What a beautiful day for the first ever Gin Live! I do a little writing for Gin Magazine so I was keen to get along and see what one of their events was like. Held at the exquisite venue, the Royal Artillery Company, it was a wonderful addition to the already known Whisky Live. I have been twitching with anticipation the last few weeks.
The sun was out. Beautiful blue skies and a marvellous day for a jolly into London. I was overwhelmed by the building, which is essentially a castle and felt like Royalty as I entered the marquee to collect my glass.
There were several gins on show that I had not tried previously. and it very much felt like everything had been handpicked for me. The standard of everything was really high. There are so many gins to write about, so I’m going to give a quick run down of the ones I tried and leave it open for me to write a full review down line, if possible.
I started off with Brighton Gin, a firm favourite with it’s milk thistle. It was really good to see a friendly face in John of Brockmans, who I know from the Gin Festival.com days. Crafty Distillery was there with their Hill to Harbour Gin. Their beach glass style bottle is beautiful and it holds a really very stunning gin. Proudly grain to glass, they have gone to great lengths to create a very high quality spirit. After months of distilling 100s of recipes, they brought sea, forest and earth together in a truly wholesome spirit and sent samples of it to a hundred of the general public to get their opinion too. They have been very conscious about every step of producing this gin and they definitely deserve a lot of recognition for their process.
Next up Gothic Gin. Beautifully soft and named after the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona, I was delighted with it’s smoothness. It was ever such a soft gin and featuring your staple botanicals, and some more unusual ones such as eucalyptus, it was a really unusual offering.
The Gael was a wonderful find. Made in Scotland, it is essentially a genever (location aside), as it’s made with malted barley. The wholesome warmth of malt cradles the juniper in such a delightful way. The lass I spoke to was a star, really passionate and delighted to be involved, which was a testament to her Father, Nigel, the owner at Gael and a really lovely chap too. I’m hoping to do a full write up on this one soon.
Next up, Greater Than. Heralded as India’s “first craft gin”, there is a marvellous freshness, with ginger and lemongrass and a wonderful softness of chamomile, such softness as I could use it as a pillow. I was also very lucky to try a fabulous Indian export that is very difficult to source, but is imminently due, hopefully. Hapusa Gin. Absolutely gorgeous. Sublime. The purple glass of the bottle, the elegant complexity of mango and spices, of it’s a really incredible gin and fingers crossed they get it here soon as it is going to go down a storm. Thanks for bringing me in that sample What’s Katie Doing, much appreciated!
Glasgow Distillery were there showing off their Makar Gin in classic, oak aged, old tom, mulberry aged and cherry. The mulberry aged caught my eye, I’ve not seen mulberry wood being used to age gin before so I was keen to give it a try and it was delightful! It works beautifully with ginger beer and makes what tastes rather like a dark and stormy. Which doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the power of ageing gins and that’s exactly why I love them.
I had a great find when I came across Columbo 7 Gin. What a gin! Distilled using an old Sri Lankan recipe, it’s a wonderful twist on gin and a beautiful nod to history, which is what enthralled me with gin in the first place. Made with botanicals that were sourced during the Second World War, when the trade routes were closed, the recipe uses cinnamon bark, curry leaves, ginger root and coriander seeds.
Edinburgh Gin were there and I was discussing with friend and fellow blogger Gin a Ding DingGin a Ding Ding, sometimes brands get so big that you overlook them at events and tend to go for the more niche stuff. But, they have got some good stuff going on. I finally got to try the seaside gin. Coming from Portsmouth I obviously have a soft spot for the sea, and high expectations as this was one of the earlier seaside expressions from a gin. It was exactly what I hoped for. Also, the Cannonball Navy Strength is wonderful! I myself, haven’t heard navy strength gin made for sipping. What a bold move indeed! It delivered what it said. It was a wonderful drink and was just right for me as I drink a lot of neat gin, and always appreciate a navy strength, especially one that can be drunk on it’s own. Plus, a little birdy told me to keep my ears to the ground as they are releasing some new gin in the next few months. Edinburgh Gin, I’m ready!
I was getting pretty heady by now, as you can imagine! So, I went to have some food. The eating experience was really quite wonderful. A hot buffet serving beef stroganoff. Although I was on my own at this point I found some nice people to sit with and talk to. And, sitting in rows like that in such an elegant room was really quite magical.
Before I left I thought it only fair to try some whisky. I slipped into the whisky room and Oohlala, what a great experience! I do not know enough about whisky. I need to know more. There were some fantastic spirits there. Ben Nevis Distillery offering some fine tipples and That Boutique-y Whisky Company blowing me away with a Single Malt Irish Whisky, the label nodding to Father Ted’s ‘My Lovely Horse’.
I considered staying for one more, until I caught my glass and it fell and broke on the floor. Within moments 3 staff where there cleaning it and I suddenly felt rather embarrassed. My time had come. I was woozy and had to get off to visit a friend. So, I scurried out of there quick sharp and into London like the giddy rat I was. What a great day. Bring on next year!
