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How I went from making medicines to distilling gin... and why ingredients drawn from Tyrone countryside make my drink unique

Eleanor McGillie joins Dr Ulrich Dyer at The Woodlab Distillery in Tyrone to find out more about the science behind 'Symphonia'

Dr Ulrich Dyer at home with one of his dogs
Dr Ulrich Dyer at home with one of his dogs

By Eleanor McGillie

It is quite a career move to go from developing a range of medicines in a Northern Ireland pharmaceutical company to distilling gin, but that is the journey taken by Dr Ulrich Dyer.

He lives in the heart of the Co Tyrone countryside with his wife Fiona, their six chickens, two dogs and five cats. It's a beautiful country home near the village of Benburb which is surrounded by beautiful luscious hills, drumlins and woods.

And, it's down these narrow, meandering country roads where Dr Ulrich Dyer, a Harvard post-doctoral fellow, and chemist from Yorkshire, set down roots with Fiona when they moved to Northern Ireland.

Ulrich grew up with a great interest in chemistry and he wanted to use his knowledge to discover new medicines. After studying for a PhD in chemistry he spent a few years doing further research at Harvard as a post-doctoral fellow working with some of the best chemists in the world.

Following a stint working in England, Ulrich and Fiona moved to Northern Ireland when he was appointed by pharmaceutical company Almac.

It was here where Ulrich worked as a chemist discovering new medicines and it was also here where he was mentored by Sir Allen McClay, the founder and chairman of Almac.

Allen founded his first company, Galen Ltd, in 1968 which became Northern Ireland's first £1bn firm.

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Subsequently, with his personal wealth, Allen formed the Almac group which he grew into another £1bn company.

As someone who spent 30 years in a career working in laboratories discovering treatments for asthma, HIV, influenza and cancer, Ulrich's desire to break away and do something creative within the food and drink sector was bubbling.

He was watching with great interest, the rise of Craft Gin - a resurgence which has become so on trend that even non gin drinkers are sampling this spirit which has been around from the Middle Ages. It has become the drink everyone wants to be drinking, but Ulrich had no idea how to become involved.

Dr Ulrich Dyer at work in his gin distillery
Dr Ulrich Dyer at work in his gin distillery

He knew he loved Northern Ireland and its countryside and this fuelled his desire to build a sustainable company using produce from the local countryside and employing local people to be a part of his team. It was only when he and his wife Fiona sat down to a glass of Shortcross Gin that the penny dropped. Fiona remarked, in a very matter of fact fashion, that Ulrich could make gin too.

And so his story began.

"I spent months studying the industry," says Ulrich who is a distiller, strategist and scientist. "I was reading stories, sampling gins, reading profiles on gin distillers and studying how they were making an impact in craft gin.

Dr Ulrich with his wife Fiona
Dr Ulrich with his wife Fiona

"It was fascinating but there were two people in particular who grabbed my attention. They were Will Lowe of Cambridge Distillery and Ian Hart of Sacred Spirits. Both of these men had created fantastic gins using vacuum distillation - a technique I was familiar working with throughout my career and an improvement on the traditional pot still.

"I set about researching costs, the equipment I would need and how someone like me, a chemist, would produce something which set us apart from all other gins.

"I was out of my comfort zone but I was getting great satisfaction, and, from here, it was all about how I could celebrate the Irish countryside as part of this composition.

"I started thinking about provenance. I started thinking about the environment and how I could produce gins in the most environmentally friendly way possible. I was looking around me, in my own garden and in the hedgerows, to see what I could use.

"I wanted, where possible, to use ingredients grown in the area to give my spirits a real authenticity so I came up with the idea to use my scientific knowledge to analyse the flavour molecules in commonly used gin botanicals and then identify suitable replacements which grow locally."

"One example is in the recipe for Symphonia No 1," he added. "I wanted to find a replacement for cubeb pepper, a characteristic flavour you will find in gins, which is grown in Indonesia.

"I discovered that dandelion has the same flavour molecules so I replaced cubeb pepper with something we have growing in abundance in the hedgerows around where we live."

His is not your typical gin distillery. It has the look and feel of a classic laboratory.

