World Gin Day may have been a couple of weeks back, but after dashing off a quick post about Latvian gin I had somewhere to be – Graphic Bar for a blind tasting of gin with David from Summerfruitcup. However, this was no Beefeater and Tanqueray laden group, instead focusing on a rapidly growing area in the world of juniper flavoured spirits – American gin.
With the flourishing craft distilling scene in the US comes a need to monetise maturing spirit and many of the distillers are turning away from the relatively easy path of producing vodka and also making gins. There are also an increasing number of distillers ignoring aged spirits and focusing solely on vodka and gin, which is an encouraging sign – it’s often easy to see gin as an ‘also ran’ in the craft distilling movement. While the US’s domestic spirit production was huge and varied before Prohibition it has taken rather a large amount of time to push beyond industrially produced alchohol to more widely available artisinal spirits, and gin has happily piggybacked on the explosion.
The last few months have involved quite a lot of gin, which is no bad thing. Gin is another of those spirits that is so often just lumped together in the “it all tastes the same” category, and until recently I half believed it. However, as I try more of them I am starting to notice the differences and similarities, and my recent dabblings have been rather helpful.
At the London Cocktail Society Christmas party we were all handed a slip of paper. Mainly I noticed the bit on it which said ‘fill this in and win some gin’, but there was also space for you to write in what you thought your three favourite gins were – thought being the operative word. The lovely folk of the LCS tabulated results, ran whatever numbers they wanted to run and produced a list of the top 5 gins according to the tastes of the party goers. However, rather than just tell us they decided to do a bit of brain tweaking and put on a blind tasting of the winners to see what we thought when not confronted with the baggage of pretty bottles and brands. Hosted at gin loving bar Graphic, of Juniper Society fame, we were presented with 5 plastic cups, unmarked apart from a coloured sticker so that we could match them up later. As hoped they all tasted rather different, although my notes are rather light (and mainly from memory).
Hendrick’s – Nice and spicy, good flavour, hints of sweetness.
Sipsmith – this one mainly sat in my mind has being the most ‘gin-like’. Solid juniper, quite dry and nicely balanced.
Bombay Sapphire – very lightly flavoured. Most repeated comment – ‘Is this a vodka you’ve slipped in as a joke?’.
Number 3 – the most complex flavoured with lots of juniper, clove, cinnamon, pine, butterscotch and a bunch more. My favourite
Tanqueray 10 – quite piney (which I think is the juniper coming out) and complex. My second favourite after the No. 3.
Along with that I also went to a Beefeater Gin evening at the Juniper Society (turning Graphic into a bit of a regular haunt), including some cocktail making as well as a talk through the creation of Beefeater with master distiller Desmond Payne. All three of Beefeater’s gins that I tasted (as well as the five above) are distilled gins, meant that the botanicals are added to neutral spirit before redistillation, rather than the cheaper cold compound method of having flavourings added to neutral spirit without redistilling. London Dry Gin has recently been defined as ‘a type of distilled gin’ in a similar fashion to Plymouth, although with a larger number of producers than the single distiller of the latter style.
Beefeater London Dry Gin – The botanicals in this are fairly traditional – juniper, Seville orange peel, coriander, angelica root and seed, almonds, oris root and ground liquorice root. Beefeater’s other trademark is that the botanicals are steeped in the alcohol for 24 hours before distillation to allow for greater infusion. The nose started with bitter orange and finished with some spicy coriander and liquorice. To taste it had a fruity juniper middle and some sweet liquorice at the end.
Beefeater 24 – A new premium gin recipe put together by Desmond, in comparison to the regular London Dry recipe which hasn’t changed significantly since the distillery’s opening in 1820. The secret ingredients in 24 are tea, both Chinese green tea and Japanese sencha, as well as a bit of grapefruit in with the other peels. It was inspired by the lack of quinine sources in Japan, leading to the use of green tea as a gin mixer rather than tonic water. The nose started off grassy with a big citrus middle. The taste was less sweet than the London Dry, with some bitter wood and a hint of tannin.
