One of my greatest regrets is that I have not been to the Isles of Scilly. Still, there is plenty of time to rectify this omission. St Agnes is on the far south-westerly edge of the collection of islands off the tip of Cornwall and measures just a mile or so across. Its closest neighbour is Gugh to which it is joined by a sandy tombolo, known as the “Bar”, which is exposed at low tide. Small it may be, but St Agnes has a lot going for it, including a lighthouse, rocky outcrops on its westerly side, sheltered coves and stunning beaches and, to the south, a bracken-strewn heath.
The heath is known as Wingletang Downs, named after the “whins” of gorse and “tangs” of kelp that are found there. To complete the etymological research, down comes from an old English word meaning hill. It is these downs that have given their name to another fine gin to come out of the stable of the island’s enterprising Westward Farm. The ginaissance has spawned many a weird and wonderful name, usually the product of a crazed marketeer’s imagination, but at least Wild Wingletang Gin owes its origin to a genuine geographic feature.
The distillery is on the farm which has been in the hands of the Hicks family for generations. I have written elsewhere about the set up so I will focus on what intrigued me about this particular gin and persuaded me to lift it from the groaning shelves of Drinkfinder’s gorgeous little shop in Constantine, gorse. What Aiden Hicks and his family are trying to evoke with the gin is the aroma of gorse on a sunny day on the island. Although it flowers from November to June it is normally at its best in March and April, when it is handpicked. The gorse blossom is then distilled as a single botanical in a vacuum at a low temperature to ensure that none of the plant’s distinctive flavours are lost.
So, what exactly does the blossom of a largish, evergreen shrub bring to the party, and why is it not more commonly used as a botanical? Although gorse bushes are a common feature of British heathland, their bright yellow flowers are about 15mm and are protected by leaves which take the form of stiff green spikes. It can be a prickly business collecting them. Gorse or Ulex europaeus has been traditionally used in winemaking, the distilling in Irish whiskey, and the brewing of beers, particularly valued for the coconut-like aroma that is particularly evident when the blossom is picked on a sunny day. Some gin distillers are beginning to explore its virtues, such as in the Botanist Islay Dry and Merywen Gin.
When infusing the blossom into a spirit, there is a decision to be made; whether to remove the calyx, the hairy, yellow cover which encloses the petals. It can introduce a slightly bitter flavour to the mix. It is also advisable not to go too overboard with it, as the plant contains an alkaloid which can increase blood pressure and is poisonous in large quantities.
The bottle-shape, characteristics and labelling are identical to that which they use on their other gins, save for the fact that the gin’s name and the wax at the top of the bottle are green coloured. It does mean that if you are not familiar with the colour coding, you need to inspect the bottle carefully before making your choice. My bottle told me it was from batch number 754 and that the distiller to whom my grateful thanks goes was Mike.
Clearly, the folks at Westward Farm know what they are doing as the gorse, as well as adding a faint aroma of coconut, introduces a nuttiness to the spirit which blends well with the spiciness from the more traditional botanicals to produce an interesting variation to their Scilly Gin. It is well worth searching out.
Until the next time, cheers!