We sit down with Danny Walker, founder and director of Psychopomp, over a gin and tonic to learn more about his independent microdistillery on St Michaels Hill.
Having released over 50 blends of gin, running a whole host of fun and creative events, and even pivoting to produce hand sanitiser during the pandemic, we knew chatting to the founders of Psychopomp would reveal a number of interesting stories and anecdotes – so when we sat down with founder Danny Walker, he did not disappoint.
Danny, alongside his friend and business partner Liam Hirt, started distilling gin for a hobby 15 years ago. “We began playing around on homemade gins made in pressure cookers for our own entertainment,” he recalls. “Eventually, when licensing law changed around eight years ago we were allowed to start operating out of the basement of Liam's home in Montpellier, which is where we first started Psychopomp. We were the first distillery making spirits in Bristol since World War Two. We then moved into our current site on St Michaels Hill.”
The intriguing name Psychopomp has meaning behind itself. “It was Liam’s idea,” says Danny. “It’s an ancient Greek phrase – ‘psycho’ being ‘soul’ and ‘pomp’ being ‘descend’,” he explains. “Psychopomps are guiding spirits – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the spirits we produce. All of our blends are named after various psychopomps from around the world. Our signature gin, for example, is named Woden after the Anglo-Saxon god who would gather souls from the battlefield and take them to the afterlife.”
Woden is best described as a classic London dry gin with fresh pink grapefruit zest and fennel seed. “It's the most ubiquitous drink we do,” says Danny. “There are three pillars of a really good, classic gin – it should make an excellent gin and tonic, an excellent negroni and an excellent martini. Woden ticks all the boxes”
On top of their signature gin, today as a small team of six Psychopomp create seasonal blends, distill bespoke mixes for local businesses as well as produce gins for other brands – at Boardwalk we even have our own branded gin. “On top of these, we produce a Parisian-style absinthe, the first English aqvavit, a single origin digestif and bottled cocktails,” adds Danny. “We also now have a sister distillery, Circumstance over in Whitehall, where we are distilling our own whiskey as well as rum and a range of grain spirits.”
But the team have applied their expertise in gin making to experiment with some more unusual flavours. “For the former Bristol restaurant No Man’s Grace we created a blend with ants,” tells Danny. “A really unusual ingredient, ants primarily contain formic acid which has some of the highest concentrations of flavour of any edible substance – it's incredible. So, we distilled them with blood orange and fennel pollen.”
“Previously we've used beetroot, orange zest, and cocoa before to make something quite fun. We also make a gin for The Ox, a steak restaurant on Corn Street, that has fresh British black truffle which is quite decadent. It’s blended with thyme and lemon zest and works perfectly in that environment thanks to its richer and earthier flavour.”
While in usual circumstances Psychopomp run weekly gin making classes every Saturday afternoon, as well as tasting events and parties throughout the year, they had to get a little more creative when the pandemic hit. During lockdown they hosted a number of virtual events, from gin tasting and flower arranging for Mother’s Day to a cocktail evening at New Year’s Eve complete with chocolate truffle pairing, oysters, sparkling wine, cheese and a live DJ set. “We love engaging with our customers and the local community,” says Danny. “We love to get stuck in with different events and really enjoy what we do.”
It wasn’t only events that kept Psychopomp busy during lockdown. From early March 2020, Danny and Liam noticed there was already a shortage of hand sanitiser and realised they had the facilities to do something to help. “We started making small batches to give to the local community in exchange for donations to the children’s hospital,” says Danny. “Once word got out and we spoke about it on the news, we began getting calls from all sorts of organisations in desperate need. It really hit home when an ambulance service in the south of England reached out because they couldn’t get hold of any. Knowing people’s safety could be compromised we did whatever it took to get more hand sanitiser out to those who needed it. We started making hundreds of litres to give to emergency services”
With hope on the horizon and as the city begins to open up again after months of lockdown, Danny and the team are looking forward to welcoming the people of Bristol back into their distillery. “I love Bristol,” says Danny. “It’s unlike any other city – you can be anywhere from Clifton, to Totterdown, to Easton all within the same walking distance of the centre and that makes for a really interesting, vibrant dynamic. I absolutely feel at home here.”
“Bristol is so exciting, particularly its food and drink scene. We’re so lucky to be surrounded by such an incredible calibre of independent cafés, bars, and restaurants from all types of cuisine. It is an exceptionally tasty place today.”