Gin O’Clock – Part Ninety Three

The ginaissance has spawned so many types and styles of gin that it is easy to forget that there was a time, not too long ago, that a gin and tonic, for most of us, was a Gordon’s with lashings of sweet Schweppes tonic. For me the first drink that woke me up to the realisation that this was not the be-all and end-all of the gin world was Bombay Sapphire from the Bacardi stable.

Distilled at the Laverstoke Mill in Hampshire, it had a very distinctive look and taste. The bottle eschewed the traditional dark green colour for a pale blue, reminiscent of a sapphire, and was tall and slim. It was what was inside it that was the revelation, a taste so different that it prompted one to question whether it was really gin. The ten botanicals – juniper, coriander seeds, angelica root, liquorice, Italian orris, cassia bark, Spanish almonds, cubeb berries, lemon peel, and grains of Paradise – distilled using a vapour infusion method, made for a heady mix.

To the nose the aroma was an inviting mix of juniper, pepper and slight floral tones. In the mouth, what initially started off as a sweet drink soon developed a bit of a kick with the juniper and spices coming to the fore before leaving a long-lasting aftertaste. As I became more experienced with gins, I realised that the juniper was a little too subdued for my taste, the peppers and spices ruling the roost, but at the time it was a truly gobsmacking taste.

Owned by Bacardi, Bombay Sapphire could never claim the moral high ground of a small independent distiller battling against the odds to establish their product, tax changes to encourage small producers and the initial success of Sipsmith paved the way, but it is undeniable that it did much of the heavy lifting to convince the drinking public that there was something beyond the gin they had been drinking for decades.

One of the recent additions to the Bombay Sapphire stable is their Limited Edition No 1 English Estate London Dry Gin, launched in March 2019. Judging by its name, a bit of a mouthful, there are more to come. It also poses the question: Just what is limited about it, as I have seen it all over the place? It comes in a nice presentation box, shades of blue with a floral, botanical design and with the trademark picture of Queen Victoria. According to the blurb, it “has been designed to capture the essence of the English Garden. A refreshingly unique gin of true English provenance”. The only way to test the claim is to open the bottle.

The bottle has the thirteen botanicals that go into the mix pictured on the side of the bottle, which, apart from a change of labelling, is not dissimilar from the original. As, indeed, are the botanicals save for the addition of an additional three – Pennyroyal mint, rosehip, and hazelnut. It is these three which make the crucial difference and give, at least in theory, the English garden feel.

With an ABV of 41% it is slightly stronger than the original (40%), its aroma has an added sensation, a slight nuttiness pervading the smell. In the mouth the crystal-clear spirit has that Juniper and spicy feel you would associate with Bombay Sapphire but there are also some floral elements in evidence, a faint nuttiness and mint. Rather than overpowering the drink, the mint is subtly integrated. It is there but not dominant. The aftertaste is dry and peppery with floral elements in attendance.

As a gin it does not deviate too much from the expectation of a Bombay Sapphire, that distinctly mix of juniper and spice, but the new botanicals have toned it down a bit. A summer drink, for sure, and perfectly acceptable but are the new botanicals little more than a marketing gimmick? I’m not sure and I was left with the feeling that there are some things left well alone.

Until the next time, cheers!

Gin O’Clock – Part Ninety Two

Italy is considered to be the birthplace of gin, courtesy of some monks on the Salerno coast who came up with the idea in the 11th century. It is probably to my eternal shame since I started my exploration of the ginaissance that I had not, at least as far as my alcohol-sozzled brain will allow me to recollect, sampled the Italian twist of my favourite spirit. The opportunity to redress this glaring omission came this Christmas with a gift of a bottle of Malfy Gin Rosa.

Malfy Gin is made by Torino Distillati which, as its name suggests, is based on the outskirts of Turin in an area better known for its production of quality liqueurs such as vermouth. Founded in 1906 the distillery was acquired by Seagrams in the 1960s but regained its independence after a management buy-out organised by the current owner and brains behind the operation, Carlo Vergnano.

This offering is their take on the current craze for flavoured and coloured gins. Regular readers of these posts will realise by now that I’m not the world’s greatest fan of flavoured gins, preferring my gins to be distinctly juniper-led. However, I am always willing for my prejudices to be challenged and, perhaps, overturned. So, I was keen to see what I would make of it.