Nestled in the countryside of Shipton-on-Stour is a tiny and unassuming property, the Cotswolds Distillery. It was so sweetly hidden in the rolling hills and golden fields that only those with intention could find it. And what a reward for those who do, as these quiet buildings are hiding something truly magical.
I first met Jack Barnard of Cotswolds Distillery at one of Gin Festival.com‘s Festivals in Bristol. Now, one of the perks of my job as a Brand Representative for Tinker is that I get to work these festivals and rub shoulders with other gins, terrible stuff, I tell you…with a wink and a smile. I spent a little time talking to Jack and fell in love with their 1616, (more on that later), which had me quickly asking to visit and write up on them. It’s a fantastic drink, but I didn’t realise quite how much they had going on there.
We begin our story with Dan Szor, a New Yorker that had moved to London. The Cotswolds were a regular holiday away from the city. He decided to make the move and being a whisky fan, he looked into setting up a distillery. I have to say, I made one trip to that place and I can see how he fell for it. It is utterly stunning, and this beauty has become the ideology behind their range of spirits in everything between the initial concept to the final product.
Dan brought the two barn buildings and warehouse and set about renovating them. The first now houses the visitors centre and shop, the second is where every part of the production process happens and there’s also a warehouse housing one cask from each batch of malt spirit for them to check regularly. The rest lie in a specialist warehouse built next to the river Mersey. The whisky is ready soon, the 7th October, however the first batch is already sold out. Having tried the malt spirit, I’d say its a sound investment as it’s looking very promising that they’ll have created something very special. And, we need to thank this aging process, as the spirits they’ve created in the meantime are very special too. Unintentional and incredible, humble yet wildly spectacular.
To begin the tour we were sat in a room to watch a brief video giving an introduction to the distillery. The video opens with the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar and panning shots of the hedgerows and wildlife. The video covers the contributing companies including Warminster Maltings who supply the barley to make the Cotswolds malt spirit, and are local to the Cotswolds. There is a focus on the whisky as this was Dan’s primary intention however, it was the beginning of a path into lots of different spirits, included of course, the glorious gin.
As we find with some distillers, they distill a malt spirit but then start looking into other spirits while waiting for the aging process to make it whisky. Being that gin doesn’t require this aging process, many distilleries then turn to gin to keep “the lights on” until the whisky is ready. I am truly thankful that this is the case, as this has led to the production of some fantastic gins and other spirits to boot.
With Cotswolds, they wanted to create a classic London Dry “a gin that could stand up to tonic”. They began by distilling some 150 botanicals to create what they call ‘The Library’. Three distillers then set about creating a gin and they were blind tasted to chose a winner. The idea with the gin, as with the whole range of spirits, is that they are a taste of the Cotswolds, they evoke the peaceful countryside and the rich nature surrounding the distillery. Quality of process was paramount to evoke the status of the renowned landscape.
The botanicals in the Cotswold Dry are a heady mix with key botanicals lavender, bay leaves and pepper. Fresh zest of grapefruit and lime are used, requiring regular hand peeling as mechanical peeling includes the piff which gives the gin a bitter taste. When they originally thought up this plan they were making one batch every six weeks. Now however, they make two a day, every day. Has this changed their process? Of course not. This is a major part of the gins flavour and mouthfeel, so as Distiller Zoe Rutherford puts it “We’ve got to deal with it now”. This is a prime example of their attention to detail and their ‘roll the gloves’ up attitude to hard work.
The process of distillation is precise. The base botanicals juniper, coriander and angelica go in to the 96.3% NGS (Neutral Grain Spirit) overnight for 12 hours before the final 6 are added the next day before distillation. The still is steam powered and heats the mixture to temperatures under 100 degrees but above 78.5 as this is point in which alcohol evaporates leaving the water. They heat it slowly meaning a longer and more gentle distillation with 6-7 hours of heat. For each distillation they get 150L of hearts at 83% and they the leave this to rest for 5 days before watering down to the required ABV and bottling. As Zoe explains, its important to let all the flavours bind. “When we cook a stew or a curry it always tastes better the day after”. They’re quite happy to give the patience required to make a higher quality product. Even so, including the rest period the whole process of making a batch, from start to finish is still just a week, which in relation to the whisky, makes the gin a very practical staple.
And, the gin is doing very well. Since it’s launch in 2014 it’s won various awards, including the IWSC Silver in 2015 and the World Gins for Best London Dry in 2016. It’s now being stocked in Selfridges, and now in Waitrose’s around the local area. It’s also being exported to 23 countries around the world, which is impressive stuff for such a short amount of time. However, despite how far the gin is reaching, Zoe admits they “couldn’t have done” it without local support and that their core focus is still their backyard. The distillery prides itself on keeping business as local as possible and for operating in the most eco-friendly way. For example, all the waste, the heads and tails that come off each distillation get put into an effluent tank and taken to a local anaerobic digestion plant that turns it into bio gas.
