Copper Rivet: Steering a new course

It’s easy to think that some of the UK’s most successful family-run drinks producers found fame slowly as consumers discovered the brands, and perhaps as each generation built on the foundations of the last.

With that in mind, the idea of starting afresh sounds like a daunting one, so OLN went to Chatham in Kent to see how Bob Russell and his sons took on the challenge of establishing Copper Rivet, a distillery that flags up the trends of heritage, premium and British-ness, but without any actual brand history.

Russell is a drinks trade veteran, having run an off-licence and wine bar, but he says he always wanted to have his own distillery. It’s something he and sons Matthew and Stephen talked about in a serious way back in 2005, but finding the right building was a key starting point, he explains.

“I didn’t want a distillery on an industrial estate so we spent a bit of time looking for the right thing. One day Stephen came across this Victorian pumping station that was part of Chatham Dockyard and we knew it was the right setting. The building had been empty for 34 years so it needed a lot of work, as well as consulting with conservation departments, and it will take five years in total to get it the way we want it.”

While all this was going on the family went on a mission to find some top distilling talent, which they eventually did, in Scotland.

At the time Abhi Bhanik, now the company’s head distiller, was teaching distilling at the International Centre for Brewing & Distilling in Edinburgh. Bhanik also helped design the distillery’s unique still, for which a patent has been applied.

Russell says: “We wanted to make our drinks in a different way. Most gin producers buy in the liquid spirit then add botanicals. They make nice gin but they don’t make the spirit, which is something we wanted to do. We have a local farmer who grows wheat, barley and rye for us and we mill it ourselves. It means we know exactly what the spirit is made from and it gives us a really consistent product.”

The gin contains nine botanicals through a process that combines macerating and infusing – nothing is added later.


The family’s original aim was to produce a “really light gin that would be drinkable as a G&T”.

In order to do this the company selected 46 gins for a blind tasting session with a panel of 15. The gins were whittled down to a choice of five, and in Round Two 14 of the tasters chose the same one as their preferred style.

“So we knew we wanted to emulate that style and Abhi worked long and hard on this. I think we have surpassed what we set out to do,” says Russell.

The result is Dockyard Gin, a premium gin which flags up the history of Chatham dockyard and its links to the British navy. It will be priced at £28.50 for 50cl.

“In the 17th century this dockyard was the busiest in the world and this place is steeped in history,” says Russell. “HMS Victory was built here and in 1606 the first Union Jack flag designs were created here and used by the British navy.”

Other products in the portfolio also reflect these maritime links.

Vela, Copper Rivet’s vodka, is the name of a constellation that sailors navigated by at sea. The vodka, which is ready to launch, is 10% rye, which is typically used in US whiskey.

The final drink in the range is Son of a Gun, a 96.5% abv neutral alcohol that is expected to appeal to younger drinkers and mixologists. It will balance the line-up until 2020 when Masthouse Whisky can be released.

The distillery has plenty of capacity to allow for future growth. In its first year the company aims to produce 150,000 bottles “but we have the capacity to do six times that and in fact we can do 150,000 bottles from one fermentation. We also have the space to add additional stills”.


The team comprises 13 people, including the three Russell founders. This will increase when a delicatessen and café area is built by the end of April.

The building has been divided into separate areas with the main entrance now also housing a bar. This leads through to the production area and then the café/deli, which will have its own entrance and outside space, overlooking the docks.

The opening of the café neatly coincides with a re-enactment of the 350th anniversary of the Battle of Chatham, which saw the British navy lose to the Dutch. The event in June is expected to attract hundreds of visitors from the Netherlands.

It’s a challenging deadline, agrees Russell, but one that doesn’t faze him.

He adds: “The council wants us to be involved and we are in pole position, so we’ll have it ready by then.”

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