There I was, minding my own business when I get a message from a JJ Lawrence of Tiger Gin asking if I had tried the gin and would I like a sample.
Well, of course I would.
In a matter of days the ‘tiger cub’ 50cl sample bottle arrived. I was working on other articles at the time so promised myself I’d wai. until I could give it my full focus. Occasionally I’d look up from my laptop and my eyes would naturally fall to rest on the curious vessel. Enticing, intriguing, there was something reminiscent of the temptation of the Alice in Wonderland ‘drink me’ bottle. What magic would I unlock? I had to keep reminding myself that patience is a virtue.
JJ Lawrence is an intriguing character. From his initial contact I had a little root around online and couldn’t find too much about him. To talk to he seems friendly and buoyant, a true Shropshire lad. No pushover either. His love of all things stripy led to the name Tiger Gin. Tiger tattoos, tiger attitude and an intention to donate towards Save the Tiger/Born Free, meant the name was close to his heart and he trademarked it. To multi billion pound global company Heineken however, it was a little too close to one of their products, the infamous Tiger Beer. Heineken contacted him to drop the name and in true tiger spirit he fought the whole way through, from 2 years of an appointed top London Trademark Attorney, all the way to Court where he had to appoint a top London Trade Mark Barrister to make his defence. Despite the financial concerns and his wife’s pleas to call it ‘Big Cat’ instead he stood his ground and eventually and triumphantly he won. Beating such a large company in Court is quite the achievement. As he put it “No one likes a bully”.
Indeed no one does like a bully and in my mind it’s important for this modern day David to stand up to one of this worlds Goliath companies. This astonishing gin revival we are blessed to be experiencing in recent years is built solely on the change of law allowing small batch distilleries. This in turn led to the boom of independent business, men and women chasing gin flavoured dreams and by doing so delivering us, the humble consumer, a spectrum of taste and smell so colourful, Van Gogh could take them and paint a masterpiece. As beautiful as trees are in a forest, they still need to let a little light into the undergrowth to allow rare and individual flowers to grow. What a beautiful forest that is. I personally think he has every right to feel proud of his victory.
A long love of gin, it’s history and the eastern spices that give Tiger Gin it’s personality have led to him thinking he could contribute a valuable product and he’s jumped head first into a new endeavour in an unfamiliar industry. “The process” he says, “has been very challenging indeed”.
As recommended I try some over ice. I’m immediately hit by the sweetness. The quality of a gin is immediately notable from it’s taste. There’s a strength in flavour but no harshness. The ingredients come from the far reaches of the world including juniper from the Balkans, coriander seeds from Eastern Europe, cut and dried angelica root from France and Belgium, dried sweet lemon and orange peel from Spain, cassia bark from China, liquorice root powder from the Mediterarranean, ground nutmeg from the West Indies, cinnamon bark from Madagascar, orris root powder from Italy and two secret ingredients that I just can’t put my finger on. It’s an impressive set of credentials.
Sipping a glass of perfect serve Tiger Gin, marbling in Fever-Tree tonic and orange garnish is the drinking equivalent of laying in the heady glow of an Indian summer, basking in nature’s warmth, absorbing and recharging by the power of the glorious sunshine. That’s what Tiger Gin feels like to drink.
Now it should be apparent to readers of my previous articles that I’ve a soft spot for the sweetness of orange with gin. Be it in botanical make up or garnish, it compliments the flavour so well on my palette. Refreshing as well as indulging, the delicacy of that gentle sweetness is difficult to match. Bathtub Gin was once my gin of choice…I also have a particular soft spot for COLD’s Christopher Wren, but now, I have also discovered Tiger Gin. How would I describe the difference? Tiger Gin is bold. The strength of flavour is only matched by the strength of attitude in JJ Lawrence himself. The future will hopefully see his intention of sharing his lovely gin with the world (he’s currently exceeding 60,000 followers) and things are going up with him being rewarded with silver in the Gin Masters 2016.
