FEATURE: North Herts vodka distillery mixes it with the best of them

Merab Salamashvili

Merab Salamashvili - Credit: Archant

High in the snow capped Caucasus Mountains, Merab Salamashvili’s father taught him to make vodka using the family’s secret recipe when he was just a boy – and now he is sharing it with the world.

vodka

vodka - Credit: Archant

The 39-year-old moved from Georgia to Hertfordshire in 2004 and last year opened his own vodka distillery at Church Farm in Ardeley.

Using the site’s spring water combined with his 200-year-old recipe, Merab started his own company Pesvebi Ltd making triple-filtered Premier vodka just under a year ago.

He distils, bottles and labels his Old Vodka brand at the farm, and even cooks the caramel for his flavoured vodka himself.

“It is a big responsibility for me, to take my family’s recipe and make it into something successful,” he told the Comet.

Merab Salamashvili

Merab Salamashvili - Credit: Archant

“But I knew that the UK was the best place to do that.”

Merab said the vodka recipe was created by distant relative Mate Salamashvili, who became famous in his local community for his vodka – which used ingredients gathered in the mountains.

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Mate’s great grandson Nikoloz carried on the family tradition and, while fighting during the Second World War, he treated the sick and wounded and even gave his vodka to some of the Russian soldiers he helped.

The recipe has been preserved and handed down to later generations of the family ever since.

vodka

vodka - Credit: Archant

Merab, who lives in Royston with his wife and two children, started making vodka to sell with his father in 1991 after Georgia gained its independence.

During its years in the Soviet Union, the Salamashvili family’s vodka had gained a following among friends and family and they would make it for parties, but strict laws banned private enterprise.

But even after the country gained independence, business opportunities for a small start-up were limited, and that’s when Merab left for the UK.

He arrived in 2004, unable to speak English.

Merab Salamashvili

Merab Salamashvili - Credit: Archant

“This country doesn’t have a history of making vodka,” he said.

“You are not a vodka country.

“I thought this would be the best place to come as in Europe you have the opportunity to sell to the whole of the world.”

At the moment Merab makes two different kinds of vodka – Premier and caramel – with the latter proving to be the most popular. by far

Merab Salamashvili

Merab Salamashvili - Credit: Archant

He said: “In Georgia we drink vodka on its own, but people don’t do that here much. They mix it.

“So I experimented with some flavours before Christmas and caramel was so popular I carried on making it.

“It is best when you mix it with pineapple juice and ice. It’s very nice.”

At weekends he does blind taste testings at the farm, situated on the outskirts of Stevenage, and said people often say they like the taste of his drink best when compared with other shop-bought brands.

“They can taste the difference,” he said.

“It is smoother and that is to do with the water quality, it is fresh and won’t give you a headache the next day – and I’m not just saying that.

“That is why I am here because of the water quality – vodka is 60 per cent water so it needs to be the best.”

When asked who makes the best vodka, he said: “Polish will say they make the best, Russians will say they make the best, and of course, Georgians will say they make the best.”

All three countries also claim to have invented the drink, which has been made for more than five centuries.

Merab’s plans for the future are to grow his business slowly and keep using the best ingredients possible.

He wants to contend with high end vodkas such as Grey Goose and said he wants to keep away from ‘selling in corner shops’.

There are plans for several bars in Cambridge to start using his vodka and he intends to experiment with more flavours.

On Saturday he started selling at Stevenage Farmers Market for the first time.

He said: “I know that I must grow it slowly and it takes time.

“It is hard work, but I enjoy it, I grew up making it in my family – making vodka is what we do.

“It is one of the best things I have done with my life.

“Making vodka for me is really easy, but it is all this paperwork that I have a problem with.”

For more information visit www.oldvodka.co.uk.

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