On board Devon's boozy converted American schoolbus

There’s a man in Devon who is starting a bit of a boozy renaissance – on a converted American schoolbus and a vintage VW truck. Cosmo Caddy is a man who understands both how to produce drinks, and how to make them hip. His grandfather started Sharpham Vineyard near Totnes, now internationally recognised for some of England’s finest wines. “I’ve always been around drink production,” he says.

You would think that wine would be what drew him to California in 2010, but it wasn’t. Cosmo has family in film production over there, so he thought that would be a cool way to spend some time. He enjoyed working on stage and film productions, and living the California dream.

“Ginny”, a 1973 Volkswagon T2 pickup truck, with her mobile gin still

In 2012 he returned to Devon to help his mother, who had broken her leg. “I realised that Devon was still pretty awesome, and I decided to stay here,” he says.

In this time he started making grappa, an Italian spirit made from the skins of grapes after they had been pressed for wine. It turned out to be a success: he called his new product Dappa (Devon grappa), and his company became the Devon Distillery. “What I thought was going to be a hobby turned into a bigger deal,” he says. “I started making larger amounts of Dappa, promoting it and was supplying it more widely.”

On board Devon's boozy converted American schoolbusCosmo making gin aboard the HMS Ocean

However, selling a niche Italian spirit was not where the money was: in the 2000s, it’s all about the gin.

In his travels around trade shows and food fairs, Cosmo realised that the UK was in the middle of a gin renaissance. “I wanted to tap into it, but I didn’t want to be just another gin producer – I wanted to do something different,” he says. “When she got married, my sister asked me if I could make gin at her wedding. With all the ingredients, you can technically make a batch of gin in about half a day – it’s not like whisky which has to age for two or three years.

On board Devon's boozy converted American schoolbusA range of botanicals for flavouring gin

“I thought it was a really interesting idea: having a mobile still which you could actually bring to a party or event, and make small batches of specialist gin.

Lots of people were enthusiastic about the idea. “It wasn’t very easy to get off the ground, though. It took me two and a half years of fighting and pestering Revenue and Customs to get a permit.

But I finally got there.”

On board Devon's boozy converted American schoolbus“Ginny”, a 1973 Volkswagon T2 pickup truck, with her mobile gin still

Cosmo started driving his mobile still aboard a 1973 Volkswagen T2 pickup truck nicknamed “Ginny”, making batches of gin for parties and events, but also for businesses such as hotels, farm shops and restaurants. “It’s a fun thing to do – a bit of education and a bit of hands-on. You can make it and drink it as soon as the process is finished, which takes about 5-6 hours including bottling and labelling.

On board Devon's boozy converted American schoolbusCosmo also converted an old American school bus

“We bring a grain-based alcohol with about 30 different botanicals, and start from there.

The ‘core four’ traditionally used to flavour gin are juniper, Angelica, orris root and coriander seed. Depending on your tastes you can then make it taste more citrus-y by adding citrus peel, more spicy, herbal or floral. It’s a balancing act.

“We encourage people to add ingredients from their locality: so if they’re near the sea they might bring seaweed or sea buckthorn. At a wedding we can use petals from the bride’s bouquet. As long as it’s legal and not poisonous, pretty much anything goes.”

On board Devon's boozy converted American schoolbusCosmo shows off some of his distilling equipment

Depending on the size of the batch, these tailor-made bottles cost end-users around GBP25 plus VAT, or up to GBP40-GBP50 per bottle (plus the experience) for smaller batches.

In 2017, Cosmo was offered some indoor space at Dartington Hall. “Obviously with the mobile still you’re a bit at the mercy of the weather, so it was great to have a permanent indoor space,” he says. “We launched a gin school and it took off straight away – we’ve had up to 5,000 people take part in gin classes.”

On board Devon's boozy converted American schoolbusOn board the Rum Bus

With business successful, Cosmo was expanding again, both in terms of his staff and also his products. He started making Devoncello (from the Italian limoncello), which used the grappa as the alcohol base, and Sloed Gin, made using Devon sloes. Most recently, he expanded his offering to include a rum school.

This he housed in a converted American schoolbus.

On board Devon's boozy converted American schoolbusRum tutorial

Just as it was ready to hit the road in March 2020, lockdown happened. “It’s been frustrating for us. We had expanded into a bigger space in Dartington, and converted it ourselves to house the equipment we needed. We’d just invested in the bus as well.

“Obviously all that is on hold at the moment – we’re just selling our drinks online, vouchers for the gin and rum school, and also we’re also starting virtual gin tastings.

You can order a pack from us, then we share the experience online.”

You can learn more about the Devon Distillery here.

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