Beefeater Winter Gin – a special edition gin put out last Christmas, this added nutmeg, cinnamon, and lime and orange peels to the mix. While the London dry and 24 were noticeably different but similar, this was a total change – a nose of Christmas spice and a taste of almost gingerbread. Luckily it seems that there are a few bottles of this around still, although my urge to drink it neat might well lead to destruction.
On top of those two events I also had a couple of miniatures of gin knocking around that I’ve been meaning to taste for a while:
First up, I was sent through some samples of Edgerton Original Pink Dry Gin. This is distilled and bottled in London and is mainly a distilled gin, although with pomegranate added afterwards to give it a distinctively pink colour. Botanicals-wise this has juniper, coriander, angelica, orris root, sweet orange peel, cassia bark and nutmeg. The idea seems to have come, according to the bottle neck tag bumph, from the old idea of pink gin (gin with a dash of bitters, turning it pinkish, rather than the long drink of that with lemonade that you will normally find these days) but taking it in a slightly different direction. On the nose it has quite a lot of juniper, with some spiciness that I suspect is from the coriander and nutmeg. To taste it’s quite sweet, with a burst of fruit (it might be sweetened pomegranate, but that could be my expectations), orange and a quite flat finish with some sour woodiness. Most of all though, it is very pink indeed.
Lastly is Hayman’s Old Tom, which came in my goody bag from the previously mentioned LCS Christmas party. Old Tom is an, appropriately, old style of gin that is currently being revived by a few manufacturers, including Hayman’s. It’s similar to a London dry gin but, earning the former it’s ‘dry’ tag, is slightly sweetened. Hayman’s is a new gin with history, using a recipe from James Burrough’s recipe books (the founder of Beefeater and great grandfather of Christopher Hayman, current Hayman’s chairman) from the 1860/70s, and it seems to have kickstarted the rebirth of the style as a commercial proposition. On the nose it has quite a bit of juniper (which is slightly redundant when talking about traditional gins) and a little bit of sweetness. To taste it is noticeably sweet, with a hit of sugar syrup, which helps bring out lemony flavours. Mainly it’s overpowered by the sweetness.
So, that’s a gin roundup for now, and I didn’t even include the genever tasting I went to at the most recent Juniper Society. But as we were told several times on that evening – Genever is not Gin.
Many thanks to the LCS for putting on events and giving me goody bags, Sarah and Adam at Graphic for feeding me gin on Mondays, and Daisy at Ian Scott for sorting me out some samples of Edgerton’s. Also thanks to James Hayman who pinged me a mail telling me what I’d got wrong about the history of his family’s gin.
Distilled gin, 41.4%. ~£25
Sipsmith London Dry Gin
London dry gin, 41.6%. ~£30
London dry gin, 40%. ~£20
No 3 Gin
London dry gin, 46%. ~£35
Distilled gin, 47.3%. ~£35
Beefeater London Dry Gin
London dry gin, 40%. ~£15
Distilled gin, 45%. ~£25
Beefeater Winter Gin
Distilled gin, 40%. ~£20
Edgerton Original Pink Dry Gin
Distilled gin with pomagranate, 47%. ~£30
While I singularly failed to make it to Graphic‘s Juniper Society for almost all of last year I’ve decided (not made a resolution, that way lies madness and becoming teetotal for January, a most unnatural state to start the year in) to try and make it to as many as possible this year. First up of the new season was a tasting of ginger ale, as led by Summer Fruit Cup‘s David Smith.
Ginger ale is the baby brother of ginger beer, stacked with less ginger as well as less sugar, not as needed due to the reduction in fieriness. As such the effect is quite different to ginger beer, with the more citrus notes of the root coming through and not masking the flavours of drinks it’s mixed with, as it’s sibling surely would. It’s not really one to generally drink on its own, but is perfect for adding a slice of fizzy citrusy warmth to a glass of spirit.
