Halewood Wines and Spirits’ distiller, occasional DJ and cigar smoking Lora Hemy tells Eatnorth how an interest in art and perfumery led to a career with spirits. And what it was like to be on telly after featuring in the BBC documentary about the whisky industry: Scotch! The Story of Whisky
Q. What is your role at Halewood?
THERE have been big changes at Halewood Wines and Spirits Distiller over the past 18 months including a move towards the development of premium spirits.
Therefore, my role was created by the company. I will be designing and specifying plant and liquids for our new distillery projects, getting the projects up and running, distilling (of course) and over time, training up some of our existing team members as process operators in the distilleries.
The spirit projects at Halewood are extremely exciting and it is a pleasure to be part of them – being able to contribute toward the realisation of the late John Halewood’s plans for distillation is very special.
The company was completly overhauled recentlyand we are embracing a new era in its development.
Q. Did you always want to become a distiller?
No, I wanted to be a painter and originally went to art school, but found that my ideas grew away from two dimensions – I became interested in perfumery and using aroma as a sculptural medium, and it was from here that my interest in spirits developed. At various points in my life I have been a DJ, audio engineer and art gallery assistant – so my background is both creative and technical which suits distilling well.
Q. And your career path?
My own background is a little unusual for a distiller, as I said; my first degree was in Fine Art rather than the typical chemistry/physics pathway.
Because I was fascinated with the sculptural qualities of sensory experiences -aroma and audio – I seriously considered training as a perfumer. However, I ended up working as an audio engineer for eight years. Being from a Scottish family, it should have been easy to fall in love with whisky – but it was my interest in perfumery that brought me to spirits.
For me, gin and whisky are very much about using the principles of science to create something beautiful, using chemistry almost like a sculptural language.
After a spell in SME development and management, I bought myself a one way ticket to New Zealand. I travelled and came back to the UK via distilleries and perfumeries in Australasia and Asia. I returned to Scotland and landed a role at Dalmore Distillery before completing an MSc at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt University.
My research specialisms included Australian whisky, whisky terroir, spirits, blending and sensory perception. Subsequently I consulted on start-up distillery projects and product development for spirits in Scotland.
Q. You are a Scottish woman making vodka and gin in Liverpool. How did that come about?
Actually, I have both Scottish and English roots – my mum is from the East Coast of Scotland and my dad grew up in Manchester, so I have lots of family here in the North West. I also spent the best part of a decade in London before moving to Scotland, so I’m a bit of both.
“My brother used to live in Liverpool, and I had always been fond of the city, so when I was offered the job here I jumped at the chance; Liverpool is one of the most creative cities in Europe, and I love the people here.”
Q. Liverpool Vodka was launched at the Liverpool food and drink festival. What was the reaction to it and tell us more about how it is made?
We were really pleased with the positive reception that the vodka received at the festival this year. Creating and distilling a craft liquid is like art, you improve with practice and you grow with experience. It’s an exciting time for Liverpool Craft Distilling.
Q.What was your inspiration behind Liverpool Vodka?
Being able to use the new copper pot at our Huyton distillery is amazing and I wanted the process for Liverpool Vodka to be authentic, so we opted to use potatoes which bring a creamy high quality taste to the liquid. Potato vodka is made using very traditional methods which span centuries of distilling history. It offers a unique taste and character that highly distilled grain vodka does not.
At 43% alcohol, we have gone for a higher strength than most of the vodka currently on the market, but it is about delivering something different to the consumer. The city of Liverpool is about energy, the love of football and music and Liverpool Vodka reflects the passion of the city and its people.
Q. Do you source potatoes and other ingredients locally?
Local sourcing is important and generally we have a policy at Halewood to support local suppliers.
We are proud of our product that carries the Liverpool name and our heritage.
We intend to offer bespoke experiences for consumers with rare types of potatoes. However, I am not going to tell you all my distiller secrets yet!
Q. How is your personality reflected in your development of the spirits?
I would describe myself as a creative and curious person, I like to experiment and this is reflected in my development of all our new spirits.
Q.Which ingredients/botanicals do you most like working with?
“I tend to treat ingredients like a series of musical notes, or as a palette of colours – you try a harmony and combine them so that they make music together.”
There are layers of different flavour and aroma compounds in each ingredient, and part of a distiller’s job is learning how to unlock each of these in the most appropriate way for each product.
