Darnley’s Original London Dry Gin

The ginaissance demands that each distiller has a story to tell and the one behind Darnley’s Original London Dry Gin is rooted in Scottish history. The Wemyss family, pronounced Weems for those who are baffled by the vagaries of the pronunciation of the English language, have lived in Wemyss Castle, perched on the sea cliffs on the Fife coast of Scotland for centuries. One of the castle’s claims to fame was that it was out of one of the castle’s windows that Lord Darnley, after whom this gin is named, first set eyes on Mary Queen of Scots in 1565, the start of an explosive relationship.

William Wemyss, the founder, has based the distillery in the nearby village of Kingsbarns, using a once derelict farm cottage next to the whisky distillery. In the gardens surrounding what is now known as the Darnley’s Gin Cottage they grow as many botanicals as the vicissitudes of the Scottish climate allow them to. Other botanicals are foraged locally, and the more exotic are sourced from responsible growers from around the world. They use a neutral grain spirit and pure Scottish water and for the Original gin just six botanicals – Juniper, coriander, angelica, elderflower, lemon and orris which are steeped in the base spirit, allowing the essential oils and flavours to be released before distillation. For the distillation process they use a 350 litre copper pot still known as Dorothy.

There is very much a local, sustainable vibe about the gin, enhanced by a rather impressive initiative that they launched recently. As part of Darnley’s sustainability strategy, they have launched a set of recyclable gin pouches, made from plastic material (grade 7), which is not only recycled but also weighs more than 50% less than a glass bottle to tranport. Customers are encouraged to order a refill in a pouch, which can be returned free of charge, and decant the gin into their original bottle. What a great idea! There is even a discount if you purchase your top up this way, although, curiously, the post and package charge is the same. You cannot win them all!

The bottle itself is made of clear glass, looks like a circular, dumpy wine bottle with rounded shoulders leading to a long neck and a wooden cap with a synthetic stopper. It is rather akin to Sipsmith’s in size and shape. The labelling makes attractive use of illustrations of botanicals and a mustard colour and makes play of its small batch and handcrafted status. The label on the back tells me that it is “a classic juniper-led gin that is smooth and elegant with fresh citrus and floral flavour”.

On the nose there is an enticing mix of pine, elderflower, and floral notes, while in the mouth, the crystal-clear spirit, which has an ABV of 40%, gives the drinker an initial hit of elderflower and citrus before the juniper and a rather appealing mellow spice kick in. The aftertaste is long and dry with the elderflower predominant.

For me it is very much at the floral end of the London Dry Gin, nothing wrong in that, but the heavy hit of juniper that is synonymous with the style is more muted, perhaps more Mary Queen of Scots than Lord Darnley. It makes for a very refreshing drink, which with an ABV of 40% is perfect for sipping on a summer’s evening. Care should be taken with the tonic chosen to accompany it as one that is too sweet can upset the taste completely.       

Until the next time, cheers!

The Two Tickets Puzzle

A review of The Two Tickets Puzzle by J J Connington

Connington, the nom de plume of chemistry professor, Alfred Stewart, took the bold step of “retiring” his normal police sleuth, Sir Clinton Driffield, in 1929 and his next two books featured Superintendent Ross, an altogether different character. The Two Tickets Puzzle, originally published in 1930, is the second and last of the short-lived Ross series. Ross is a much drier, more diligent detective, not as spiky or acerbic as Driffield and these stories lack the repartee and humour that Driffield and his Watson, “Squire” Wendover, brought to the stories. Recognising that there was a missing spark, Connington quickly ditched Ross and restored Driffield.

The set up for this story is about as conventional as you can get, a murder in a railway carriage. Preston, a wealthy manufacturer, is a man of habit. He does the same things at the same time, insisting every Friday morning on taking the firm’s wages in cash on the train to his nearby factory, despite warnings that this makes him a sitting target. When his body is discovered under the seat of a first-class compartment, the attaché case with the money is nowhere to be found.