After a look at the whisky process we are taken through to the warehouse by Ellie. We learnt some very interesting facts here. For example, the hotter the whisky is in the barrel, the quicker it ages (which makes sense) however more is lost to the normal 2% angels share, hence they are aged slowly at a lower temperature. The barrels are a mixture of American oak bourbon barrels from companies like Woodford Reserve and Jim Beam, giving warm vanilla tones and wine casks. For other projects a collection of wine casks, sherry butts and port barrels amongst other interesting casks.
Then, the exciting part. The tasting room. The tasting room is welcoming, a cosy front room, complete with log fire, sofas, tables and chairs and its own corner barn. There wasn’t one thing even slightly ‘business’ about this space. It was so comfortable and homely and had me immediately wondering how amazing it must be around Christmas. This for me, and most likely the others on the tour, was the grand finale. Because one of my favourite things about this distillery is the diversity of the other spirits that they produce. All of the other valuables that have come from their natural creativity and restless attention to detail.
First up the Dry. Dry on the nose with lavender, peppercorn and lime, there is a high quantity of a high quality botanicals, around 10 times more than some distillers. In tasting I found the lavender so well balanced with the lime and peppercorn dancing at the end. With ice it becomes creamy, the citrus oils giving a thicker feel and a louche, an effect where the gin becomes slightly cloudy and iridescent in colour. This generally happens when there’s a lot of citrus oil in the gin and it reacts with water. Louching has has mixed reviews in the past and rather than shy from this, Cotswolds are very proud of their ‘cloudy gin’. I’m really behind them looking to change this opinion to be more positive. I love the citrus flavour, you can taste the freshness and hard work put into hand peeling all of the fruit. If this comes as a slightly cloudy gin then I’ll take my gin cloudy. More information on the technicalities of louching can be found on their website here. Recommended serve of this is with grapefruit and a bay leaf.
Secondly the 1616. The 1616 is what made me fall in love with them from the start. It’s essentially a Genever, a malt based spirit with juniper, but being a locally protected term they still refer to it as gin. Cask aged in specially toasted and recharred wine casks, it’s a truly fabulous drink and with the addition of ginger beer it sets ablaze, a glorious taste alluding to hot cross buns. As far as I’m concerned, this drink is a triumph. A tribute to William Shakespeare on the 400th Anniversary of his death, their malt spirit is re-distilled with juniper, coriander, cassia, nutmeg and orange peel amongst other secret ingredients before going into the casks to mellow. This is one exquisite libation. As Shakespeare wrote in the Merry Wives of Windsor “Come, gentlemen, I hope we shall drink down all unkindness”.
They’ve made a summer cup. I tried this with ginger and it was a beautiful ode to the old English tradition. Made using their dry, homemade Vermouth a splash or Triple Sec and their Spirited Sherry, it’s just gorgeous. They’ve made some experimental gins, the Countess Grey Gin and Bahorat with cardomen chili, cuman and black pepper, a gin that starts with sweet fruits moving on a gentle spice.
Then we have the other drinks. There’s a cream liqueur, which I shall be using to make the most delicious cheesecake. There’s an absinthe, modelled on a 19th century recipe. Absinthe is an interesting drink, botanicals like wormwood are believed to hold the power to give the drinker hallucinations. Don’t panic, they’ve tried and tested this and have concluded that you would need to consume 20-30 glasses of absinthe to feel this effect and at 60% it’s highly likely that would hit you first. There’s a gorgeous and warming apple brandy and my favourite of the off shots, the Spirited Sherry. They first got the idea from the Sherry-seasoned barrels for maturing the whisky. They left Dan pondering that “if sherried whisky tastes great, then so should whiskied sherry.” A blend of Spanish Olorosso and Pedro Ximenez are used along with the single Malt spirit. This is on my Christmas list for sure. If you could keep a note of that, Jack and Zoe, I’d really appreciate it.
Just in case this has wet your appetite somewhat, all of the delightful libations can be purchased through the Cotswold Distillery’s online shop, here.
When I write, I like to go into detail. And, the Cotswolds Distillery have so much detail, it’s almost easy to get lost in it. For this reason, this article needs a sum up, a conclusion at the end. My conclusion is this: that The Cotswolds Distillery has my respect. It’s a distillery that doesn’t cut corners, that tirelessly works to produce spirits to shine as a testament to their beloved local area, from the hard work of farmers plowing the fields of golden corn, to the beauty of the sunset after the day of work, to the light fragrances and soft sounds of wildlife that drift around in the evening; to the Cotswolds themselves. Their creativity has produced a large and varied range of spirits, wild and free, that still share a similar nature, a certain magic that can be found there and only there. And as harvest season is upon us, I raise a glass to everyone who works those beautiful fields and those whose imagination allows me to drink such an evocative thing and to imagine I’m sat amongst those fields myself.
Many thanks to Jack Barnard and Zoe Rutherford for hosting, for your assistance and the photos – courtesy of Cotswold Distillery.
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.
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.