Although his sights are aimed on being recognised as one of the best gins in the world, one of my favourite things abut JJ Lawrence is his recognition of others. When I asked what advice he could give others getting into gin making he replied ‘I would wish them well. I don’t concentrate on what other people are doing. I don’t compete, I create”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve had a soft spot for Camden since I was young. It reminded me of Brighton, where people were colourful and inventive and most importantly didn’t judge each other. It’s been my favourite pocket of London for as long as I can remember. As it transpires, under that bright and bubbly surface lay a deep history of distillation of one of my favourite spirits. At the age of 15 I can remember looking down the canal. Little did I know that buildings I saw and the surrounding landscape once housed a 20 acre goods station complete with gin distillery, set in motion by illustrious Brothers Walter and Alfred Gilbey. The site handled everything from distilling to bottling to shipping all over the world. Almost lost to the sepia pages of an old history book, the story is being continued and brought back to life in the form of a small batch gin, handcrafted in a micro distillery in a humble but prominent premises in West Yard, Camden Lock. The premises was once the blacksmiths, where the shoes were made for the horses that pulled those gin bearing barges some 150 years ago.
Founder Mark Holdsworth’s love and pride of his work is difficult to describe. Despite his 16 years previous experience, including with brand giant Barcardi, it’s still a brave thing stepping foot into the world of gin, setting up a small business and swimming with the big fishes. Even with this, he’s not the only one, but he’s got a very good idea. Being a local man (he worked at Camden market when he was a teenager), his knowledge of the area is comprehensive and driven by a genuine interest that most historians will understand. On arrival we go for a walk around the market, gin in hand, to the bridge over the canal, where he points out the old W & A Gilby distillery building and the Interchange Building complete with Interchange Basin known as ‘Dead Dog Hole’, created to take six horse drawn barges a time for loading (the half hitch knot being used to moor them). There was even the Gilbey Express railway that used to export gin to the dockyards and all over the world. Mark must also take credit for the introduction to the website which explains with a kind of magic how ‘those who walk the surrounding cobble stones are blissfully unaware of its history”.
(View from the canal photo credit geograph.org.uk)
The botanicals used continue to allude to the old photographic scene developing in my mind, the smell of key botantical single estate Malawian black tea, with pepper and Calabrian bergamot, the smoky air smelling faintly of English wood and hay fed to the working horses. The shouts of people hard at work, in an era that slowly drifts away from our current day, leaving the staunch remnants of architectural wonder, museums and period drama. Still, the distillery is a beautiful homage to those times as well as now; fusing modern distillation techniques with the old. Half Hitch use a combination of tinctures, a traditional column still and a vacuum still (the sight of it really took me aback when I arrived), a wonderfully new and scientific approach as overseen by Mark’s resident distiller Chris Taylor, formally of COLD who holds a brilliant scientific knowledge. A chemistry graduate from Warwick, he also has a professional qualification from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling.
The vacuum still is a fantastically futuristic piece of kit. Reminiscent of school days in science labs, the ability to lower the boiling points of botanicals allow more fragile flavours to be released. It’s only able to process a small amount at any one time, but by doing this to add to the traditional distillation and blending with tinctures gives a whole extra level to the flavour spectrum to play with. Tinctures are a lovely homage to old (a traditional process for medical purposes of using alcohol to extract the flavour of more delicate botanicals such as the tea). Half Hitch are indeed, incredibly experimental and have the set up to facilitate it. I was lucky enough to try a little of the ‘pickled onion monster munch’ variety. The preservation and balance of the flavour was mindblowing from what was in essence a packet of crisps and it had me immediately thinking of all the other flavours there were in the world to play with. Mark explains their ‘ethos is using the right production technique to get the best out of each botanical’ and they are very proud to use high end botanicals too.
(Mark with vacuum still to the left photo credit Boutique Barbar Show).
The gin itself is just wonderful. I love the colouration taken from the tea as this further alludes to the sense of days of dirty faces, smoky clothes and old letters blowing in the streets. There is fantastic complexity to the earl grey type flavour that I can’t help but imagine the Gilbey’s celebrating. Orange is a key garnish to both cocktails and G&T’s as it naturally coaxes out the woody notes and bergamont citrus. If you need some more ideas for drinking then check the cocktails page on their website which has a few twists on old favourites. Bottles can be ordered online direct from the Half Hitch site or from a number of stockists and are even available in prestigious stores such as Selfridges.