There are white coats, a rotary evaporator and microwave extraction unit sitting on the work bench and scientific glassware sitting around which are used for developing recipes.

Dr Ulrich Dyer picking dandelions
Dr Ulrich Dyer picking dandelions

It's a very special place and it's here where Ulrich uses two distillation techniques to preserve flavours which are lost during traditional distillation.

The first technique, vacuum distillation, allows Ulrich to distil botanicals at room temperature which preserves the delicate molecules in basil and rose for example. By varying both pressure and temperature, he maximises the extraction of each botanical.

"How they are distilled can dramatically alter the flavour, " he explains.

"For example when it is distilled cold, ginger brings fresh citrus notes, but when it is distilled hot, the heat transforms the taste into spicy, ginger biscuit elements. That is just one example and it was by distilling each of these botanicals separately, under optimum conditions, that I was able to tease out the desired flavours."

The second technique is microwave extraction which is a highly efficient distillation process which was recently introduced in the perfumery industry. Ulrich adopted this to produce his gins, which, for him, seemed an obvious extension of the technique.

Ulrich says: "To my knowledge no other gin maker has adopted this technique as yet. It utilises the fact that many botanicals have water molecules within their cell structure and the microwaves very efficiently heat up these water molecules exactly in the same way we use a domestic microwave and allows me to produce ultra concentrated distillates.

"Using these techniques gives us a wider palette of flavours we can use in the spirits compared to those gins produced from traditional methods and we use significantly less energy to produce our gins."

But Ulrich's science would only take him so far in terms of developing the recipes. He told me, for example, how rosemary teams up well with juniper, coriander and angelica so these feature in the classic product - the dry gin.

He adds: "We had a range of local botanicals at our disposal but we only chose certain botanicals which bring something specific to the recipe and which enhance the taste. It's very simple - if a botanical didn't add anything it didn't get used. We didn't want to have an ingredient list of 100 just to impress. The result is Symphonia No 1 - a beautiful harmony of flavours including rose, basil, dandelion and flowers.

The three Symphonia gins
The three Symphonia gins

"Symphonia No 2, our Apple Gin, is truly unique. No one makes anything like this gin. We were always going to use the Bramley Apple in one of our products and we wanted to capture the crisp, tart apple taste.

"After lots of research we found the only way to have that acidity, which gives the freshness, is to add it post distillation which gives the golden colour from freshly pressed apple juice. The fact it uses Armagh Bramley Apple, which is a protected geographical ingredient, is just a bonus.

"Symphonia No 3 - the Fruit Cup is a summer fruit drink inspired by the raspberries and strawberries grown in our garden. I wanted to produce something slightly different to a pink gin but recognised the incredible rise in popularity of this category. The result is like a pink gin but lower in sugar and alcohol. It's a summer fruit drink which is different but complimentary to the two gins."

When it came to branding his products, Ulrich needed something which describes the unique way he produces his spirits, producing the individual flavours and composing them into different recipes.

He says: "That started our thinking on a musical theme and we came up with the brand name Symphonia which led to the idea we could name each of the spirits No 1, No 2 and No 3 just like a musical composer numbers his symphonies. So the Dry Gin became No 1, the Apple Gin is No 2 and the Fruit Cup is No 3.

"It was at this point when everything started fitting together. We could see where this theme was going and if you look at the musical score on each of the bottles it was inspired by graphs showing the scientific analysis of the flavour molecules in each gin. These flavour molecules are what we call the flavour notes, so rather than musical notes these scores depict the different flavours in each of our spirits."

For someone who was neither good at chemistry at school, nor traditionally a gin drinker, my visit to The Woodlab Distillery was fascinating and brought out my inner geek and a curiosity I have never felt before. This really is a story of passion, innovation and a sense of place. The Symphonia range of Irish handcrafted gins are a real feat and brings something totally different to the artisan craft market.

Ulrich officially launched his products last June at World Gin Day at Junipalooza in London and his unique story has captured the attention of the Gin Guild in London where he was invited last year to speak to an audience of all master distillers of gin.

Since the launch of Symphonia last June, Ulrich has attended artisan food and drink fayres across Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK

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