Life Lessons with Leo Crabtree – perfumer, distiller and drummer

He’s the rock-gothic inspiration behind BeauFort gin and rum and a range of exotic, steampunk perfumes – and it all started with moustache wax. The Prodigy drummer talks to Adam Lechmere about Land Rovers, literature, and the importance of being in bed by 10pm

Words by Adam Lechmere

Leo Crabtree – perfumer, distiller and Prodigy drummer
Leo Crabtree – perfumer, distiller and Prodigy drummer

Of all the possible routes that might lead one to making gin, the search for a really fine moustache wax might just be the least-trodden. But that’s how Leo Crabtree finds himself the proprietor of BeauFort Spirit, maker of IWSC gold-medal-winning Fifty-Seven Gin and Three Tides Smoked Demerara Rum. Before that came BeauFort London, the fragrance brand behind such splendidly-named collections as Come Hell or High Water (Tonnerre, Coeur de Noir, Fathom V) and Revenants (Iron Duke, Terror & Magnificence, Rake & Ruin).

Crabtree’s name will be recognisable to many as the drummer, since 2007, of the electronic dance band The Prodigy. He’s scrupulous about not being seen to milk his fame, however, so won’t even mention drums. Luckily, he’s interesting enough just talking about his experiments with facial hair. He’s a quietly-spoken, thoughtful and quite exotic figure, with punkish hair and now sporting a style of beard I’m told is known as a “French Fork”. During our interview, he swigs extravagantly from an enormous flagon of what turns out, disappointingly, to be water.

“I was trying to make the best moustache wax I could feasibly make, and I started to mess about with essential oils. I even picked up a bottle of Lamb’s Navy Rum as I thought it would smell good,” he tells me. He quickly found out it’s much harder than it looks to make the ingredients combine – “it’s hard science, how these compounds react” – so he started searching out professionals and in 2015 launched BeauFort London’s first collection, with British perfumers Julie Marlowe and Julie Dunkley.

BeauFort Spirit came into being as haphazardly as the fragrances. “I tend to fall into things,” Crabtree says. “We were at Black’s Club in Soho and someone suggested creating a fragrance about gin, and I thought, why not do it the other way round?”

BeauFort Spirit gin
BeauFort Spirit produces both a gin – Fifty Seven – and a rum, Three Tides
BeauFort Spirit rum

He is constantly struck by the similarities between fragrance and spirits – the nose of a distiller is used far more than the palate in making the distinction between the hearts and heads of the distillation. And historically, perfumes and drinks could be interchangeable. “The first wearable perfumes were tonics that you would use internally and externally,” he reminds me, noting that aqua mirabilis, which Dr Johnson cited in his dictionary in 1673, was basically a bathtub gin that worked inside and out.

Crabtree works with the spirits team in much the same way that he works with the perfumers. Fifty-Seven gin is distilled by Master Distiller Rob Dorsett at Langley Distillery in Worcestershire and finished by Sion Edwards at Union Distillers. The brief is “pretty broad-brush”, Crabtree says. “I sat down with them and they immediately latched onto the big, robust style.” One of the trademarks of that style is smokiness. It’s a leitmotif which runs through the brand (Crabtree points out that the derivation of the word perfume is the old Italian parfumare, “to smoke through”). The style is achieved with smoked Welsh water, which comes from the Anglesey smokery Halen Môn – “the recipe’s top secret”.

The company is named after Sir Francis Beaufort, who devised the universal wind-speed scale, and nautical and military imagery is peppered throughout the products. Crabtree is particularly interested in British maritime history, which he says is his way of connecting with his late father, a doctor who loved sailing. “He was never happier than when he was in a boat. It never interested me, and I was never going to go into medicine. But when he died two years ago I realised all these themes – the whole brand, really – are aspects of things he’d talked to me about or taught me. I hadn’t twigged that that’s what this is all about: my relationship with him.”

Founder of Beaufort Spirit, Leo Crabtree
Leo Crabtree: "As kids, my sister and I used to put mini-concerts on for my parents and their friends, and tried to charge them to attend"

Club Oenologique’s Life Lessons with… Leo Crabtree

What was your childhood ambition?

I always wanted to do music in some shape or form. As kids, my sister and I used to put mini-concerts on for my parents and their friends, and tried to charge them to attend. I started off playing guitar, with my sister on drums. But that was a long time ago.

What exercise do you do?