Mark first stumbled across the history through his daughter who is educated locally. Further to this he discovered further information from local heritage campaigner Peter Darley, founder of Camden Railway Heritage Trust. Walter and Alfred Gilbey began their enterprise after being discharged from the Crimean War and returning to London. They started with wine, moving to the Camden premises in 1869. Camden was a particularly good location due to the London Birmingham Trunk Railway (built by Robert Stephenson and the first of it’s kind in the world to enter a capital city) and setting up their gin distillery in 1871. During this time the landscaped changed with basins being enlarged and buildings being changed however was fit for purpose. A lot of this can still be seen today and it’s an important part of the local history that is too often missed. (I’ve linked most pages in this article, but further information on the history of W & A Gilbey can be found at various sources, most notably the Gilbey page on Peter’s website, with additional information on the Gilbeys on a local history page and Camden’s Railway Heritage from the Friends of the National Railway Museum). It’s this history that Mark appreciates and it occurred to him that it had been 50 years since 1964, when the Gilbey industry had moved to Harlow and with that he decided it would be a nice idea to start making gin there again as an ode to its monumental past.
This mix of old and new is to me, the heart of Half Hitch. Many gins allude to their history, but it’s nice to see one where history and its inevitable future wrap around each other and start to grow into something else. The foundations of idea lay as they’ve done since 1869, and history is revived through that mix of old and new, creating the giddy glory of taste and smell achieved through knowledge and techniques that would have had our gin making ancestors as fascinated as we are when something allows us to see back in time. As the years go on connections to our past are lost. But with people like Mark creating quality gins based on an lost history, he is inadvertently bringing those eras together and tying them tight with a round turn and two half hitches of a rope knot.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of London City, nestled quietly down Bride Lane and just out of reach of the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral; sits the humble entrance to COLD or to those in the know, the City of London Distillery.
The distillery opened in late 2012 and was the first within the City of London Square Mile for 200 years, (the Victorian gin craze has a lot to answer for). The Square Mile, or ‘City of London’ is a city inside a city, with their own Mayor and police force…so it makes perfect sense that they should have their own distillery.
So how did COLD come about? In 1967 a gentleman called Jonathon Clarke was a 16 year old dishwasher in the golf club/bar that previously occupied the premises, living on £32.50 a week. He would go on to purchase the freehold in 1997 and at 50 years old would get into gin and tonic, eventually becoming Master Distiller of COLD.
Descending down the stairs away from the close heat of outside, the understated and subtle entrance hides a beautiful speakeasy style underground bar that opens up into a blissfully relaxing space that feels a world away from the busy streets just above. Today I’m meeting Alfie Amayo, Brand Ambassador and COLD know-it-all for a distillery tour and tasting and boy, does he know a trick or two! Despite being not long back from a business trip to Switzerland, he’s excitable and engaging, with his torrent of knowledge being broken down into sizeable chunks by pausing to ask questions, keeping me well on my toes. He’s full of fantastic gin related tit bits such as the ancient medicinal uses for juniper, including its use during the bubonic plague and as a contraception (not to be tried at home ladies and gentlemen, there is little proof it worked).
The distillery is a beautiful set up and it spotless. Approximately 9ft x 14ft in size, it’s made up of Jennifer and Clarissa, 2 x 140L copper pot stills and named after the 2 fat ladies. Also a fabulous 7 level column still, which really is very clever indeed. The first step is cleaning the spirit. White spirit, which can be made from starchy materials such as grain or potato is brought in, (it’s actually quite rare for a distillery to make their own). In this case it’s wheat based and through Jennifer it’s cleaned to remove as much of the methonal as possible.
The spirit is mixed with water then heated by an electric coil (as we know alcohol is incredibly flammable and despite the bomb proof glass surrounding the equipment, we certainly don’t want a explosion). It’s made up of methanol (the bad stuff) which evaporates at 67.4deg, ethanol (the good stuff) which evaporates at 74deg and water, which as we know evaporates at 100deg (all Celsius). During this process the sulphites react with the copper, making copper sulphite (surprise) which needs to be cleaned from the walls of the still regularly. This over time thins the metal, meaning a full replacement is required very 10 years or so. Not a cheap endeavour when we’re talking highly sought after German Carl equipment. In fact, in just 3 years, public demand means the waiting list has soared from 4 months to 18, which is perfect testament to the fabulous gin revival that we’re lucky to be living in, well I feel blessed for certain.
The 7 plate column still then filters, as the vapour rises it hitting the metal sheets, cooling it down and separating the methanol and ethanol by condensation. Ethanol comes out at 95% and Alfie explains the finer details that it will always react with the environment to be at 95%, higher levels are only achievable in a controlled environment.
Once the spirit is clean, the single shot distillation can begin with Clarissa. Micro distilleries such as this, producing 200 bottles per batch can use the single-shot process; the botanicals, alcohol and water being distilled into a liquid where only water is added. Companies making larger batches need to use the multi-shot method, where are the gin ‘concentrate’ is created through distillation and then watered and sugared down into it’s final form.