First things first, the bottle. It is distinctive with frosted glass, a stubby base, leading to a short nose and a cork stopper. The distinctive blue colouration of the Malfy labelling is bordered with a pinky-orange, denoting the Sicilian pink grapefruit which is a primary constituent of the gin. The front label is round containing the brand’s name and the initials G.Q.D.I which the circular logo informs me stands for “Gin Qualita Distillato Italia”. Nice to know as well as the fact that its ABV is a pleasing 41% and that it is gluten free, according to the square label at the back.

As for the botanicals, there is juniper, Sicilian Pink Grapefruit, a variety that has a deep pink colour and is ripened in the low temperatures of an Italian winter, Italian rhubarb, angelica root, lemon peel, coriander and orris root. The grapefruit and rhubarb are infused in the spirit for 36 hours, time enough to give the drink a distinctive rosy pink hue.   

Removing the cork stopper, despite appearances the internal stopper is synthetic but with a nice twist, bearing the trademark Malfy blue colour, the immediate impression is a hit of grapefruit followed by citrus and, eventually, a hint of juniper. I began to fear that the juniper was going to be a distinct also-ran in this concoction. In the mouth I was in for a bit of a surprise. The immediate hit was that of grapefruit, but the taste was not as astringent as I had anticipated, toned down by the sweetness of the rhubarb, I imagine. Then the more traditional elements of a gin began to make a fight-back, with the end result, by way of the aftertaste, that there was a slightly bitter, crisp, lingering, not in an unpleasant sense, finish.

What surprised me was the transformation that came about with the introduction of a tonic, Fever-Tree Mediterranean, since you ask, which seemed rather appropriate. The overall impression was that the spirit became a tad sweeter and that the juniper and more traditional elements in the mix were given that extra boost to make their presence felt.

I found it a crisp, summery drink, one that was complemented by a premium tonic and one that would probably make a good base for a cocktail. It has not changed my overall opinion on pink and flavoured gins but in its particular sector of the gin market, this was a class act.

Until the next time, cheers!

Gin O’Clock – Part Ninety One

One of the ways to muscle your way past the crowd generated by the ginaissance is to have a decent marketing edge and there is no better race to concoct a riveting tale than our friends the Irish. I had been eying up a bottle of Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin on the shelf of one of our local supermarkets and what had always put me off was paying £30 or more for a 50cl bottle, a tad expensive when there are so many other gins to try. A drop in the price and running out of options persuaded me to take the plunge and sample the product of the curious mind of drinks entrepreneur, P J Rigney, and his bold experimentation, allegedly, in a shed in the Irish town of Drumshanbo, on the shores of Lough Allen in Country Leitrim.

Rigney claims that originality is not just about innovation but also about “bringing together unrelated things for the first time” and “seeing the possibilities that others don’t”. His website, for a gin distiller, is unusually informative and a work of art, a delight to wander around and explore, complete with sound effects. Even if you go no further, I urge you to visit it.

It is tempting, as we are talking about an Irish product, to associate the gunpowder in the gin’s name with the black explosive stuff, a terrible piece of racial stereotyping but there you are. In fact, it refers to gunpowder tea, a form of green tea which has been slowly dried and whose leaves have been rolled carefully into pellets resembling bullets and makes a bold bright, slightly spicy cuppa, a key ingredient of the gin. The other distinguishing feature of the gin is the use of exotic oriental botanicals.

As you would expect from a distiller who has invested so much into creating an image and developing a story, the bottle is a work of art too. It is short and dumpy, blue in colour with vertical ridges in the glass, a wooden stopper complete with a copper collar stamped with Gunpowder Irish Gin and an artificial cork. The label is a light brown colour with serrated edges, rather like a large postage stamp. The front label tells me that it is made of oriental botanicals with gunpowder tea. Beneath that is a picture of a jackalope, a cross between a jackrabbit and an American antelope, a mythical creature for sure but one that conveys the sense of a bizarre or unusual concoction. What baffled me, though, was that it was North American and nothing else about this gin is about that continent. For good measure, some oriental characters appear to the right of the creature.

The label at the back informs me that “the ordinary is made extraordinary” and that Rigney is a “boundary-pushing begetter of hand-made spirits who slow stills gin with nature’s finest oriental botanicals and gunpowder tea”. As well as a red seal the bottle has “DGIG 19/07” stamped on it. It also comes with a little booklet affixed to the bottle’s collar with a red tie, each edge of which is delicately snipped.

There are twelve botanicals which make up this gin, eight of which are added to the neutral grain base spirit in the copper still – meadowsweet, cardamom, juniper, coriander, angelica, orris, carraway seed and star anise – and four – gunpowder tea, Chinese lemon, Oriental grapefruit and Kaffir lime – are put into the vapour basket. After a long, slow distillation process, the spirit is reduced to an acceptable fighting weight of 43% ABV and then bottled and labelled by hand at Rigney’s Shed Distillery.    

