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Hey France, This Cornish Distiller Might Make Better Pastis Than You

A Cornwall-based distiller is beating French distillers at their own game and making the UK's only pastis, a wheat spirit with notes of aniseed, liquorice root, and fennel.
Photo courtesy Southwestern Distillery.

There are some drinks that just belong to particular nations. Vodka to the Russians, schnapps to the Germans, whisky to the Scots, gin to the English … Other nations might have a go, but the real deal, the best quality, the award-winning stuff, ought to be from the home nation, right?

With this in mind, you can understand that it might have caused some upset when an English upstart of a distiller called Tarquin made a pastis that beat all the French distillers in a global competition, in its first year of production.


To be fair to Tarquin Leadbetter, founder of Southwestern Distillery in Cornwall, his original intention had been to make a British classic gin.

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"I started distilling on my cooker at home using a tiny still that yielded a few shot glasses of neat spirit in every run," he explains. "I was researching how to make gin, and to develop my understanding of flavours, I distilled as many botanicals—fruits, herbs, and spices—as I could get my hands on individually. When I got to ingredients like star anise, fennel, and aniseed, I realised that these distillates were fantastic spirits in their own right. And having lived in France previously, I knew I had to have a go making pastis."

The result of "having a go" was good enough for Leadbetter to go into production.

"We make our pastis just like our gin," he explains. "It's distilled in a copper pot still called Tamara which imparts the flavour of our unique recipe of 13 botanicals into a wheat spirit. The main ones are aniseed, liquorice root, and fennel, and we don't add any sugar after distillation so it's dry in style rather than sickly sweet or cloying and thick."

Leadbetter's pastis isn't just English, it's particularly Cornwallian.

"Our pastis is distilled and bottled in Cornwall," he explains. "The water is Cornish and we even forage for gorse flowers on the local clifftops."


Cornwall distiller Tarquin Leadbetter. Photo courtesy Southwestern Distillery.

Summing up Leadbetter's local pride (and wit), he named his product "Cornish Pastis," a pun based on the traditional dish of the distillery's home county, the Cornish pasty.

"Our pastis is a serious spirit," he says. "But my sense of humour made it difficult not to be tongue-in-cheek about the name. There's a dusty bottle of Pernod or Ricard on pretty much every back bar in the UK. Selling an English alternative for twice the price seemed like lunacy so we thought it would make sales a little bit easier if we could make people smile, or even laugh out loud, a bit along the way."

Perhaps it's because of its slightly "old-lady-ish" reputation in the UK that "having a go" at pastis is not something other English distilleries have, thus far at least, tried to do. Southwestern Distillery are the only pastis makers in England.

"As far as I'm aware, this has always been a French thing," Leadbetter says. "Pastis can be a bit niche here and people are often put off by an earlier overindulgence on pastis, sambucca or ouzo, usually from a holiday in their teens. We were entering uncharted territory by making and selling it in the UK."

Nevertheless, experimenting with less familiar spirits isn't particular to Southwestern Distillery. Leadbetter considers himself part of a wider move in Britain towards small batch distilling.

Summing up Leadbetter's local pride (and wit), he named his product "Cornish Pastis," a pun based on the traditional dish of the distillery's home county, the Cornish pasty.


"Big business isn't cool anymore," he declares. "Big businesses can't be as experimental as small producers can, particularly as their shareholders would never approve a production run of say 500 bottles of Amaro, or English vermouth, or anything like that. I think we're in an era of creativity."

So, undeterred by the obscurity of his product, the uniqueness of its geography, and the cheek inherent in its name, in its first year of production in 2014, Leadbetter entered Cornish Pastis into the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, one of the most prestigious international contests.

"You always secretly hope you'll do well in competitions," he says. "Those who like the herbal, peppery, and intense flavour of anise and liquorice usually love it. But our pastis is quite contemporary in style so I thought it really could have been a disaster."

The panel of judges tasted the shortlisted pastis blind, including Cornish Pastis.

"They rated it to be some of the best in the world. We won the gold medal," says Leadbetter. "It was an amazing shock."

Having proven that English pastis is not only possible but also desirable as a drink, the distillery has begun to acquire fans including chefs Rick Stein and Nathan Outlaw, as well as making it onto the spirits list of bars like DandeLyan, which won the Best New International Cocktail Bar at this year's Spirited Awards in New Orleans.

"We've even sold pastis to the French," he laughs. "We exhibited at the RAW Artisan Wine Fair last year and sold about a dozen bottles to other exhibitors, most of them being French winemakers who gave us great feedback."

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It's a lot to have achieved in less than two years. Still, Leadbetter's ambition isn't to grow in volume but to maintain quality and continue to gain a good reputation both at home and abroad.

"We've had a bit of luck all round with listing at top places," he says. "Volumes are never going to be high and that's true to the very nature of our distillery with its small-batch production. But people seem to love it."

Eccentric as it might seem, the tiny, niche booze-making distillery on the coast of north Cornwall might just be audacious enough to take on the French—and the world.