It’s this single shot method, that requires full attention and care from the distiller. A distillation has to be watched at all times as the changing pressure can alter the times and volumes and each batch must come out perfectly. There is just no room for error when there’s no way of altering the final taste. The botanicals are put in the still with half alcohol and half water. This is to prevent them from getting closer to the coil and burning as the alcohol evaporates as this would impair the final flavour. He admits after playing with different waters to see how it would affect the final taste, they prefer to use water that’s been purified through a reverse osmosis machine. It’s interesting to note that pure water is actually quite dangerous for us, but when it’s mixed with alcohol it’s ok, thank goodness.
Of every 80L, the first 500ml distilled will be the methanol, or the ‘heads’, this is collected in a jug and discarded by a company in an environmentally friendly manner (there are different methods such as it being sold on to make nail varnish remover), the next 63L is the ethanol or the ‘heart’ and is collected in large, metal churns. The ‘tails’ left over from the process consist of broken down compounds and are not used in the gin.
Alfie takes me through a room full of mini stills (for gin making classes), to the tasting room which is stacked with different gins and small jars full of different dry botanicals. Here we get to grips with the individual smells and tastes of piney juniper, coriander to add spicey and citrus notes, liquorice to sweeten and angelica to give the flavour a good earthy base. These are the base flavours for City of London gins and there are different varieties that have their own twist. All are made by forefather, Jonathon Clarke, bar the Christopher Wren gin, which I have read good things about and incredibly eager to try. The bottles are new, designed especially for COLD and take inspiration from their neighbour, St Paul’s Cathedral.
No1. City of London Dry – 41.3% – Amongst the base 4 botanicals, there is a wonderful combination of orange, lemon and pink grapefruit which gives a lovely zesty finish. It’s a delicate dry gin with a superb flavour and winner of the Silver Award for the International Wine and Spirits Competition 2015.
No2. Christopher Wren – 45.3% – Created by Tanqueray distiller Tom Nichol, this was the one I’d been eager to try, with the addition of sweet orange, the flavour is divine. Named after the architect responsible for rebuilding St Paul’s Cathedral after the great fire of 1666, this gin proves itself as an architect of flavour by winning Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2016.
No3. Old Tom – 43.3% – I’m a fan of Old Tom gins. As well as a bit of history (you can read more on this in my A fantastical history of gin), my palette likes a sweetened gin if it’s done right. Distillers have to be careful. Sometimes they can be too thick, almost syrupy in flavour and consistency. I have to say, this Old Tom is brilliant. Really delicately flavoured and on the nose with balance of cassia and cardamom spice and a slight hint of sour from zesty orange and lemon.
No4. Sloe gin – 28% – Made with Blackthorn berries, this is an excellent example of a sloe gin. A slow gin has to be sweetened as it’s just to sour on its own. Again, COLD have delicately sidestepped over sweetening with a well balanced sloe gin that leaves a tingle of tartness on the tongue. This is not surprisingly, the winner of Silver-Outstanding Award in the International Wine and Spirit Competition 2015.
No5. Square Mile – 47.3% – Similar base to the dry gin, but with a little tweak and some extra strength. Coriander is used to give additional citrusy flavours as too much citrus would make the drink to oily and cause it to turn milky when added to tonic. This gin is a well deserved tribute to the home of COLD. Winner of the Gold San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2016.
After a few drinks I was comfortable and heady so I stayed talking all things gin with Alfie for quite some time and to be honest, I could have stayed longer. COLD is a beautiful place, steeped in history and passion from the people that work there. Everything alludes to their love of gin, from the delicacy and complexity of flavour to the constant homage to their history. Through Alfie’s time and patience I probably learnt more of the technicalities of craftsmanship than any of my meetings to date. I can’t recommend it here enough, at minimum for a drink or ideally for a distillery tour/gin tasting because it’s a brilliant experience that’s fun and oh so interesting. And please, please do yourself a favour and seek out the Christopher Wren. It’s gorgeous.
So, as I see it there are 8 main brackets of gin flavour (Do let me know if you think otherwise). To know and understand these is a good starting point as no matter how well made a gin is, it’s all still a matter of taste. The next step is to understand how each botanical tastes and smells (we’ll get into that another time). Sooner or later you can gauge what bracket a gin will fall into by looking at the listed botanicals.
