Festivities in our fair city – The Gin Festival comes to Portsmouth

One of the things that baffles me about our hometown of Portsmouth, is that despite our Victorian and nautical heritage, there is a distinct lack of gin in our history.

Am I missing a trick here?

I’m wondering if it simply wasn’t documented. It’s a subject I am highly interested in and dedicated to uncovering. If anyone out there has any stories or information, please do get in contact. It would satisfy my restless heart and I’d love to write about it.

Nonetheless, every day is history in the making and look at us now, in the midst of this gin revolution. The number of distilleries in Britain has doubled in only 6 years according to a recent article in the Telegraph and let’s be honest, with the huge array of flavours achievable through natures glorious palette of botanicals, there is room for everyone. Along with distilleries, gin bars and gin evenings have been popping up like straws out of fizz since the law was changed in 2009 and there’s a world of gin out there for the discerning drinker. Even JD Wetherspoons have managed to bag some very good brands for their ‘gin palace’ selection, including craft gin revolution forefathers, Sipsmiths themselves.

So, what to do as a beginner. Well, we can research online. Or more fun we could venture into a local gin bar for recommendations and explanations of flavour. We now have another option. The Gin Festival, an opportunity to learn together, stopping on its national tour in the Guildhall of our beautiful city.

Lock your doors. The gin fiends are out in force and tonight I walk amongst them.

The queue was full anticipation and the well dressed and it moved quickly. Once inside we had an introduction from Laura, and provided with very own copa glass, gin book, pen and order form, we were ready to be let loose. There were four areas as such, the main arena with live music and the gin stalls: A&B: British, C: International and D: fruit/sloes/liquors, the cocktail bar with vendor sample stalls, the masterclasses and an outside space with food and a punch bar.

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Tooled up

The people were plentiful and our immersion into this collection of chic, geeky and fun loving drinkers was quick and natural. The gin books with introduction, recommended Fever-Tree tonic and garnish for each and every gin proved incredibly effective for those still learning and took the weight off the staff if they didn’t know an answer about a particular one of the good 100 gins on offer. It was however, very impressive what they did know and there was a definite passion, pride and patience in explanation that made learning a more fun and comfortable experience. It was also obvious that they were enjoying themselves too and the bubbling correspondence between them and the drinkers made for a tantalising and somewhat boisterous atmosphere.

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My advice is, that it’s imperative to try a sip before the adding tonic. By adding tonic you are creating a completely different drink, garnish an additional element entirely. Some gins are made to be sipped on their own, some are made to be opened up by the right tonic pairing. To get a true understanding of the complexity of flavours in a gin it’s important to try it both ways. Terribly hard work, that.

With so many to choose from it made it difficult to choose at all. We started with Bluebottle, a gin that made an appearance as part of the Craft Gin Club on Dragons Den and has also won both a gold award in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the Gin Masters 2016. Not a bad set of credentials and with such a beautiful and powerful taste including notes of floral and spice it delivers what it promises.

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As we enjoyed our first of many, we took time to contemplate the offerings in the Gin Book and our next selection was a no brainer for me. Dictador Columbian Ortodoxy Premium Aged Gin, a Columbian twist on our favourite tipple. The sugar cane spirit base and ageing in rum barrels gave a deliciously sweet underbelly to its more tart juniper and citrus elements.

It was shortly after this, and still with two gins left, I started to contemplate the possibility of buying more tokens. I then started considering how much I would have to spend to try every gin I wanted, finally reassuring myself that although that wasn’t possible, the Dictador had already been a brilliant discovery and had made my night worthwhile. This voyage of discovery is the very magic at the heart of the Gin Festival.

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It was about time to check out the cocktail bar. With a lovely little collection of gin themed cocktails such as the Rhubarb Rumble with proceeds going to charity, there was something for everyone. I spoke to a seasoned chap who had clearly found his place and had decided the Rumble was his favourite thing ever. His joy was infectious and he wasn’t the only one. Two hours in everyone was beaming brightly in their gin tinted glasses.

The vendor stalls were fantastic. I just love the opportunity to meet distillers and representatives to talk to them about their gin in detail. I firmly believe that understanding the story behind the gin gives the flavour an extra depth that’s simply unachievable by taste alone. I counted Locksley, Masons, Whitley Neil, Copper House, Conker, Pinkster and Brockmans, who together were a brilliant collection with lots of variety between them.

