Capreolus is a micro-distillery producing unparalleled eaux de vie from a garden shed in The Cotswolds. Headed by self-taught distiller, Barney Wilczak, Capreolus is globally renowned for capturing the true essence of locally produced fruit in a way that will make you rethink what you think you know about flavour. As such, it has rightfully garnered a cult-following within the drinks and food industries, with world-class mixologists and Michelin-starred chefs eagerly anticipating each and every limited release. But what is it exactly that makes Capreolus so unique and how has the brand turned so many onto the unusual category of British eau de vie? We were lucky enough to be invited along to the distillery to find out, and chat all things fruit, followed by sampling a plethora of Barney’s wares.
When a top bartender or drinks industry nerd is excited about something, you’ll know about it. Their eyes will sparkle, the gesticulations will crescendo, and the sermon will begin. This is how we first learnt about Capreolus Distillery. It started when we visited Remy Savage to chat about a bar with shapes for a name; a few days later Maxim Schulte took up the mantle at KOL Mezcaleria, and after that, it seemed like everywhere we went, someone (sometimes ourselves) were eulogising about the precision and poise of Capreolus’ eaux de vie. So, when Barney invited us to visit the Cirencester-based distillery, we were already converts, and jumped at the opportunity to peer behind the curtain.
The Distillery & its Distiller
When we usually think of distilleries, we picture huge warehouse buildings with multiple, glimmering stills, separate mash rooms, and all manner of machinery and workers dotted about the place. Micro-distilleries are somewhat different, and Capreolus is certainly micro.
Barney greets us at the entrance to his family home. Immediately exuding a natural, gentle ease and quietly welcoming demeanor, he ushers us passed a double-height garage, through a small garden gate, across the lawn, and around to the back of the house. To the left sits a seemingly unremarkable lean-to shed partially concealed behind a well-planted garden border. However, a peek through the window reveals two shining copper stills, custom made by Czech company Kovodel Janca, and the realisation dawns that this is the Capreolus Distillery!
In an unhurried manner, with a turn of phrase undulating between poetry and precision – often accented by wry humour – he tells us about how growing up in such an idyllic area of England led to the inescapable development of a love of nature. Such admiration took him down the path of photojournalism where he specialised in conservation stories, travelling the world and the UK with a mission to capture rare and precious moments. For him, the idea to try and distil the essence of local fruits – much of which had hundreds, if not thousands of years worth of rooted history in the region – was a natural progression. His dad offered him the shed to begin his hobby in, and the seed of Capreolus was sown.
“It was two and a half years ago when I first drank our eau de vie at home, and that was 10 years work to get to that point, which makes me either a really crap distiller or really retentive…or somewhere in between.”
What makes Capreolus different?
First and foremost, it’s Barney’s intention. Whilst most eau de vie producers’ primary aim is to – understandably – produce alcohols – Barney’s key desire is “actually nothing about making alcohol – it’s about preserving the essence of fruit” and transport people with synaesthetic dexterity to its place of growth. Now, we’re the first to admit that, if we read this in a press release from a PR agency, we’d be fighting the inclination to roll our eyes. However, after an afternoon spent steeped in Barney’s glowing excitement, passion, and knowledge, combined with an intricate dissection of his practice, and a final showcasing of the finished products, we can only confirm that this is not a carefully crafted soundbite – it’s a calling, and the proof is in the pudding.
With no formal training but a deep desire to create something true to the fruit as it appeared in its natural ripeness, Barney set about on a journey of trial and error, education and experimentation, and scientific artistry to perfect the practice of extracting essences from raw materials grown within a 50 mile radius from the distillery. Barney tells us that limiting themselves to this range means that their spirits are expressive of the maritime climate and local terroir.
“There is something very special in having lived through the same years worth of climatic conditions as the fruit we work with, it gives a greater understanding of when to pick and how they will express themselves.”
Most distillers of fruit in Austria and Germany are “very technological” in their methods: they use exogenous enzymes to help pumpability, exogenous enzymes to release aroma, cultivated yeasts to improve yield, temperature controls to standardise reactions, and sieving machines to remove pips and stalks. Often the result of these measures and the intention of the distillers creates flavours that taste almost like confectionary essences used in the production of sweets. This is not what Barney wanted to do, and therefore, his methods differed.
A whole lot of fruit
One of the key differences and most outstanding facts about Capreolus is the sheer quantity of fruit that gets distilled into a bottle. Barney calculates, “There’s around 25kg of fruit in a litre of eau de vie. That’s 1.5kg of fruit in 25ml”, which is simply mental. With the astonishing Raspberry Eau de Vie, you’re looking at around 33.5kg of fruit per litre. “That’s about 70 punnets in a 375ml bottle; five punnets […] and about 100,000 pips in a 25ml measure.” Mind-blogging.
