This article is a particularly special one for me.
I’m an avid reader. I’m sorry if I’ve told you that before. George Orwell’s 1984 is one of my favourite books. I was born in 1984 and I’m fascinated with the various distopian futures we could be heading towards. When I first read it, I felt like it gave some substance to my concerns with society. I felt the same overwhelming connection and understanding than I did when I read Douglas Coupland’s Generation X. It equally gave me the same cold shiver as did Auldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s a very special piece of work indeed.
I love some of the stories that I find in gins. Many gins in recent years have been intrinsically linked to a local story or some sort of history and this is one of the things that has kept gin so close to my heart. Imagine my delight when I first saw Victory gin, a gin taken straight out of the pages of my beloved 1984. A gin that had be handled with the clever amount of creativity and consideration required to take it from a proletariat symbol of totalitarianism, to a class act, totally becoming in cosmopolitan London.
Husband and wife team Max and Máire have not missed a trick. Their processes are focused on conserving energy and reducing waste. Their simplistic, modern labelling is a bold statement. The convenient, recyclable eco pouches, which are available in two sizes, from the 2.1L to 20 litres in size (count me in). Everything about their presentation has been exact for survival out there in the heavily populated gin society. I’ve been intrigued from the get go and finally I’ve got my grubby prole mitts on some.
And, I’ve been very lucky as I was sent a collection of the pouches, including the vodka, gin, bitter and Negroni. They arrived in a cardboard box, with a faint stamp saying ‘Take Victory’. Everything about the presentation is spot on. “Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.”
It was important to try the vodka first. Being the base of the other drinks, it gives a good ground level understanding of the foundation of flavours. The vodka was clean and strong. I was amazed to discover that the vodka base is a little different to most. Victory have set up a partnership with a chap called Rob Dunne, who is the Director of coffee at Old Spike Roastery and Co-Founder of Dunnefrankowski Creative Coffee Consultancy. Rob ethically sources seasonal, unroasted green coffee beans, which form the base of this fantastic spirit. Now, don’t fall into the trap of thinking this vodka will taste like coffee. The flavour really is very fresh, with a savoury nature. I had a simple serving of soda water and lemon. I rarely drink vodka and soda, but I found the flavour incredibly palatable and this simple serving let the vodka do the work. It was really rather lovely.
The gin is naturally made with the vodka base and kept to a classic recipe, other than the addition of Chestnut, which is a delightfully thoughtful nod to the book. You get an extra 10 points if you know where. “Under the spreading Chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me.” It’s fresh and confident and really, everything that I had hoped it would be. There’s a beautiful play between the woody notes of the chestnut and the warm spice of cardamon. They sit just behind a fantastically sturdy level of juniper and are a beautiful accent. It’s a subtle yet ingenious twist on a classic, well built gin. A classic gin is something to be respected. I’m partial to a bit of experimentation, but we live in times where gin is in a battle to reclaim it’s identity. Gins like this are such a good example of how you can put your unique twist on it whilst still respecting the spirit.
It wasn’t long before I had a craving for the Negroni. I’m quite partial to a Negroni. It’s a solid, stand on your own two legs kind of cocktail and it has to be done right. All those strong flavours battling it out in a glass need precise levels to reach the harmonious taste of a good Negroni. The Victory Negroni was wonderful. There was a great balance of flavour, a sharp woody edge and a certain volume to the flavour that brings an indulgence to the simplistic nature of the branding.
The bitters are a lovely little counterpart allowing a bit of creativity at home. Aperitvio culture, which was based in Italy, has for many years been providing a wide range of tart, red wine or spirit based aperitifs, originally drank to help stimulate the appetite. From my experience, I see these being mostly used as a valuable ingredient in many cocktails, such as the Negroni, although the Victory literature also suggests a serving of ice, tonic and lemon. I tried it and I may now be drinking bitter with tonic from now on.
I love this gin. I love every detail of it’s conception, manufacture, marketing and of course the products themselves. I find myself weeping “gin scented tears”. But, thankfully, not as Winston weeps. I love what Max and Máire have done with Victory gin. It was an ambitious project to take on. They’ve very conscientiously created something with real sentimentality and I think they’ve achieved something really quite exquisite. Well done and more importantly, from a fellow Orwell fan, thank you.
Friday 24th February, I went on a lovely jolly up to London with the illustrious David T Smith and delightful Cherry Constable, in order to research for a new book. It’s a hard life, I tell you.
First up was the monumental Sipsmith Distillery. Now any discerning gin drinking will know the importance of Sipsmith. Back in 2009 they successfully completed a court process to allow small batch distillation again and set up the first distillery in London for approximately 200 years. Due to this, they are arguably the forefathers of the ‘glorious’ revolution we have been experiencing the last few years. They are essentially the gardener who pulled up the paving slabs and let the flowers grow.
With this in mind, you can perhaps understand my overwhelming excitement at visiting their distillery with new bar. It’s an interesting thing, discovering where the magic happens. The entrance to the distillery is purely functional, looking more like a garage for your MOT than one of the most successful and established gins in the artisanal range. As soon as we get inside however, it is apparent that the humble exterior is concealing all sorts of delightful surprises. A beautiful copper bar sits along the right hand wall with members of staff to run through the gins and give the all important tastings.
We were lucky enough to have a tasting session with the man himself, Master Distiller, Jared Brown. We began with their sipping vodka, the 40% spirit used to make the gin. The taste is sublimely smooth and sets a good standard for the quality and flavour of the gin. ‘Sipping vodka’ is an extremely adequate name.