A list of gins and their flavour brackets can be found in my post Make a suggestion – The gin list This list is sure to grow and if you have any comments – suggestions, I’d love to hear them.
I do love a good sweet gin. Old Tom gins are my particular favourite. With a nice hit of liquorice (and sometimes added sugar), the gin has a deep and naturally sweet undertone. Haymans were one of the gin makers to look at reviving this older forgotten recipe (a brief story of old tom is included in my fantastical history of gin). Many have followed suit including those big hitters Tanqueray. Their Old Tom gin is a limited edition (only 150,000 bottles have been produced). If you’re sweet enough then try mixing it with bitter lemon for a well balanced and unusual flavour (this also works fabulously with Cream gin created by the Worship Street Whistling Shop).
Savoury flavours are big at the moment and the gin on everyone’s lips has to be Gin Mare (pronounced Mar-ray). Served with basil and Fever Tree’s Mediterranean tonic water it makes for a crisp and refreshing G&T. The rosemary and lemongrass in the tonic sets the sweetness of the basil off nicely. Savoury flavours are bursting with herby botanicals and foodstuffs such as Olives. They also comfortably lend themselves towards other brackets so some fantastic balances can be achieved. Twisted Nose for example, is a wonderful, locally produced gin with peppery watercress and floral lavender.
Some like it hot. This is also true with gin. Some G&Ts can be served with a garnish of fresh chilli giving an extra kick to an already warming flavour. Great to take your summer drink right on through the autumn before we’re all drowning in a sea of hot toddies and mulled wine. Bathtub gin is a favourite of mine with hints of comforting clove and orange. Monkey 47 also certainly deserves a mention, with 6 different peppers and one of the longest lists of botanicals in a gin.
Gin needs citrus. It’s a fundamental part of most gins and most products use peel for their flavour. There are a handful that don’t, including the world renowned Tanqueray Ten. Tanqueray have also been pretty clever with the creation of Tanqueray Rangpur. Based on an old tradition of using the rare rangpur limes to smooth down the flavour, it delivers a gorgeous hit of fruitiness when sipped on it’s own. There are others out there so if you like your drink a little tart these will be the ones to look into.
Floral gins are summer in a glass. Delicate and flavoursome they are a stark contrast to the enormity of the Juniper we can taste in standard gin recipes. That said, they are the perfect base for any elderflower cocktail. Bloom is well worth comment. With camomile and honeysuckle it delivers a superbly sweet and gentle flavour. The Botanist Islay is up there as one if my favourites. Created by a whisky distiller, there are at least 31 botanicals in its recipe and 22 are native and hand foraged. The result is a complex floral taste with deep hints of earthiness from the surrounding bog and its as if the drink itself is a homage to our earth.
This is what most gin drinkers expect and in fact, this is a underlying flavour in the huge majority of gins as Juniper does have a naturally dry taste. For those of us after something special, No 3 London Dry Gin delivers. Keeping the recipe simple with only 3 fruits and 3 spices used, it’s clean, crisp and everything you expect from gin. This drink stands for good quality and makes the valuable statement that excellence comes from simplicity, just as much as complexity.
One for the true gin drinker. Juniper is the original and definitive gin flavouring. Although we’ve had a recent explosion in flavour experimentation there are some drinkers that feel if you can’t fully taste the juniper, it’s not a real gin. A wonderful example is Sipsmiths VJOP (Very Junipery Overproof). At 57% – Navy rum strength, this stuff really packs a wallop. There are plenty of other gins that are juniper driven but still carry a notable background flavour.
There are a variety of tasty gin liqueurs to be tried. Being a liqueur the abv is much lower than the standard 40% and at around 20% they are lovely to sip over ice. Spencerfield Edinburgh gin have a fabulous range including a raspberry one that really tickles me in the right places. I’ve also found it works brilliantly as a replacement for desert wine.
Let’s start with the basics. What is gin? How is it made? Gin starts life as a vodka. The definition of vodka is a spirit distilled to 96% or more alcohol by volume (abv). Also known as a neutral alcohol and the best has no taste at all. There are many possible base materials but most often used are grain, potatoes or molasses. This vodka must be then flavoured with the distinct, ‘piney’ essence of juniper to become a gin. A fine gin should contain at least 6-10 botanicals. Most often used are corriander, angelica root, citrus peel, cinnamon (or cassis- a commonly used variant), though in today’s Artisan world there is a huge spectrum of different botanicals allowing ever growing combinations of different flavours.
