Being lucky enough to work at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth, I have developed an enormous appreciation for all things nautical. This concept goes exceedingly well with gin, which has a place in naval history, including cocktails originating from naval roots. What we see today as created for taste was once created for functionality. Even the humble gin and tonic was suggested to be born during the navies voyages to colonial India, with quinine being recognised for anti-malarial qualities and the addition of lime a necessary shot of Vitamin C goodness to fight scurvy.
Bearing this is in mind, you can imagine my excitement at the opportunity to meet Xavier Baker of the Isle of Wight Distillery, creator of the mighty HMS Victory Gin. So, I hopped on the catamaran and made my way to Ryde on the beautiful Isle of Wight just over the water and a world away.
Xavier has many years of brewing experience under his belt and it shows. Years of brewing on the island plus a three-year stint setting up a brewery on the Dingle Peninsula of Ireland. With such a rich background, distilling felt like the next natural step. His 20 yearlong friend Conrad Gauntlett of Rosemary Vineyard provided the perfect opportunity and over an idea and a handshake one day they decided to set up the IOW Distillery.
The premises is a kid in a candy store situation of all things farm shop. Shelves of indulgent chutneys, chocolates, liquors and wines gleam the rich colours of temptation. Xavier admits he has been very lucky, despite the intensive two-year experience to obtain a full distillery license; he got there eventually. Not one to do things by halves, he went for a full license so he could create whatever he wanted. “It was like being on the apprentice” he smiled, “They were sat at a desk facing us and they asked what we wanted to make and our response was whisky, vodka, gin…oh and moonshine”.
It is absolutely worth mentioning the moonshine at this point. Before we even got into the gin I was lucky enough to sample the 30% Apple Pie Moonshine, grain spirit mixed with fresh apple juice from the Island, brown sugar and vanilla. It’s honest, natural goodness and it tastes incredible. Meant to be mixed with hot chocolate or lemonade, I confess that I’d be quite happy sitting next to a fire sipping it straight from the jam jar. This along with an Isle of Wight Whisky currently ageing in the cask (6 months in and tasting fabulous), Rock Sea Salt Vodka and let’s not forget the gin; shows the ambition and creativity of their distillery. Still, it’s all taken in stride and he seems quite comfortable with the new pace of life. There are more ideas on the boil…but unfortunately, he’s not able to tell me about them just yet.
It was a wonderful moment when I arrived to find a distillation in progress. Watching the gin flowing down the insides of the column still evokes the peace of watching a water feature in a nice garden. Oh? Would I care to try some freshly distilled at 90%? Don’t mind if I do! When it comes to distillation, Xavier cuts the hearts off early, leaving longer tails which admittedly is an extra cost implication but it really does boost the quality of the drink. Even at 90% it’s still incredibly smooth. Botanicals are maturated in the gin for 24 hours, distillation takes equal time and the resulting gin is left to rest for 7 days before being bottled.
So let’s get onto that all important gin. We’ll start with the Mermaids (named after the boats out near Seaview). It’s light, bright and airy. It reminds me of an old, white walled, high ceiled room near the sea, with the big sash window open and a breeze gently twiddling long net curtains between its delicate fingers. As well as freshly peeled lemon zest, botanicals include Grains of Paradise for extra peppery hues, rock samphire to give that sweet and salty almost carrot like quality and a hint of elderflower. Bodecian hops grown in Ventnor botanical gardens seem to be a nod to Xavier himself, with him living in Ventnor and with his brewing history. It’s an eclectic collection of botanicals that politely sidestep the idea of forefront flavour and dance together harmoniously. Woken with an eager prod of tonic and cucumber garnish, it’s a refreshing twist on the popularity of Hendricks style sweeter gins.
And what’s the story with the infamous HMS Victory Gin? It’s the same botanical make up as Mermaid’s only stronger and it makes such a change to the flavour. The peppery citrus is pushed to the back of the queue and the rock samphire comes roaring forward like high tide. Xavier had been wanting to create a navy strength gin and had been wondering what historical approach to go for. Living so close to Victory, it became obvious that a homage to her was a brilliant idea. Built in 1765 and designed by Sir Thomas Slade, she is a Georgian first rate ship of the line (or ‘battle line’, a name that birthed the more modern day term ‘battleship’). 850 crew manning 104 gins made her a formidable opponent and her fight at Trafalgar led by Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson has made her one of the most famous ships in the world. Xavier has been working very closely with Giles Gould, Head of Commercial Services at NMRN’s Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. I for one can testify as to the passion and dedication all those within the Dockyard put into bringing these ships and histories to life, not merely for us to observe them, but to feel and truly experience them. With this in mind we are always looking for new ways to engage the pubic and spread the word of history, endeavouring to ignite a spark that could develop into a roaring interest. This was a brilliant opportunity to remarry gin with our local nautical heritage.