There are also different distillation techniques that can be used on each botanical and these will give you very different flavour profiles according to which method you choose.
I love the organic Valencian orange peel that we use for the Liverpool Gin Valencian edition – it is extremely difficult to get hold of – and very expensive – but the aroma in the distillery after a delivery is absolutely gorgeous. I can distil it in three different ways on our new copper still, each giving a different but equally delicious profile – it’s worth every penny in my book and makes a pretty unique addition to our gin, which is my personal favourite.
Q.What is the most challenging thing about distilling (what else do you distil?)
Distilling is all about technical problem solving, finding out how you can do something or why something is working in an unexpected way, so there are new challenges every day; this is what I love about my job.
There is no time to get bored, but it can be very full on. It’s not a job for someone who wants a 9-5 and sometimes there can be little work/life balance. For me this is fine, because there is a very blurry line between what I do for work and what I do for pleasure – I am very very lucky to do what I love for a living, so most of the time it doesn’t really feel like work.
I am a spirits lover myself – this is entirely passion led for me and a carefully considered career path involving blood, sweat, tears and about a decade to get here… and I will be an eternal student, which is what you have to be in this industry – there is always something new to learn.
Q.The Liverpool Gin range was acquired in May 2016 by Halewood. What plans are there to expand the portfolio further?
We have expanded into vodka, rum and whisky and therefore we do not want to create too many gin variants.
I plan to release a special Distillers Cut Gin signed by me at Xmas but this will be in a very limited edition. So, if you are lucky enough to find one, hang onto it or drink it to mark a special occasion or someone.
Q. The drinks industry is [still] a male dominated world. How do you cope with that?
Honestly, I don’t feel I have to answer this. Women have been brewing and distilling for at least two millennia and there are so many of us in different roles all over the industry. I don’t need to cope with anything to do my job.
Q. And the future for female distillers?
Q.What’s the best and worst job you have ever had?
The best job, is this job of course – but I used to DJ regularly, which I also loved. Worst job was working in a call centre when I was 17; I think I lasted six days!
Q. What are your personal aspirations?
To stay creative, and to put as many of my ideas into practice as possible! And to travel as much as I can – I am always inspired by moving around and being amongst new people and places.
Q. Who was/is your mentor?
There are so many highly creative and innovative people in the industry, but Angela D’Orazio (Mackmyra Master Blender) is a great friend and mentor – I love her creative approach to developing new products.
Q. Do you create the spirits with bartenders/ mixologist in mind?
Yes of course – I am a cocktail enthusiast myself, so I’m always thinking about how each spirit I make will work in a classic mixed drink. That being said, there are also many ingredients and botanicals that work beautifully very simply or within a spirit to be sipped by itself – it’s about creating a balance between both approaches.
Q. Describe your idea of the perfect cocktail experience?
Sat up at the bar, right amidst the chaos, watching the bartenders at work and listening to everything around me witha simple but perfectly made, slightly wet Martini. With Liverpool Vodka, of course.
Q. What do you consider to be one of your most important learning experiences (a career-altering moment, so to speak)?
When I flew to New Zealand and spent six months travelling back to the UK via distilleries in Australia and Asia. In Europe it is not always easy to experience spirits from these regions, and many of the places I visited do not export even within their own regions.
Asia is where the historical roots of distillation come from, so there was plenty of history to immerse myself in, but there was also the cutting edge of contemporary distilling to explore and I take a lot of inspiration from the innovation of distilleries in Taiwan and Australia.
It was a totally life changing moment for me to realise this was definitely what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing; in fact I never went home – I got my first distillery job in Scotland at the end of the trip and I haven’t looked back since. Working with food and drink is all about exploration, so travel is very important.
Q. Do you have any tips for anyone considering becoming a distiller? What advice would you give to your younger self if you could?
Visit as many distilleries as you can. Get to know the market. Study hard. It’s a really open and welcoming industry – everyone helps each other, so don’t feel afraid to ask questions.
The Institute of Brewing and Distilling offer some great industry focused qualifications, or you could study as I did at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh – my other favourite city! Most importantly, be yourself, and be creative – in my opinion the best ideas come from interdisciplinary thinking so I take as much inspiration from contemporary art, music and perfumery as I do from other distillers.