Sir Robin of Locksley Gin was a delight. Elderflower and Dandelion with pink grapefruit that gives it a wonderful sweetness. In addition, elderflower tonic lights it up into a fresh and dewy spring day of a drink. This was one of my favourites and recommendations of the evening.

Brockmans have been on my list for a while and they didn’t disappoint. The blueberry and blackberry tones came alive and fizzled like sparklers with ginger ale. Absolutely made for the Autumn months to warm our hearts when creeping chills hint of the coming winter and the crackles and smoke of bonfires fill the air.

It was lovely to meet a couple of the guys from Conker. Living in Bournemouth for a while, I’d heard of them bringing out the first Dorset gin for over 100 years and I’d been, as once a local, rooting for them to do well. They certainly have with a combination of earthy compounds including elderberries, samphire and gorse which they forage regularly in their local area, a delightful pastime if it weren’t for the prickliness of the bushes.

It was good to see Masons there too. I’m already a fan of their tea gin (marvellous in a marmalade Martini) and was lucky enough to try their lavender gin which was stunning. Not the heavy floral taste we’d expect, but soft, gentle and sweet. It’s on my Christmas list, which was by that point, growing longer by the minute.

The food smelt incredible and on venturing outside we found two stalls and the punch bar. A nice chat with host Peter revealed we had just missed the last of his special punch, an unusual milk and citrus marvel that he based upon a recipe that was over a century old. I would love to go into more detail on this, and fingers crossed that may happen down the line, so watch this space.

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Back to the main arena and the music was flowing. Speakeasy style fiddle and guitar from two very talented musicians really got the mood going. I went in for a Strathearn Oaked Highland Gin, on the rocks as recommended by the rather knowledgeable barman. The website recommends serving with an equal measure of orange juice for a brunch drink, the Gin Harvey Wallbanger. I’m doing that as soon as possible. Life has many heavens to me and one of them is sipping on a whisky gin.

And another would be Tarquin’s Single Estate Cornish Tea Gin Ltd Edition. This absolutely outstanding gin has been made exclusively for the festival. With Tregothan tea Camellia sinensis, kaffir lime, ginger and bee pollen it is both a delicacy and a triumph. Floral notes, warmth and the most wonderful sweetness that lingers on the tongue. I am heartbroken at its passing and live in hope they release a public batch. If you like the sound of this, it’s worth checking out South Western Distillery, they are creating some wonderful things at the moment.

I confess, through the fun I was having what with talking to all the lovely people about gin, drinking said gin, furiously writing notes and having the occasional dance time just raced past and I missed the masterclasses. I did however catch up with the lovely gentleman from Locksley Distilleries who explained that during his masterclass (120-140 people in attendance), he had spoken a little about EU regulation and explained that they were about lots of different aspects of gin and between them they’d tried to cover lots of these.

I wish I could have stayed longer, the time ran out far too quickly but that’s always a good sign. All the extras like Hobo Tom Photography really kept the party moving. Tom is the official photographer for the Gin Festival and you can see his work in much of their marketing. He took some amazing photos taken there, and some a bit of fun, one of my good friend Dave and me is posted below. Before we knew it, we were spilling out into the streets of Portsmouth, clinging defensively to our copa glasses and chattering excitedly about all our favourite findings. It seems that everyone was in agreement that it was a big step up from last year. The Gin Festival began in 2012 when Jym and Marie Harris wanted to up the ante on the gin bars they’d visited and that idea has grown and grown. Four years down the line and business is booming. This year there are 28 locations around the UK. Next year it’s looking to be 40.

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Dave and I doing what we do best.

Since I first discovered the gin revolution it has blossomed into a renaissance, with Artisan distillers putting love, money and pride into creating truly beautiful gins. It’s an interest for adults to indulge and socialise in, sharing knowledge, enthusiasm and a bit of good old fashioned fun. Despite Portsmouth’s lacking history in gin, we are gaining momentum for the future. What with establishments such as Gin and Olive offering very good selections, local distilleries like the Isle Of Wight offering mighty gins such as Mermaids and the Might HMS Victory Navy Strength Gin and now the Gin Festival, maybe it’s Portsmouth’s time to shine and to take on the gin torch that it’s deserved for so many years. Who’s with me? Raise your glasses! Chin chin!

Many thanks to Laura at the Gin Festival for the press passes.

Also huge thanks to my good friend David Scotland for the photography. If you like his style you can find out more about him here and look at and purchase his work from here.

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