference is about honouring island characters, telling the stories of how they’ve influenced and made Scilly what it is today. Each of our products celebrates the history of one of those sea dogs, and we commission local artists to create character portraits for the bottles, with the original artwork being gifted back to the island. So far, we’ve worked with local artists Imogen Bone and Sue Lewington and when you pick up a SC Dogs bottle you can see the character looking back at you through the glass.”

SC Dogs started off producing a white rum and a vodka. They then brought in oak barrels for ageing and last summer, launched a gold rum and a Tresco honey-spiced rum. The hives are in the Abbey Gardens, but the honey that they produce is not publicly available. Andrew explains further: “They approached us and said we’d really like to create a product with you that celebrates one of the island’s characters, Bruce Christopher, who set up the original beehives on Tresco. The honey from Tresco is a distillation of all the different subtropical plants in the Abbey Gardens and other plants on Scilly and so it was a perfect match between us distilling the rum and the bees distilling the flavour.” The collaboration was so successful that the original Tresco hives couldn’t produce enough honey, so a beehive community has recently been created near the Abbey Gardens, solely to produce honey for SC Dogs’ rum. It’s part of a community bee project aimed at bringing back bees to the community across Scilly and obviously honey across the islands.

I’m intrigued as to how the first SC Dog character was chosen and I’m not surprised to find that there is a ‘salty’ tale behind it. While doing some historical research Andrew discovered that his great, great, grandfather John Nance, who had lived in Bleak House on St Martin’s was a rum smuggler. The well documented story tells of how Nance used to row the hundred nautical miles across to France in the family gig, smuggling rum and brandy back to the island. Fitting then, that he became the first SC Dog as The Spirit of John Nance White Rum.

Andrew spent time at a Speyside cooperage in Scotland, carefully selecting a range of oak barrels that are all now laid down on St Martin’s. The first barrel aged expression will be ready this autumn, which will be a Scillonian cider brandy, similar to a calvados, that’s been made using cider from Westward Farm on St Agnes. The Hicks family have run Westward Farm since the 1600s and the cider brandy will pay homage to SC Dog Jack Hicks, the current owner’s great grandfather who was the last lighthouse keeper on Bishop Rock Lighthouse to watch over the islands and the last Trinity House pilot to be put aboard a vessel from a gig.

Above | Adj Brown

“What we’re genuinely trying to create,” sums up Richard, “is a livelihood for the future generations of the Walder family, to employ local people, regenerate the fields which would otherwise have been left fallow, all while creating an authentic premium product that people want to drink; without compromise.”

As you walk across St Martin’s now, the fields are starting to come back to life again and, together with other thriving St Martin’s businesses, there is a real buzz around the island. Fitting then to raise a toast to the sea dogs of the past with a rum and shrub but sadly, alcoholic shrub has been relegated to the history books and is no longer produced. So, it is with a tot of pure SC Dogs Gold Rum, named after William Gibson who would put to sea whatever the weather and whose cutter the Queen II now lies under the sand on Par Beach, sometimes laid bare by big winter storms, that I toast SC Dogs… but, who knows, in future perhaps an alcoholic Scillonian shrub will bring the tale full circle!


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