We slowly worked through the range. Beginning with the London Dry a classic soft pine, sweet citrus “dry meadow flower warm spice, lime grass with pepper in the long finish”. During distillation a narrow heart is collected and there are differing opinions on filtering, Jared putting forward the good point that filtering can remove qualities as well as impurities. When it comes to the recipe they had a mission: “In the absence of a bench mark we set out to create a bench mark, a dry gin made in London”.
The tasting session was full of really delicious and interesting and information on the distillation process. or example during the production of the Lemon Drizzle, fresh fruit was used plus hand squeezed peel. That’s a lot of work and a lot of love in every bottle. I thought that it tasted good, and now I know why.
We also tried the VJOP (Very, Junipery Over proof), London Cup (a punch using the London Dry) and the Sloe, all fabulous gins indeed. The wall to the left of the bar is covered with large round bottles of experimental flavours. It’s quite clear that Sipsmith do strive to create spirits of quality with a specific, almost scientific approach but that creativity is still thriving. I’d definitely recommend a visit there. It’s a fantastic place and the people are lovely. Well done guys and girls!
Feeling considerably light headed, we then moved on to ‘The Distillery’, the Portobello Road Distillery with Gintonica bar and hotel. What a beautiful place that is and a fantastic idea to boot. The decor is gorgeous with deep blues and greens on the walls with huge sash windows giving a beautiful sense of decadence to the building. There was something romantic about it, as if it had the capacity to transport us back in time to the days of the true gin palaces. It really is a lovely place.
The Gintonica Bar is equally special. We were lucky enough to meet James, who is responsible for writing the cocktail menu, a fantastic twist on the growing popularity of Spanish serve gin and tonic in copa glasses, a halfway house between the gin and tonic and the cocktail. There were some fantastic options, my favourite being one including Nordes Atlantic Galician Gin with hibiscus, orange and ginger.
Portobello Road have also been experimental with their flavours. I was lucky enough to try their ‘Butter Gin’, the sweetness was strong and very nice, making this a prime base to use with cocktails holding any sort of peanut butter or chocolate flavours. They also produce a ‘Director’s Cut’, utilising the unusual botanical of late season English Asparagus. The flavour is wonderful and very unusual.
Finally getting to visit the Sipsmith Distillery was a fantastic experience and one I’ve been waiting patiently for, for so long now. It feels ever so good to finally tick it off my list! As for the Portobello Road Gin Hotel, what a beautiful building. Their Gintonica Bar is 100% worth a visit. Lots of interesting gins as well as there own variations and their cocktail menu is gorgeous. Thank you for having us!
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.
Paul Bower, the creator of the locally renowned Twisted Nose was the first distiller I had the joy and good fortune to meet. Not only was he a gentleman, he was also to keen to tell the secrets of a gin that continues to grow in popularity. Produced locally in Winchester, Twisted Nose is an ode to the surrounding area. The trademark peppery watercress and lavender have been grown locally for centuries (the name Twisted Nose itself comes from Nasturtium – Latin for watercress). Keeping defining notes in the recipe to local ingredients was an intentional move from Paul, who insists that the best gins come with their own story, and a bit of history. His passion is apparent in his words and his obvious enthusiasm in his craft. Bringing along his first copper pot still, there is a certain sense of well earnt pride in what he’s established. The years of experimenting with flavours and timings are starting to pay off. Having a new premises on the horizon and with business booming, he hasnt let it go to his head and still personally distills each and every batch to determine where the best hearts are and he sets his standards high. “Yes” he acknowledges, ‘”I still take extreme care with each distillation”. Meeting him was a true eye opener to my early days of gin knowledge, as he had also brought along a small kilner jar of each of the botanicals he uses so we could identify the individual scents. This was a huge stepping stone in my understanding of each botanical and what it delivers to the overall ‘gin flavour’ we know and love. Juniper, citrus peel (Paul chooses grapefruit to give a different twist), cassia, fennel and with angelica and oris root to seal it, all became definable and I’ve ever since been able to pick those flavours out of any gins I try, and understand how the varying intensities affect each flavour.
The success of his gin has also allowed him to explore new territories. He let us sample his new sloe gin, with a more fresh and natural approach to flavour than what we taste in the sweeter existing varieties. Next was an incredibly flavourful wasabi vodka (a must for any bloody mary) and a remarkable and very different vermouth. A strong hit of wormwood gives this a beautifully earthy and rustic taste and I immediately wonder what a gin martini would be like. There is also a barrel aged gin, for those after something a little special. His knowledge is astute and the gin is aged in German oak barrels for several weeks. The choice of barrel is a reference to those widely used to transport gin in days gone by and the delivered flavour is wholesome and honest. There is most certainly a sincerity in natural flavour that is dazzling but humble and this style is really what makes his range stand out. The vermouth is definitely on my wishlist (It’s my birthday in August, in case you were wondering Paul).
Now I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re feeling thirsty. If you want any info on the Twisted Nose range (including where to find it), you can find out more at the website here and if you’re local to Portsmouth, why not pop into Gin and Olive for a quick tipple. Thank you Paul for creating a fabulous range of drinks, for putting your heart and soul in to such a dedicated task and for allowing my realising gin fanatics would love to read about distillers such as yourself. Good luck with the move! Can’t wait to see what you’ve got lined up next!
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.