At Ramsbury in Wiltshire, in a designated area of outstanding natural beauty where the Marlborough Downs roll over the border into Royal Berkshire, an intriguing and innovative enterprise is showing how commerce can flourish hand in glove with environmental respect. But before we visit, it’s worth dipping into history to set the scene.
It’s hardly news that rural life as it had long existed has now gone forever. While villages themselves remain, clusters of cottage and mill, church and pub, the way of life that once sustained them is now a thing of the distant past. Each village had previously operated through a network of communal and interdependent crafts, trades, and resources, where micro-economies evolved based on what could be teased by skill and labour from the local landscape. In which five chickens might be worth a sheep, which equalled a certain measure of grain, which combined with the same contribution from a friend or neighbour and give or take a few trout from the river acquired a pig. A self-contained system based on variety and mutual benefit that remained stable for centuries.
And has now completely vanished. Why that change occurred – a combination among other things of cash replacing barter, the commodification of labour, and technological advances – need not detain us. It happened. All of which is of course fascinating, and something to mull over on a long winter evening. But what, to return to what is supposed to be our subject, does all this have to do with Ramsbury Estate? With the estate’s carefully managed and run shoot, whose birds appear both on the menu at The Bell at Ramsbury, the village pub it both owns and runs, and in the estate’s shop? What relevance might the sweep of rural social history have to the woodlands that supply not only essential cover for game, but also the woodchips that provide heat for the brewery that produces the celebrated Ramsbury ales using grain from the estate’s fields and water from its own well and river. (Any ideas yet?)
It’s a given among distillers that to produce a truly great vodka it’s best to start with a great beer: thus the skills perfected in the brewery are brought to bear in producing the spirit, distilled from high quality low-yield Horatio wheat, diluted with pure water drawn from the estate’s well and the river that runs through it, that becomes Ramsbury’s stunningly clear and clean-tasting vodka. From the kitchen gardens and orchards come herbs, fruit and vegetables for the pub restaurant, and yet more nobly and notably the quince, citrus, and botanicals that together give Ramsbury gin, made from the same base spirit as the vodka, its unique and distinctive weight and flavour. And finally – or in a sense to begin with – where the grounds benefit from an innovative and highly efficient natural water filtration system. This organically purifies the waste liquor from brewing and distilling and feeds the water back into the local ecosystem, creating opportunities for wildlife, clean clear water for irrigation, and minimising environmental footprint by avoiding the need to ship out waste by tanker.
The link is I hope by now obvious. Strip away the high tech ecology and contemporary style, and this unique operation is a fully functional and highly successful adaptation of the pre-modern village, a historical re-enactment without the fancy dress and whiskers but with an utterly modern approach to integrated operation. Take a look at the diagram below, which illustrates the interrelationship of the estate’s constituent working parts.
Here the farm is shown as the focus of the matrix, its produce sustaining the butchery and charcuterie, pub, brewery and distillery, shoot, and less directly the retail public. However, just as no doubt the village miller considered himself to be at the centre of things, with the farmer existing solely to supply his needs and the baker to buy his flour, it makes perfect sense to place any one of the interlinked operations in the middle. Thus, for the brewery and distillery the shop and pub exist only to sell its ale, vodka, and gin, and the farm and forest to supply the materials needed for production: for the Bell, the distillery, farm, and brewery are purely there to serve its needs.
Of course, the estate would be no more than an object of interest to students of business studies if this were the only remarkable thing about it. One important distinction between Ramsbury Estate and a medieval village is the very few inhabitants it is required to sustain with its output. This a very good thing indeed, as it can therefore devote its energies to delivering superb produce not just in the local area, but to a global market, and to offering something distinctively different in what are often crowded fields.
To take a (very) clear example, there are currently somewhere in excess of seven hundred producers of gin in the UK, the spirit currently undergoing a boom in popularity of Hogarthian proportions. Of these, Ramsbury is one of no more than a small handful in not only distilling its own base (unlike the vast majority of gins which are made by flavouring bought-in spirit) but by doing so in a manner that compares with a Bordeaux château or a single-estate Scotch.
With all the virtues of individual and unique distinction characterised by what the French call ‘terroir’, the result is a gin like no other; which could never be like any other.
The same benchmark of quality applies to everything that comes out of, or takes place on, Ramsbury Estate. A site visit is one way of experiencing its tranquil setting and many facets. Another is offered by the traditional wicker hampers which have been created to encapsulate la vie en Ramsbury. Starting with the simple elegance of the Gin Hamper, the pinnacle of the range is the Estate Hamper, which as well as a bottle each of Ramsbury gin and vodka, and a good selection of Ramsbury ales, also includes a spectacular array of estate produce plus accommodation and dining experiences at The Bell at Ramsbury and private distillery tours for two, all served in a beautiful wicker hamper. As with the estate itself, that’s a lot of produce in one place.