I run. At the moment, I’m trying to get out in the mornings while it’s still dark, and really quiet, to steal a march on the day. I go with my dog Bertie, a husky cross, who loves running, and pulling, though he’s getting a bit old nowadays and suffering with his hips. I’ve also got Olympic rings set up in our warehouse which is really good for the back.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?

I have a tendency to get really wrapped up in minutiae. This cuts both ways, of course, but it can make progressing projects heavy going. Things generally go pretty smoothly in the tasting room, although there have been moments when I have had to push quite hard, and explain what I want – for example getting the smoke right, and the correct proportions into the liquid.

What’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?

We bought a pair of ageing Land Rovers for the business and converted them into bars. They are iconic, capable machines but it feels a bit like a subscription service to our local mechanic sometimes.

Leo Crabtree Prodigy drummer
"I always wanted to do music – as kids, my sister and I used to put mini-concerts on for my parents and their friends" – Prodigy drummer Leo Crabtree

If you could do any other job what would it be, and why?

I’m really lucky because all the jobs I do and have done (apart from some student jobs such as meat-packing and deodorant can-capping) have been really sustaining. I’d like to write, but I kind of do that anyway. I write poetry and think short stories would be an interesting avenue. I won’t share the poetry with you until it’s been published. Is it any good? I don’t know if it has to be. If you try and write for an audience, you lose your way a bit.

What’s your favourite restaurant – anywhere?

At the moment it’s The Broadway Indian Restaurant, the curry house in the village where we live. It’s been a life-saver in these times – funny how a takeaway has epic significance when you can’t really go anywhere or do anything. When I find myself in London, I always try to get to Kiln in Soho. It’s bustling and it serves smoky, spicy, unpretentious food.

What luxury item (except wine or spirits) would you take with you to a desert island?

An inexhaustible supply of ice-cold San Pellegrino sparkling water and some fresh limes.

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?

I’ve just applied for an MSt (Master of Studies) course in Literature and Art. I’m determined to make that happen. I thrive on that kind of thing – learning is a big part of maintaining balance in your life. I’ll be studying the early modern writers: Shakespeare, the Metaphysical poets and so on. I had a reaction against that sort of thing when I was at school, I think because I was too young and you have to bring a bit of life experience to begin to understand them.

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?

I think we can all agree that absolute power is a bad idea. But I’ve wondered recently what life would be like if we turned off the internet for a bit, or at least social media.

Whom would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

I’d be interested to have a chat with James Joyce. I’m reading him at the moment, and can’t decide if it’s all just one big joke or actually wildly profound. I would ask him that question, particularly as regards Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (I’m writing an essay as we speak, on whether Ulysses be considered both a modernist masterpiece and a book for ordinary people). I’d invite Shakespeare as well, to see what he thought of Joyce.

James Joyce
Leo Crabtree would invite James Joyce to his fantasy dinner party - "and Shakespeare as well, to see what he thought of Joyce"
William Shakespeare

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Glorious profanity in its many forms! Although I’m having to keep an eye on that lately as our toddler’s vocabulary is developing at an alarming pace.

What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?

My wardrobe is small. Probably whatever I’m wearing at the time is necessarily my favourite. I always kept it quite tight, with a few things that I wear until they fall apart. I don’t have any exotic tastes. If there’s an extravagance it might be trainers – I have about eight pairs.

What’s your greatest regret?

I occasionally regret getting Bertie the husky, when, for example, he has just demolished a newly delivered parcel full of dehydrated fruit. But for the most part he’s good company, and regrets aren’t to be nurtured.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Liquorice allsorts.

What’s your current favourite box-set, TV programme or podcast?

My wife and I have been indulging in a bit of armchair travel recently – The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan and Michael Palin: Travels of a Lifetime. A friend also introduced me to Adventures in the Overlooked City by John Rogers on YouTube; he wanders around London chatting about the historic places he visit. It’s meditative and fascinating at the same time – a rare thing.

The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan
"Armchair travel": Crabtree is currently enjoying The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan

What time do you go to bed?

Currently around 10pm. Not a lot to stay up for, and lots happening in the daytime.

Whom do you most admire?

I admire people with a single-minded approach to what they do; who instinctively know what they want. I’ve worked with people like this in the music industry.

I also admire my son. I’m constantly amazed by his capacity for curiosity, his fearlessness and ability to live totally in the moment. I think we can learn a lot from that.

And I admire Martin Miller [the publisher, antique dealer and hotelier and creator of Martin Miller’s Gin, who died in 2014]. He’s the unsung hero of the craft gin movement – he didn’t get the shiny star that Sipsmith and Hendrick’s and all those guys did, but he was there before them.