Sunday 2nd October marked the first of a new run of Gin Tasting Evenings to happen at the Wine Vaults, Portsmouth. Brainchild of Business woman Tracie Sharp, they are also to be joined by brandy and even whisky tasting evenings later on. Well worth keeping an eye on.
Tracie runs ‘Your Platinum Events’ and has already been putting on occasions such as Ascot and Goodwood trips. She’s a fantastically bubbly and honest character. Incredibly determined and hardworking, she has already won awards for her efforts, Business Woman of the Year 2015 and Social Enterprise Business Woman 2015. She doesn’t do things by halves.
Held upstairs in the wonderfully homely setting, the long table managed to accommodate 20 people. On arrival there were goody bags on the chairs waiting for us, each containing miniature Hendricks, Fever Tree Tonic and Juniper berries amongst other things. What with the Williams Chase Sloe and Prosecco cocktail on arrival, nibbles on the table and 6 gins on the menu it was already shaping up to be very good value for the £25 ticket.
Once everybody was arrived and seated the festivities got under way. Helen Stevens, the General Manager of the Wine Vaults, led the evening with a talk about gin in general and then a guide through each one. We started with Sipsmith, with her telling us a little bit about Sipsmiths themselves, before our assistant put one down in front of each of us.
In front of us were trays with different botanical garnishes. Lot of options including the standard lemon and lime as well as more exotic ginger and rose petals. There were also different tonic options, standard, elderflower and rose lemonade.
The name of the game was to mix and match, initially trying the straight gin to talk amongst us and work out the base flavours. From that we then added ice and our choice of tonic and garnish. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but it was fun and all part of the learning process. In all fairness I’m pretty sure the only wastage was a nice lady next to me choosing to add wasabi peas to one of her creations. Helen was careful to confirm the base notes with us before we added the extras so we had something to go on.
We worked through Sipsmith, Ophir, Gin Mare, Monkey 47, William Chase Extra Dry and Tanquery Ten, with intervals after each two. As the night went on, everybody naturally limbered up and became more talkative. The group were very social and I believe are all planning to return. There were some nice twists and I learnt quite a lot. For example, Monkey 47 going with tarragon. That is a new and lovely thing for me.
Finally, things got serious with the surprise quiz. 10 Questions on what we had learnt that evening and a bottle of Hendricks was at stake. Not having one in my collection (shame on me, I know) gave me sweaty palms. Competition was tight though and it seemed that I wasn’t the only one. Four of us scored almost perfect and had to approach the front for the tie breaker question. I’m sad to say that I fell at the final hurdle but we all warmly congratulated the very happy winner.
Tracie and Helen clearly put a lot of effort into the night. It was generous, informative and really good fun. I can highly recommend it and I’ll certainly be going again.
There is another night, a special ‘Gins of the World’ edition on 6th of November. Tracie and Helen explained that they wanted to try different gins as much as possible so people could come another time and experience a new thing. This attention to detail is one of the most exciting things about these nights as I can see them growing better and better each time.
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.
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.
4 weeks ago, I drank Bombay Sapphire. Then my life changed entirely.
Having been chained to a desk in a monotonous customer service job, I received confirmation I was starting a degree in creative writing in September. The prospect of a different life dawned on me so I began hunting for bar work that would be more fun and allow part time hours when the time came. Luckily, I found a job in a new bar ‘Gin and Olive’, on Albert Road, Southsea, which is a rather quirky area and one of my favourite parts of Portsmouth. I remember contemplating that it would be interesting to learn about gin, I did drink it after all. 4 weeks ago, we opened.
I used to say ‘I loved gin’. This was a lie. I realise now that I knew nothing of gin. I had no idea of the rich historical content, the overwhelming combination of botanicals and the thought and nurturing care given by the distiller that goes into each and every bottle.
As a gin bar, we currently stock 65 gins and this is ever growing through recommendations. As a specialist bar, it is paramount to have a thorough knowledge. With the fabulous opportunity of training in this exciting industry, aided by visits to distilleries as well as visits from the distillers themselves, I have been learning in earnest. A fire in my heart has been ignited and now my world is bathed in gin.
It’s still early days, but anyone can come aboard and join me. I’ll be meeting some of the finest artisan gin craftsman of our generation. Everything I learn in history, production and consumption will be shared on here and I’ll also be writing pieces on the distillers themselves. My thinking is: It’s taken my world by storm. Who else could fall in love as I have? Not only this, but it’s a rare opportunity to share the knowledge and experience as it find it and any extra info for me would be warmly welcomed.
So, whatever clear or coloured liquid is in your glass right now, prepare to open your mind to a whole bottle of wonder as we embark to new horizons on a journey of knowledge into the incredible world of gin.