Is the gin worth all the effort that has gone to its production and the marketing?

Surprisingly, yes. I was worried that the juniper may have just sunk without trace as can happens with a more contemporary style and this concern was heightened when I opened the bottle and took a sniff. It seemed to lack the intense hit of juniper that I look for and was very citrusy. In the mouth the initial sensation came from the citrus but then the juniper announced its presence, hand in hand with a taste analogous to green tea before finishing with a perfect balance of sweet and spicy. The aftertaste was warming, finishing off an interesting and well-balance drink. A definite hit with me.

Until the next time, cheers!

Gin O’Clock – Part Ninety

For those who have put up with my ramblings on the ginaissance will know by now, I have long been an advocate of less is more. There is a detectable trend amongst some distillers to throw the botanical version of the kitchen sink, perhaps a herb garden, into the mix and to attempt to impress us by making something vaguely drinkable from a wide range of disparate ingredients. There is a skill in doing that, for sure, but the benefits to the drinker are marginal compared with the effort and ingenuity that has gone in to making it. I like to have a fighting chance of identifying the individual botanicals.

To help make my case, I call upon the second bottle I bought from the City of London Distillery (COLD), their Christopher Wren Gin. I had mentioned elsewhere that COLD had experienced a bit of a rocky start but this gin, which was a winner of a Double-Gold Award at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition of 2016, can fairly be said to have put the distillery back on its feet. In a change of direction Their Christopher Wren Gin, launched in 2015, was designed by Jonathan Clark in conjunction with Tanqueray’s former master distiller, Tom Nichol.

It comes in the distinctive trademark bottle of COLD with a dome resembling that of nearby St Paul’s, appropriate as the cathedral was Sir Christopher Wren’s architectural masterpiece. Unlike the bottle of Authentic London Dry Gin, which is blue, it is a light, almost carbon, grey in colour. However, like its companion gin, it has that infernally tight artificial cork stopper which is a so-and-so to remove, both initially and on subsequent occasions. The labelling, apart from the obvious change for the name of the gin, and the embossing on the bottle are the same.        

As for botanicals, there are just five in the mix – juniper, coriander seed, angelica, liquorice root and sweet orange. On removing the stopper, it is remarkably light on the nose, perhaps designed to lull us into a false sense of security, because it reveals its full colours in the mouth. The first sensation is one of orange but soon the juniper and angelica make their presence known before the liquorice rounds the drink off, giving it depth and long aftertaste.

It is a gorgeous drink, complex, well-balanced and smooth, and with an ABV of 45.3% packs the punch that the Authentic London Dry Gin seems to lack. There are a lot of London Dry Gins on the market but this one hits the spot, providing a welcome hit of juniper and, because of the decision to use a small number of but complementary botanicals, a touch of complexity and balance as the other flavours get to work. The quality of the gin was not diminished by the addition of a premium tonic, if anything the gin tasted even more moreish.    

I can see why this gin has turned the fortunes of COLD around and once I have finished my bottle, I will be ordering another. You can’t say fairer than that.

Until the next time, cheers!

Gin O’Clock – Part Eighty Nine

The first bottle that I bought at the City of London Distillery (COLD) in Bride Lane, just off London’s Fleet Street, was their City of London Authentic London Dry Gin, the first gin they produced, in 2012, although the current version is now on its sixth recipe. The rules around a London Dry Gin classification are quite strict; no artificial colours or flavours can be added, only water and neutral grain spirit can be used along with the selected botanicals, and sugar, if present, has to be restricted to no more than 0.1 of a gram per litre.

Just to muddy the water a little, this is the ginaissance we are talking about, there is another City of London Gin on the market, made by Burlington Distillery and aimed at the export market. The inevitable confusion may have contributed to COLD’s bumpy start, after all, you can’t trademark a location very easily, and will help to explain why they have emphasised their connection with the City of London by incorporating their logo on the labelling and using the word authentic in the gin’s name. If you happen to have a City of London gin in your hand, the easiest way to tell that it is from COLD is to look at the shape of the bottle.

What gives it its somewhat distinctive shape is that the upper part of the bottle, leading up to the neck, is ribbed and just blow is a band with the distillery’s name, giving the impression of the dome of St Paul’s cathedral. I say somewhat distinctive because to me, apart from the dome, it looks like a slightly slimmer Tanqueray bottle. The coat of the Corporation of the City of London is embossed in the glass below the dome and appears twice, once on the neck and once on the labelling at the bottom of the bottle. Just in case you don’t get the message, two griffins appear separately on the label and we are told it is “distilled in the heart of the city”.    