Preston takes the 10:35 train from Horston. It is a stopping service but there are a couple of stretches in the journey that would give a determined criminal enough time to carry out the murder and make their escape at one of the following stations. Superintendents Campden and Ross initially look at the case, but because the murder almost certainly took place in his patch Ross takes over. The autopsy reveals one curious feature, Preston was shot with bullets of different calibres.

The story quickly descends into Wills Croftsian territory with detailed scrutiny of railway timetables, the identification of all the passengers who used the train, the checking of their stories and alibis and the interviewing of the principal suspects. These include Preston’s doctor, rumoured to be having an affair with the industrialist’s wife, and a disgruntled former employee who is found in possession of some of Preston’s bank notes. At the same time the police are bothered by a couple of seemingly trivial cases, the theft of a lawyer’s car and the shooting of a prize ram, the significance of which, Bush-like, become apparent as the story ambles towards its denouement.

There are some redeeming features. Connington plants his clues with fairness and precision, taking the reader along with him, but also cannot resist turning the plot on its head so that the reader’s preconception of who are the good guys and the baddies is challenged. Once the storyline had settled down and most of the irrelevancies had been disposed of, the culprit was fairly easy to spot and, frankly, the motivation was rather thin, only delaying the inevitable until the beneficiary reached their majority.   

Ross engages in some analysis of typescript which helps him cement his suspicions, although Connington handles this aspect much more adroitly in The Sweepstake Murders which he wrote the following year, and the two tickets are train tickets, found in a suit, without which the murderer’s plans could not have been pulled off.

What is a distinctly one-paced police procedural, more one calling at all stations than an express, is livened up towards the end with a thrilling car chase which produces an explosive finale. Connington, through Ross, takes time to explain how Ross got on to the culprit and how all the clues hung together, and it all makes sense, leaving no loose ends. However, there is something cold and calculated about this book, lacking the vital spark that marks out Connington at his best.

Five To Five

A review of Five to Five by Dorothy Erskine Muir

I am going through a phase of sampling authors from the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction who are new to me. Dorothy Erskine Muir is the latest to fall into this category. Astonishingly, she was one of seventeen children sired by John Sheepshanks, Bishop of Norwich. She worked as an academic tutor but started writing professionally, mainly historical non-fiction, to supplement her income following the unexpected death of her husband. Among her published works, though, were three murder mysteries, of which this is the second, originally issued in 1934, and now plucked out of undeserved obscurity by the enterprising Moonstone Press.

Perhaps because of her interest in history, Erskine Muir chose to base her murder mysteries around examples of true crimes. Five to Five takes as its premise the notorious murder of a wealthy 82-year-old woman, Marion Gilchrist, who was murdered on December 21, 1908, bludgeoned to death, after her maidservant had left the flat in Glasgow to do some errands. Miss Gilchrist obviously knew her attacker as there was no evidence of forced entry. From her extensive jewellery collection, only one large diamond brooch was found to be missing.

The police arrested Oscar Slater and on rather flimsy evidence was found guilty in 1909 of Gilchrist’s murder and sentenced to hang, although it was later commuted to imprisonment. He was eventually released after several enquiries and much campaigning on his behalf by, amongst others, Conan Doyle, after serving nineteen years of hard labour. It was one of Scotland’s most egregious miscarriages of justice.

Erskine Muir chose to revisit the case, with different characters and essay a cogent and plausible solution to the case. Her Miss Gilchrist is a rather unpleasant, miserly old man, Simon Ewing, who has an extensive collection of jade and jewellery. As is the wont of these characters, he is unwilling to help his impecunious relatives. When he is left in his flat unattended, he is bludgeoned to death.

In the flat below, there is a family gathering and when they hear the crash, a couple go upstairs to investigate and a stranger passes them on the stairs making their way to the exit. Was this the murderer? Did they really not recognise him? All that was missing were two rings from Ewing’s fingers and one piece of diamond jewellery.