The reason behind so much fruit is that nothing is added to the still other than the fruit. The raw material is delivered at the height of its ripeness by local farmers. The specific date is unknown and the produce gets delivered when it is ripe. This occasionally leads to very expensive phone calls from Barney’s local fruit possé, like the one he had the day before we met, which resulted in him “dropping £2,500 in five minutes on a tonne of apricots.” He concedes that “it’s a ridiculous thing to do but it’s a fascinating way of working.” Once the ripe fruit has been delivered, it must be processed quickly.
“What we do with the raspberries, we have 5kg trays and we stand there and walk our fingers through and remove every flaw, every stalk, every bad berry.”
The fruit is then crushed or milled and goes into fermenters to ferment, thanks to the wild yeast that is brought in on the surface of the fruit. “I love the elegance of this way of working where the fruit arrives with everything you need to convert them”, Barney tells us. Fermentation is usually very slow, with the Perry Pears taking nine weeks to get to 3.5% ABV as they’re so tannic they suppress fermentation.
Next, the fermenting fruit is pumped into the still before fermentation is complete and distilled. Cutting fermentation in this very reductive way, where the mash is still super-saturated with CO2, means that oxidisation flavours (and other such flavour reactions) are limited, ensuring that the vitality and essence of the fruit remain intact. The result is the preservation of pure perfume and eaux de vie that smell like freshly cut fruit.
Capreolus’ custom 180-litre fruit still is fitted with a bain marie, dephlegmator and reflux condenser to allow for flavours to be properly extracted through distillation from all parts of the fruits (skins, pips etc), whilst the copper pot removes unwanted and harmful components. The low wines from the first distillation are usually distilled again as the alcohol percentage is so much lower than result from grain distillation, for example. Then the liquid is distilled a third time.
“We’re distilling incredibly slowly because every single aroma and flavour has a different boiling point. You can sample for seven hours and taste through the entire spectrum of a fruit. You can taste the pip, the skin, the lemon notes… I did two raspberry distillations last week and they both had 3,000kg of low wines in the still at each moment and we were seeing the difference between runs in 20 seconds. There’s nothing to hide behind in what we’re doing. We fraction everything into small bottles and then every single spirit run, we nose and we taste. For 8,600kg of raspberries – which is likely the most we’ll ever be able to source from the area – we produce 740 (375ml) bottles, which will go to five or six markets. That’s about 130 bottles per country.”
The cuts that aren’t picked for the eau de vie get used to clean the drains, with some of the heads chosen as divine smelling window cleaner, and others discarded. When it comes to later cuts, Barney explains that “you’re actually going beyond the point where you can detect it by nose and you’re tasting for the textural elements. I always think that the reason things can taste profound is that they go beyond language. Our senses can break down those pinpoints even more finitely.”
Once distilled, the eaux de vie is stored upstairs in the small garage (currently housing the distillates from 75 tonnes of fruit in small stainless steel tanks). This resting time is important as it allows the components to settle post-distillation and fatty acids in the liquid to combine with alcohols to esterify (creating new flavour compounds).
What’s the point of it all?!
The pursuit of a highly quality driven practice is evident in the painstaking and precise nature of every step of the production process, from sourcing and preparing the fruit, to the low-yielding, slow, wild fermentation, and countless cuts of the distillation.
But what’s the point in all this hard work?
Yes, it’s impressive to be able to state how much fruit is used to make a bottle of eau de vie, but as Barney eloquently puts it:
“It’s not about a penis measuring competition of how many punnets we can put in a litre or of how uneconomical we can make a career. It’s about how, actually, with this amplification and this enormous compression, you can create something that is quite magical and transportive […] For me, that’s the thing that’s amazing. You grow up in an area where you can take a piece of fruit from a tree. How do you preserve that smell and flavour? How do you preserve that experience? That’s what we do.”
The sheer quantity of quality, ripe fruit, and the care taken in distilling pips, skins, and juice, as well as the constant cuts to ensure the right marriage of aromas, tastes, and textures, all come together to create eaux de vie that don’t simply nod at the flavours of the fruits that they come from, they capture the very synaesthetic essence of the climate, terroir, and nature of raw materials. A self-proclaimed “slave to the fruit”, Barney manages to showcase local, often unfamiliar heritage varietals with such clarity and authenticity that it’s no wonder Capreolus has captured the heart of flavour lovers around the world.
Following our deep-dive into Barney’s fruit-fuelled microcosm, we take a seat in the garden and make our way through an incredible array of Capreolus eaux de vie, as well as sampling their astounding Hart & Dart Mulberry Barrel-Aged Gin (made in the second still and aged for five-to-six months in virgin Mulberry barrels, made especially for them in Germany). The sheer perfumed power of the bottlings mean that only 20ml is needed in a glass to transport us and allow us to fully appreciate each liquid.