Q. What’s your view of the Northern UK independent drink producers at the moment and what do you think the future holds?
There are exciting projects all over England and Scotland right now, but it’s so exciting to see that so many of these are here in the North – the choice offered to consumers now is great and it’s really exciting to travel around as a distiller and witness the breadth of knowledge and passion consumers have for the spirits.
My motto is ‘drink less and drink better’ and I really feel the consumer market is taking that on board, which is great to see – I want people to feel as passionate as I do about spirits.
Q. And for the UK drinks industry overall?
We are lucky to be the home of some iconic, historic brands, whilst simultaneously growing a dynamic stable of smaller scale craft producers – there is no better time to be part of the UK drinks industry!
Q. What was it like being on telly?
I’d be lying if I said I was not nervous beforehand, and my neighbours certainly got a shock when they saw the camera crew on our stairwell, but being interviewed about what I am passionate about is a total honour. David and the production crew were brilliant and the series is really well put together, so I highly recommend watching it.
Q. Your favourite spirit and why?
It’s hard to pick a favourite – I like different spirits for different occasions. I love an early evening gin martini, but I’ll enjoy sipping a straight up creamy vodka if I’m out with friends. I love finishing an evening with a single cask rum from Trinidad (Liverpool Rum) or Guyana, or maybe a smoky mezcal. And whisky; there’s always a good time for whisky. I’m pretty adventurous with spirits – I love seeking out new discoveries, and I can’t honestly think of a spirit I genuinely dislike – they are all fascinating.
Q. Do you like to cook?
I enjoy cooking a lot and I test ideas for flavour combinations all the time at home, although I am a very messy chef so I would not go far in a commercial kitchen.
Q.If you were to recommend four ‘hidden food and drink gems’ to visit in Liverpool, where would you choose?
Liverpool is full of great places to eat and drink, so it’s hard to choose; Berry and Rye is a personal favourite – there’s no sign on the door and you have to knock, but once inside, the drinks list is fabulous – a Negroni at Berry and Rye has turned into my Saturday night staple. I love Red Door too – the bartenders really know what they are doing and are a very friendly bunch! I’m a whisky fanatic, so Whisky Business on Fenwick Street is another favourite – and it’s definitely a hidden gem as it’s quite hard to find – when you do find it the staff are really knowledgeable and there’s a great selection of spirits to choose from. They also sell cigars, which are another guilty pleasure of mine!
There are lots of similarities between baking and distilling, and I’m also a sucker for sourdough bread, so Baltic Bakehouse on Bridgewater Street is fab – baking is definitely an art form and these guys do it so well.
Q. Who would you most like to dine with from within drinks/hospitality industry and what would be your ideal food and drink?
I take a lot of inspiration from bartenders, so I’d take Tony Conigliaro – I love the way Tony uses cross modal sensory science to develop new ideas for his bars, and we have similar creative backgrounds so I hope we’d have a lot to talk about. I’d also take Chef Marc Wilkinson – I’d get him to do the cooking as I’m really keen to eat at Fraiche but haven’t made it over to the Wirral yet! As to what we would drink, I’ll say beer, just to be different.
Q. In your opinion, what are the best food and beverage parings?
“Sometimes the best pairings are the ones you discover by accident; for example, at home I love a Liverpool Gin and tonic with a Chicken Massaman curry… the cardamom and citrus notes in the gin work well with the tamarind and coconut in the curry!”
Peated whisky and oysters is another favourite. Experiment and find your own, and you’ll learn lots about flavour in the process.
Q. What do you do when you’re not working – hobbies/interests?
I am an obsessive record collector and have a few thousand vinyl at home – I still DJ on occasion but I’ve never got round to using CD’s or a laptop, so it’s always an arduous task carting the records about.
I also love contemporary art so I spend a lot of spare time visiting galleries. I still keep sketchbooks – a throwback from my art student days, but I find that my creative process and a lot of my ideas for spirits start with drawings and visuals – I experiment a lot with visual ways to record tasting notes and sensory information.
Q. And.. finally… comfort food and drink?
Since I moved to Liverpool I’ve been perfecting my own recipe for Scouse, so I’d make myself a bowl and follow it up with a cup of black Darjeeling tea – I visited Darjeeling a few years ago and totally fell in love with it. I’m working on incorporating some tea into a gin recipe… I’ll keep you posted!