The task of discovering what had happened to Ewing and why falls to Detective Inspector Woods, who performs his duties diligently and with some compassion. As the title suggests, much of the investigation focuses on who was where and at what time and the accuracy or otherwise of various timepieces which the suspects used to vouch for their alibis. Inevitably, once Woods realises that they are not all telling the same time he begins to make some progress, but it takes a second murder for the pieces to fall into place.

Erskine Muir writes with verve, varies the focal point of the narrative with some aplomb, develops her characters so that they are more than ciphers, and does a fine job of keeping the momentum going, when in less skilled hands the establishing and dismantling of alibis can become a tad wearisome. Her solution is elegant with a twist that many readers, this one included, might not have seen coming and, unlike in the Slater case, justice is seen to be done.

Although the book will not be up there amongst the genre’s true classics, I enjoyed it and will read her other two novels.

Fern Lore

Dense stands of Britain’s most common fern, Pteridium aquilinum, bracken, carpet the floor of the woodlands near where I live, marking the progress of the year. Their tightly curled fronds appear in spring, slowly but inexorably unfurling into three large, triangular fronds which wave and susurrate in the summer breeze before dying back in the autumn to leave a rusty brown matting.

Sculptural, dramatic, primordial they may be, but the fronds of bracken are also poisonous, packed full of Ptaquiloside, up to 0.8 percent of their dry weight some studies suggest, which can cause haemorrhagic disease and bright blindness in livestock and oesophageal and gastric cancer in humans. The Koreans, though, have been able to make gosari, bracken, a principal ingredient in bibimbap, a classic and delicious staple of their cuisine, by simply boiling the fronds which breaks down the toxins.

Bracken has long been a source of fascination. The stem, when sliced at an angle, reveals a pattern, known as the devil’s hoof in Scotland, but which many saw as representing the Greek letter chi, the initial of Christ. From this sprang the belief that it provided protection. Waving a frond in front of a witch was enough to ward off her spells and send werewolves and other evil spirits packing. In Brittany and Normandy shepherds used crosses woven from ferns to safeguard themselves and their flocks while in Slavic countries, to drive away Rusalki, freshwater sirens with a penchant for drowning mortals, bathers entwined ferns into their hair before taking a plunge into a lake.

And how did the fern, which has no discernible flower or seed, propagate itself? After all, as the French botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, wrote in 1694, “the views of those who believe all plants have seeds are founded on very reasonable conjectures”. As plants, ferns must have flowers and seeds. The only logical conclusion was that they bloomed and produce their seeds when no one was around to see them.

It was believed that what the pastoral poet, William Browne, described as the “wondrous one-night seeding ferne” in Britannia’s Pastorals (1613) took place on the stroke of midnight on Midsummer’s Eve or St John’s Eve. Conveniently, it was not only the shortest night of the year but also the exact moment that John the Baptist was said to have been born. The fern would produce a bright red flower that lit up the woods only to be immediately snatched by the devil.

Others thought it was blue, always tricky to be sure when you have never seen it, while in Polish folklore the bloom would last until the first cockerel had crowed in the morning. According to some traditions, those lucky enough to find fern seeds would have all their wishes come true, while in England their possession brought success in love. Youths would go to Boggart Hole Clough near Manchester in search of the “seeds of St John’s fern on the Eve of St John’s Day” to win the hearts of those maidens who had previously spurned their advances.

Ban Of The Week

It might seem a drop in the ocean but having a pee in the sea off Vigo, the Galician seaside resort in northern Spain, could land you in hot water.

The council have just passed a byelaw that explicitly states that anyone caught urinating “in the sea or on the beach” could be subject to a fine of up to €750, declaring the practice to be a hygiene and sanitary risk as well as having the potential to affect the local wildlife. Vigo joins Portugal and parts of Thailand in banning the practice.

The Vigan council are installing more public toilets to meet demand during the peak tourist season but are remaining tight-lipped as to how they propose to impose the ban, leading some to speculate that it is more froth than substance.