Amongst the gems we sampled are:
An extremely challenging fruit to ferment due to how tannic and hard to break down it is. The fruit has a layer of fluff on the skin which has to be removed before it can be processed; Barney tells us about how the first year they did this, he and a couple of friends spent 14 hours scrubbing up to 9,000 quinces to remove it. They said that they’d never do quince again after this…until he tasted it…
“For me, it’s everything I love in eau de vie because, whilst eau de vie can be quite powerful, it’s made up of these almost gossamer layers of flavour. It’s just so perfumed and is filled with honey, rose, soft spice, apple, pear, lemon zest, and even the rough texture of the fruit.”
1,000 Trees Apple
An eau de vie created from an orchard 11 miles down the road, which has 1,000 apple trees – every single one a different variety. “When I found out, I said ‘yes’ without even asking anything else – you can spot a theme here”, Barney chuckles. Two weeks later, they had 3.1 tonnes and over 700 (many nearly extinct) varieties – from the size of a child’s head down to the size of a thimble, with textures they’d never tasted in their lives and aromas of guava and pineapple. The mix of this eau de vie will never be repeated again and each release of the orchard blend is a record of that year’s weather and conditions.
The one we tried smelled of the skin, the core, the flesh of apples, with linseed oil notes, lemon oil, stone fruit, peach, and a super waxy texture.
We start to find that every expression was – in its own way – a testament to Capreolus’ fastidious and passionate approach. Gooseberry was no different. Last year, they found two brothers growing gooseberries 32 miles from them. Barney told them they only needed properly ripe fruit – only 200kg out of the 3.5 tonnes that would be picked in a day – so every day or two they received a little parcel of perfectly ripe gooseberries. This resulted in them producing 128 bottles from a tonne of fruit.
The floral expressiveness of the ripe fruit comes through in the liquid, along with a surprising agave-like earthiness and gentle smoke, A lovely dustiness with clay structure also becomes apparent, topped with a blackcurrant leaf note (due to gooseberry being from the same family as blackcurrants). “This is the addiction”, Barney states. “You elevate and concentrate these things that are already in the fruit and they’re always surprising.”
Another example of breathtaking aroma: whilst every berry is sorted and every leaf removed, there is an amazing herbaceousness and woody spice to this pure blackcurrant eau de vie. It truly smells like you’ve pushed your hand through a bush and picked a berry, eating it straight away whilst nosing the back of your hand.
This is one that will forever hold a place in our hearts as it was the first Capreolus Eau de Vie we ever tried. It was also the first time that raspberry was ever distilled in the UK, and now makes up around a third of the team’s production. Speaking of their first batch, Barney says,
“We’d gone from 1,000 litres of raspberry. I’d distilled it and that amount had given me 18-litres in a milk can. I felt physically sick, thinking of all that work and money. I took a teaspoon, diluted it, and tried it. I did some jobs around here for 20 minutes, drove home, and an hour after tasting it, I could still taste fresh fruit in my mouth and nose…So it was worth it.”
The immediacy of flavour is astounding, with a dry nose throwing up raspberry, rose, wood, crushed raspberry leaf, nuttiness from the pips, mint, floral notes, and so much more. Somehow the eau de vie is more raspberry than a raspberry, and it’s no wonder it has become a firm favourite with mixology and gastronomy professionals.
One of Barney’s favourites for its understated elegance, this is made from Damascenes brought here by the Romans from Damascus via the spice road 2,000 years ago. Here, these tiny, richly flavoured wild plums have adapted to the climate, and produce a deep and robing eau de vie, filled with cacao, orgeat, almond flower, wild berries, redcurrant, and wood spice.
As we sink into our seat, confounded by the symphony of flavours, we notice that the liquid has a beautiful rose gold tint to it, that Barney explains happens every year after it has been rested, and concludes it must be down to the oxidative transformation of an essential oil.
There are few – if any – distilleries that take on the painstaking measures, backbreaking work, and attention to every finite detail, that Capreolus’ tiny team does. This is evident in every step, from sourcing to processing, fermenting to distilling, and resting to bottling and labelling.
The undeniable passion and drive towards perfection is peerless, and enough to convert any lover of flavour (whether familiar with eaux de vie or not) to Capreolus. Whilst made of single raw materials, none of the eaux de vie are mono-flavoured, instead progressing and developing on your palate over the hours (yes, honestly, hours – we tried the Damson Eau de Vie once more when home and we were still tasting it on our palate two hours later).
Whilst some may see the price-tags as barriers to purchase, we encourage those who are able to take the leap as we can hand-on-heart say, you will not be disappointed. Moreover, the fact that SO MUCH fruit goes into each bottle and that you genuinely only need 20ml to get the full-colour, surround-sound experience, means that this premium product is actually a bit of bargain.