So work began in earnest. The gin itself was a relatively simple move, alcohol content was increased from 42-57%. For those unaware, 57% navy strength spirits were born from the fact that if they were spilt on gunpowder at 57% or above the gunpowder would still ignite. She needed something further, but what else could be done? Victory was a ship that had engaged in numerous battles and skirmishes over a period of approximately 40 years. At Trafalgar no British ships were lost to the combined French and Spanish fleet who lost 22 ships between them in a resounding win. Lord Admiral Nelson passed away on the Orlop Deck on hearing the result, over 3 hours after being shot on the quarter deck by a French gunman. She is the oldest commissioned warship in the world. Something this special deserved something special in this gin.
Four barrels were created by the Country’s only Master Cooper, Alistair Simms, using staves of oak from Victory herself. There will also be some original copper. The barrels were charred to allow the grain to open to increase the surface area and potency of the aging. The idea behind this is that over the various time periods (5 months, 1 year, 3 years and 5 years), the flavours and colour will be drawn out recreating an experience similar to what Officers drinking gin could have had all those years ago. In essence the gin will not only be based upon history, it will be made from history itself. A percentage of sales will go to support the ongoing restoration project of Victory which is incredibly important work required on one of our own National Treasures.
The first of these special casks is due to be opened during a ceremonial evening on Victory in October, along with a talk with Gin Historian David T Smith, who himself had a relative at the Battle of Trafalgar which is a fantastic link. I am just desperate to get on board for that evening. I’m sure there will be plenty I could share with you. Let’s keep our fingers and toes crossed for that one.
From the rolling hills of Rosemary’s vineyard, we took a short journey to the Seaview Hotel, right by the beach in Seaview. The link here was this hotel was one of the earliest to stock Mermaid’s gin. Tracy Mikich, the warm, friendly and very witty Executive Assistant, has been incredibly supportive of Xavier and his projects. As soon as she heard there was a locally made gin she called to order some and they’ve never looked back. They provide gin as it should be, with copa glass, Fever Tree mixer and complementing garnish, cucumber for Mermaids and blood orange being a favourite in discussions of what would best suit Victory. Mermaid’s gin is popular with the locals and is a big seller. This sort of support is exactly what independent businesses should give their local gins. Wholesalers including clauses restricting customers to purchase all gins through them have a bit to answer for. The beauty of a gin is its locality and it’s something that locals should be proud of and should support. I’m a firm believer that in this world dominated by big brands, any decent local pubs/bars should sell some local gins.
The Seaview Hotel is absolutely magnificent. In times of bland, tick certain boxes hotels it is simply fantastic to find somewhere so very true to itself and its heritage. Originally built by sea faring family the Caws who founded the village, it’s just soaked in history. (There’s even family legend amongst the Caws that Nelson used to row to the Hotel for a beer, although the only remaining Caws, William Gerald, thinks that may be an exaggeration). The museum worthy collection of nautical memorabilia that adorns a huge part of the interior walls keeps growing with additional contributions from guests and the staff there are starting to catalogue which is proving a timely but rewarding exercise.
We sat in the quiet Naval Mess Bar and Tracy brought over some glasses and cucumber for us to set up a session. With Mermaid’s gin and standard Fever-Tree it make’s for the perfect serve and I sip politely with eyes upon me and gulp when heads are turned. It’s a wonderfully refreshing drink. All the flavours play in their gentle harmony to give a beautiful all round taste. I try some Victory on it’s own and again I can really appreciate the quality. For the tonic I am incredibly lucky to try some over Fever-Tree’s new offering, the aromatic tonic with extracts of angostura. Due for release in August it is slightly pink in colour and created specifically to compliment navy strength gins in ode to the traditional pink gin drunk in the Navy. I have to say, I’m so pleased to see a new offering from Fever-Tree and it tastes wonderful, especially with the gin. For further info on Fever-Tree do check out my previous write up on them.
The food at the Seaview is divine. It should be, being the only venue on the island to be awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand, but even lunch is special. I passed up the opportunity of the hotels speciality dish, the crab ramekin (I promise I’ll be back for that) and went for traditional fish and chips, which had a beautiful crunchy batter. Tracy takes a great interest in history. She tells me that the neighbouring village of St Helens may have been one of the last views Nelson had when leaving Portsmouth to head to Trafalgar and it is also thought that Victory was moored at St Helens with his body on board whilst they made the funeral arrangements. There is a painting that hangs in the Nelson Gallery at the Historic Dockyard that portrays this, ‘HMS ‘Victory’ Anchored off the Isle of Wight’ by John Wilson Carmichael.
After some heartfelt goodbyes and promises of returning visits, I waited for my boat back across the water. I took deep breaths of the salty air and a moment to really appreciate the setting of the sea washing out under the pier. The history behind gin is fast becoming a deep and dedicated interest of mine. I felt truly privileged to have met both Xavier and Tracy and to have had an insight into a really lovely world where history is cherished like the memories of lost loved ones. Mermaids gin is beautiful and the Victory gin is truly mighty. However, for now we play the waiting game, to see just how wonderful the cask aged gin will be. To love history so much and be able to actually consume it, to feel at one with the seafarers that gave us both our future and our heritage, well that surely is that special gesture that HMS Victory so deserves.
Special thanks to Xavier and Tracy for being so kind and hosting me in wonderful fashion and to all my friends and colleagues at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard for the support and your continued care and commitment to our precious history.