The plan for the evening was simple – we would blind taste 11 different ales, mark them out of ten and then work out which ones the group considered best. We were asked to consider not only the taste of the ginger ale, as that would be altered by any additions, but also the effervescence and general mouthfeel. Ginger ale isn’t the most complex of beverages and my tasting notes were short, so in the interest of brevity (something that I am well known for…) here are my notes and what the drinks were revealed to be:
Fevertree – Noticeable ginger smell. Limes on the taste but only a short burst of flavour. Good fizziness. 6/10
Tesco ‘Full Fat’ – A nose of cheap lemonade mixed with lemon floor cleaner artificialness. Flat and fake lemony to taste with a thick slab of sugar syrup. 3/10
Canada Dry Diet – Fizzy white lemonade with a hint of spice on the nose and Diet R Whites lemonade to taste. 1/10
Sainsbury’s – Gingery, dry and spicy nose. Not to sweet to taste and lightly effervescent. 7/10
Tesco Diet – Chalk yellow Refreshers on the nose with a little bit of powdered ginger spice and gaining sweetness as it sat. Foul to taste – heavy with sweetener, sickly and undrinkable. I poured my tiny measure in the bucket rather than finish it. 0/10
Britvic – Similar to Almdudler, an Austrian spice lemonade that I drank a lot of as a kid – lightly spicy lemonade without too much sweetness. To taste there was a lingering ginger flavour but not much else apart from an initial sticky artificial sweetness. 5/10
Carters Royal – Very lemony smell with a hint of washing up liquid. To taste there was a burst of citrus at the front and a throat warming bit of ginger at the end, but nothing in the middle at all. 6/10
Waitrose – Thin fake lime smell with artificial sweetness behind it, really quite nasty. Not a lot to the taste but a touch of syrup. It’s inoffensive, but that’s about it. 5/10
Canada Dry – Big gingery burst on the nose, earthy and dry. Spicy and earthy to taste with a sweet syrupy end. 8/10
Ginseng & Ginger Ale – Nose: Calpol, foam strawberry sweets, castor sugar and a hint of spice. Taste: Sticky with a ginger heat at the back of the throat. Maybe a ringer? [It was ginger ale, but with added ginseng]. 8/10
David Smith’s homemade ginger ale cordial – Soapy and lemony on the nose with sweaty coriander [that’s a good thing. I think]. Sweet and sour to taste with a good chunk of spice and Rowntree’s Fruit Gums. 9/10
My top three (from top to bottom) came out as David’s homemade one, Waitrose’s and the Ginseng one. I wasn’t surprised to hear that David’s came top in the scores from around the room or that Sainsbury’s, which I scored fourth, came second, but it shocked me that Waitrose’s (that I described as inoffensive at best) came 3rd.
To save this post from being completely booze free there was an ulterior motive to tasting all these ginger ales – the fashioning of a good Gin Buck. This is a simple drink of gin and ginger ale which seems to have very much fallen into the shadow of the various other simple mixed drinks that hover in orbit around gin. I singularly failed to try one at Graphic on the night but happened across a bottle of Sainsbury’s Ginger Ale and some Bombay Sapphire while visiting my family and decided to have a try. I garnished it with a slice of lemon and did about 1 part gin to 3 parts of ginger ale. The result was a drink that was all gin up front, with ginger and sweetness sneaking in behind. A good drink to show off a gin, rather than the more combinatorial effect of mixing with tonic.
The Juniper Club meet every couple of weeks at Graphic and details pop up on their Facebook page. I’ve just missed the most recent one (an evening with Citadelle Gin) but I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next…
Ever since a post-Bob Bob Ricard need for booze struck after a pre-Christmas dinner last year led to me wandering into Graphic on Golden Square I’ve been meaning to go back. However, despite hearing about their bi-weekly Juniper Society gatherings earlier this year I’ve singularly failed to until this month, almost a year to the day since my previous visit. The Juniper Society is a regular night when the gin obsessed Graphic get in someone from the world of gin related produce to come and show-off their wares to an increasingly knowledgeable and growing group of attendees. It’s run through Facebook and has featured tonic water tastings, gin taste-offs and masterclasses from the likes of Brockmans, Bloom, Hendricks and, this time, Plymouth Gin. This was the biggest Juniper Society turnout yet, filling the bar with 50some random drinkers, and they divided the evening into two halves – a session on martini making and a masterclass on gin production.