Once the distillation process is completed the liquid is then diluted with water to bring it down to desired abv. The minimum is 37.5%, although the strength needs to be higher (around 40%) to be considered premium and most prefer to drink around 42%. Navy strength runs at 57% (a whole story in itself). A higher alcohol level means a higher quality and therefore comes with a higher price tag due to the higher duty cost. There are 3 main types of gin:
This is a basic gin and is not redistilled. It has the botanicals and flavourings infused or mixed in. It’s labelled simply as gin and won’t be of the best quality as the distiller doesn’t have to worry about getting it right first time and can easily mask any unpleasantness with additives.
Distilled gin is made from a neutral spirit (vodka) which is then infused with juniper berries and botanicals and redistilled. Alcohol and flavourings may be added after distillation and the end product may be coloured or sweetened. This means that small tweaks can be made but the original distillation needs to be good enough.
London Dry Gin
London Dry Gin is redistilled with juniper berries and botanicals. The flavourings may be added only during distillation and must be natural. The ethyl alcohol must be of high quality and the gin must contain at least 70% alcohol after distillation. No colouring can be added but sugar can be. This means the distiller has to get the flavour right first time, so this is classed as one of the highest qualities of gin production. London Dry Gin refers to the process only, therefore it doesnt need to be made in London and although preferred, it won’t necessarily taste like the heavy juniper taste we associate with London Dry. Additionally to juniper it can also include a wealth of different botanicals.
Have you ever heard of the term dutch courage? Well a little birdy suggests it comes from gin.
Gin, or genever in its original form, was being used for medicinal purposes in 17th century Holland. Being a rather nasty tasting alcohol, it was flavoured by a small berry called Juniper (all important to classify a drink as gin). Troops fighting in the war 30 years war were sipping it from small bottles on their belts and sozzled, were fearlessly running into battle, hence the term ‘dutch courage’ was born. Our troops picked up on this and before long were bringing it home, where it was being distilled and sold in chemists shops. For a time it was only the ‘worshipful company of distillers’ that had the right to distill in the 21 miles surrounding London.
This was to change with the return of William lll from Holland in 1698. He dropped the tax on gin and deregulated it. If a public notice was put up and left for 10 days, anyone could produce gin from home grown corn. This led to one very drunk London! 1 in 4 households were producing very low quality gin in their bathtubs and 7000 spirit shops sprung up. With gin being a safer alternative for the poor than disease ridden water, it was thought that the average adult would consume 65 litres of gin a year. This led to to the decline of society and dark times for morality. There lot’s of truly terrible stories from this era.
Thousands were dying from gin consumption and something had to be done. The government tried introducing the Gin Act on 29th September 1736 with a £50 license fee. People were up in arms and riots quickly broke out of London. Over 11 million gallons were still being produced and only 2 licenses had been sold. This prohibition led to the creation of ‘old tom’ gin. This gin, with deep, sweet tasting liquorice was sold illegally wherever a black cat was on display. Alternatively, your drink could be procured by putting a penny into the cat, so a shot would come out of the paw. Arguably this is one of the first vending machines and was testament to the hold gin had over the masses.
The act was recalled in 1742 and a new policy was drawn up with influences from the distillers, that formed a similar model to what we work to now. Production became more respectable and higher quality gins were being produced by emerging manufacturers such as Gordons and Tanqueray. The invention of the column still in the 1830s also led to the creation of London Dry Gin, one of the highest qualities of gin production.
Beer shops and gin shops were the original public houses, somewhere you could feel as comfortable as home whilst enjoying a drink. The decor relied on the clientele and with gin’s biggest supporter’s being the lower classes, most of these were slums. However, with the increase in quality of spirit, gin palaces began popping up to serve the higher society and there were over 5000 of these by the 1850s. Attitudes were changing though and with the temperance movement mid 1830s over time things became a little more balanced.
There were no new distilleries in London from 1820-2009. The founders of Sipsmiths had a desperate passion to make gin and embarked on a 2 year process to change the law. They opened the new distillery on 14th May and with this the opportunity for for small batch production for artisan distillers. With adventurous mixes of botanicals and a watchful eye over quality we are currently in the throws of a revolution and I, for one, am very happy to be here in this part of it’s rich history.
I’m sure it goes without saying, there is so much more to the story than this. I’ll be sure to be posting snippets of history here and there to add to this rather colourful tapestry.