I started out with the martini session, led by mixologist/Plymouth brand ambassador Max Warner and Seb Hamilton-Mudge, owner and bartender at Eight Bar in Falmouth. While waiting for things to start the Graphic barstaff were knocking out a couple of fruity martinis (pineapple and watermelon), which Max started off explaining – not everyone likes the boozy hit of a martini and the fruity drink (much as they’re not normally on my list of things) is a nice way of dulling that punch with some fruitiness. His standard recipe was 2 tablespoons of fruit muddled with 2 teaspoons of sugar and then shaken with 2 measures of gin over ice. Strained into a glass and served with a slice of fruit it’s pretty and a nicer intro to the world of cocktails (especially gin cocktails) than the old-fashioned strength of the martini. We then moved on to the more traditional style of martini, using no fruit, which Max assured us we were making with Plymouth gin not only because he works for them but also as it was chosen by Harry Johnson in his much updated and reprinted Bartenders Manual (available in scanned form from scribd), although on page 165 of the 1882 version that I just had a look at it asks for an old tom gin rather than a Plymouth style one…
Making a martini is mostly down to personal taste, something which is difficult to develop in the standard british bar culture of ordering drinks by category – a gin and tonic changes in flavour based on which gin and which tonic you use, but most people just order “a gin and tonic” and base their like or dislike on which ever combination they get. Gins all taste different, as do vermouths and garnishes, and the combination of ingredients and construction can vastly change the taste of the drink. The main factors that Max picked out were the balance of strong to weak (gin to vermouth and dilution from the ice), stirring and ice (to affect the rate of dilution and cooling – more ice cools faster, more stirring dilutes more), straining (changing the mouthfeel of the drink by limiting the size of ice particle that might make it into the glass – double straining removing everything, single straining with a julep spoon maybe allowing through a few crunchy fragments), garnishes (whether to change the flavour of the drink or to provide an accompaniment) and the overall ratio (balancing the construction, process and ingredients to produce the drink you want). Dilution and temperature are the two main factors, as their combination will govern how much of the flavour of the gin comes out – too cold or too dilute and you’ll taste nothing, too warm or too strong and the alcohol flavours will swamp the botanicals within the gin. It’s all a balancing act.
We went straight into a practical demonstration from this, with Seb showing us how to make his default martini, the drink he produces when asked for an unqualified martini to allow the drinker to specify how they would like it changed for the next one, while Max mixed up a batch to pass around the table. Firstly, he decided to use Lillet rather than a vermouth. Lillet is often thought of as a vermouth, and has in recent times regained popularity due to its use by Ian Fleming in James Bond’s martini in Casino Royale, but isn’t quite. Vermouth is white wine, infused with herbs and allowed to oxidise, that is then fortified with a neutral spirit. Lillet is a mixture of white wines, infused with herbs and then fortified with citrus liqueurs, bringing in a citrusy flavour to the mix – I still haven’t tasted it neat, but it’s on my ‘learn more about vermouths’ list, despite not quite falling into the category. The level of dryness in a martini refers to the amount of vermouth/Lillet added to the cocktail, ranging from none (the Winston Churchill ‘acknowledging the existence of France’ or waving a bottle over the top of the mixing glass approach) to quite a lot (generally not more than a ratio of 1:3 vermouth to spirit). For Seb’s cocktail he went for a medium approach, pouring a measure into a mixing glass of ice before swirling it round to coat both ice and glass, and then pouring out most of it. He then added 2 measures of Plymouth gin and slowly stirred about 20 times (he lost count, but reckoned he’d normally do 19 turns for 50ml and 22 for 2oz, a level of accuracy that is beyond me), stopping when the drink smelled right – the aroma can give all the information you need on dilution and temperature if you know what you are smelling for. He strained it into a chilled glass and garnished it with a lemon twist – squeezing a piece of lemon peel bursts the oil containing pores on the skin and if you aim it at your drink it will give a lightly citrusy tang which can take the edge off the alcohol as well as taste generally nice.
While we had a sip on the martinis Max had made we were divided into teams to make our own. One of Max’s instructions to us all was not to be concerned if we didn’t have all the ‘correct’ equipment, as you can make martinis with almost anything. My team was presented with a spaghetti jar, pasta spoon, knitting needle and espresso cup to make our drink. This time a bottle of Martini Dry vermouth was passed around and with espresso cup as our measure and some team work in coordinating the pouring and pasta spoon straining we put together a rather good (and rather large – filling most of a very big red wine glass) medium dry martini, which kept three of us going for the rest of the session.
We then moved down to the front of the bar where Sean Harrison, Plymouth master distiller, was waiting to tell us about the distillery and how he makes gin. Plymouth gin has been around for quite a while, opening in 1793 and still operating out of the original buildings. It was built by Thomas Coates, who saw the potential for the Napoleonic wars increasing demand for gin amongst the navy, and as such built his distillery near the docks in Plymouth. At the time this was a great idea, but as the town has grown over the years it’s increasingly become difficult to get delivery trucks into the old part of Plymouth. However, distilling still happens in the same buildings as it did in 1793, some of which are over 500 years old, making it the oldest distillery in the country. They have also been granted a geographical designation, meaning that drinks marked as Plymouth gin can only be made in Plymouth, but as Plymouth Gin (the company) are the only people who make Plymouth gin (the style of gin) this has yet to be more than a nice bit of marketing.
Location-wise Plymouth isn’t a bad choice – to the north is Dartmoor which is made up of peaty ground on top of granite, in a similar way to large amounts of Scotland, providing soft water filtered through the peat, meaning that less purification needs to be done before it is used in the distilling process – limestone is not something you particularly want in your water supply when heating up water, as anyone in a hard water area who has a kettle can attest. The use of the word ‘distilling’ to describe Plymouth’s production is slightly inaccurate: Simply put, gin is vodka that has various ‘botanicals’ introduced to it and then is redistilled. Plymouth, as with many gin producers, doesn’t make its own base alcohol (the vodka part) and thus doesn’t legally do any distilling – the redistilling of a high alcohol product is merely ‘rectification’, which sits in a different band of licensing. Plymouth’s base alcohol is made from wheat, as it has been since the distillery started. The reason behind this is one of pure accessibility – wheat is the most commonly grown grain in the area around Plymouth and was thus the simplest base grain to get hold of. The different base alcohols produced can be divided into 4 categories of ‘flavour’ (although they are chemically pretty much identical): neutral, bready, buttery and grainy. Sean buys batches of buttery alcohol from wherever he can find it to make Plymouth – his most recent batches came from France.
Plymouth is quite a traditional gin when it comes to flavouring, using just 7 botanicals:
Juniper – the berry of the juniper tree/bush, as made famous by The Life of Brian, is a legal requirement for inclusion if you are to call your spirit gin: it must be the main flavouring component. However, juniper isn’t necessarily the main manifested flavour of gin – the other botanicals are the bits that vary between gins and make the distinctive flavours.
Coriander seed – Plymouth use the smaller Russian coriander seeds rather than the larger Moroccan ones generally used for cooking, going for the former’s citrusy taste rather than the spicier flavour of the latter.
Orange peel – to add sweet citrus.
Lime peel – to add spicy citrus.
Cardamon – the third most expensive spice in the world (at about £40/kg this year) and also one of the more concentrated flavours – coriander seeds contain about 2% essential oil, cardamon 7%. Due to the concentration (and maybe the cost) this is the smallest proportion in the botanicals mix but it still makes its presence known.
Angelica root – from the low countries of Europe, this is quite a tannic root and adds that element to the mix.
Oris root – the ground up root of the iris plant, currently quite expensive due to Chanel buying up most of it to make Chanel #5. It adds a base earthiness with some floral notes (hence its inclusion as a base scent in perfumes).
They buy up a year’s supply of botanicals at a time, matching the flavours with the previous years by distilling small batches of individual botanical spirits and comparing them to historical samples. The distinct difference between Plymouth style gin and others (such as London Dry or Old Tom) is its use of a higher proportion of root ingredients, making a more earthy and dry spirit.
Plymouth’s gin production process is quite simple and uses a pot still that’ll be familiar to anyone who knows about whisky distillation:
Add base alcohol, at about 96%, to the still
Dilute with water down to about 65%
Add the botanicals (whole, apart from the ground up oris root)
Water down the distillate to bottling strength
It takes about 1hr to come to the boil, they collect distillate for about 5 hours and then leave it for a further hour to run through the remaining ‘feints’, giving about a 90% middle cut that they keep. The exact proportions of ingredients used are kept secret, but the various batches of gin are blended together to give consistency, in case individual batches had more active botanicals than others. Plymouth’s approach to getting the flavourings into the gin is quite common – they add the botanicals just before they start cooking – but other distillers used different methods: Tanqueray and Gordons use a similar approach to Plymouth, Beefeater and Sipsmith steep their botanicals overnight before redistilling, and Bombay Sapphire hang the botanicals in a bag in the still to allow the vapours to be infused during distillation, rather than the alcohol in liquid form.
Before we moved on to tasting Plymouth’s gins, Sean tried a couple of experiments with us about taste. Firstly he handed out strips of paper for us to place on our tongues – if you’re a supertaster then the paper tastes bitter immediately, if not then it either tastes of nothing or gradually comes on with some bitterness. I’ve tried the test before and it seems that I’m not a supertaster, getting a little bit of a bitter flavour after looking at the people around me who are clawing at their tongues. Not being a supertaster doesn’t mean you can’t taste just that your intensity of flavour perception is much greater. This is both a good and bad thing, allowing you taste things that others may not but also allowing your palate to be more easily swamped. We were then handed out nose clips and a small vial of powder. With the nose clips on, blocking off our sense of smell, the powder just tasted sweet, but as soon as the clip was removed my tongue was flooded with spicy cinnamon – a demonstration of quite how much flavour is actually detected as smell.
The first gin we tasted was the regular Plymouth English Gin, bottled at 41.2%. On the nose it was well amalgamated, with citrus on top, juniper and coriander underneath and an earthiness staying with the alcohol behind all of that. That said, I’m not sure I would have been able to pick out the flavours without having been told what was in it – my gin nosing skills are far from honed. To taste there was the general taste of juniper, sweetened with some spiciness that lingered around the sides of the tongue, and ended with a more bitter juniper berry. I then watered it to about half of bottle strength (as recommended by Sean) and found some mintiness as well as some sour lime.
Next we tried Plymouth’s other regular gin – Plymouth Navy Strength, bottled at 57%. This is the same distillate as the regular gin, just bottled at a higher ABV. On the nose it was spikier due to the higher alcohol and the citrus was more noticeable. In the mouth there was more vaporisation of the alcohol, helping the citrus flavours get around more as well as adding a bit more spice. Watering it down made it the same as the regular gin, as expected.
Lastly we tried Plymouth Sloe Gin, initially thought to be a difficult product to sell due to the proliferation of homemade versions (Sean met The Queen at an event recently and she commented that Philip makes theirs…), but it seems to have gone rather well, needing 50 tonnes of sloes per year to keep up with demand – they bought their sloes from Poland this year as UK production isn’t enough to meet their needs. Rather than use the traditional method of pricking the sloes before putting them in the gin to start the infusion they instead freeze them, which breaks the skins and allows the process to happen – with approximately 50 million sloes used to make their stock, attacking each with a pin isn’t really an option. The sloes are added whole (including stone) to gin straight from the still (at about 82% alcohol) and left to steep for 2 months before sugar is added and they are left for a further 2 months. On the nose there are sticky cherries with a background of biscuits and it’s big and fruity to taste, with cherries and redcurrants balancing sweetness with an underlying tartness. It is very sweet but is also worryingly drinkable – very nice and maybe the best commercial sloe gin I’ve tried.
A great night at Graphic and a rather special introduction to the Juniper Society. Their next event is a ginger ale tasting on January 17th – keep an eye on the Facebook page for further details – I’ll definitely be there.
Many thanks to Sarah Mitchell at Graphic for organising the Juniper Society; Max, Sean and Seb for running the evening; and to David Smith at Summer Fruit Cup for telling me about it and making sure I realised that it would be foolish not to attend. The Juniper Society events are free to attend and this time Plymouth gave everyone a rather nice goody bag (along with some cocktail making gear I also now have a small book about martinis that has recipes for bitters and vermouth in that I think I may have to try).