The bottle has a distinctive blue hue to it, a sort of washed out royal blue, and the stopper is made of artificial cork. It may be just be my bottles but the seal is phenomenally tight, great for transporting home if a little unsteady after a session in the bar, but a nuisance to open when you’ve got it home. That all said, it looks great.

As to botanicals, it uses juniper, coriander, angelical, liquorice, fresh orange, lemon and pink grapefruit. COLD have styled it as a classic London dry gin, and it doesn’t fail to live up to that billing. Once I had got the top off, to the nose it was reassuringly juniper-led with hints of a citrusy zest. In the glass it is perfectly clear, and in the mouth, it presented a well-balanced, smooth drink with juniper and coriander to the fore. The citrus and the liquorice make their presence felt but do not overwhelm the other flavours. The aftertaste is smooth with a hint of pepper. It went well with a premium tonic, not too much, and makes for a perfect opener for an evening’s drinking.

Its ABV is a respectable 41.3% but if I had one criticism, it would be that it was a bit underwhelming. It had all the right ingredients and was up there among the better London Dries I had tasted but seemed to be missing a little bit of oomph. Perhaps the seventh recipe will fix it.

Until the next time, cheers!

Gin O’Clock – Part Eighty Eight

One of the fascinating things about London is that there is almost as much going on under the city’s surface as above ground. What can look an unprepossessing doorway in a dingy street can lead the intrepid to a wonderful underground oasis. Take Bride Lane, which runs from the southern side of Fleet Street to New Bridge Street and, frankly, resembles a bit of a building site when I graced it with my presence. At the Fleet Street end, on the left-hand side, is a doorway with a sign proclaiming COLD.

I went down the stairs to find a bright, attractive bar and a distillery behind explosion-proof plate glass. I had arrived at the City of London Distillery (COLD). At the height of the gin craze in the 18th century there were said to be around 1,700 stills in production in the City’s square mile, 7,000 gin shops and each Londoner was dinking on average 14 gallons of the spirit a year. The area around Fleet Street would have had more than their fair share of shops and distillers. With water a positive health-hazard and gin just as cheap as beer but a lot more powerful, it was no wonder that many sought their fix and tried to blot out the misery of their diurnal existence by toping gin. Mind you, quality was an issue and many an unscrupulous vendor was less than careful with the ingredients that gave their drink its kick.

The Gin Act of 1751, which prohibited distillers from selling to unlicensed merchants and charged high fees to those who had sufficient property to meet the newly established criteria for a gin retailer, put an end to the working person’s ability to quench their thirst with gin, leaving them to seek their kicks from beer or a nice cup of tea. The ginaissance, without the ostensible social mayhem caused by rough gin, has seen a new wave of small independent distillers. It is appropriate that COLD, said to be the first establishment to distil gin, legally, at least, in over 180 years in the City of London, should seek to reclaim some of this lost heritage.

The distillery was founded in 2012 by Jonathan Clark with Jamie Baxter, who was the master distiller. It is fair to say, that the business has had its struggles to establish its niche in the rapidly expanding gin market, its original offering being well-made and balanced but a tad mundane, one that didn’t quite stand out from the market. This prompted a rethink and their original gin is now on its sixth recipe. They now have six gins in their product line, ranging from a London Dries to an Old Tom to a Sloe Gin, something for everyone. COLD is keen to promote its links with the City of London Corporation and proudly and with the blessing of the bigwigs at Guildhall incorporate the City’s emblem on their labels.      

I was there for an escorted tour of the distillery – there are three stills, modern versions of the Caterhead still, the original two named Clarissa and Jennifer, after the stars of the TV series, Two Fat Ladies, who were known to drink a glass of gin or two, and a third, a later, much larger addition, named Elizabeth. One run had finished and I was able to stick my head in and soak in the aroma of the botanicals which had gone into the mix, rather like a well-seasoned and spiced fruit cake mix.

As well as the tour, we were given a G&T on arrival, a tad too much ice and tonic for my taste, then were shepherded into a small room where we sampled four of the gins from their range and were treated to an entertaining talk. Inevitably, I couldn’t resist staying on for another drink or buying a couple of bottles and I will describe the contents in more detail anon.

Until the next time, cheers!

Gin O’Clock – Part Eighty Seven

There are more than enough gins produced in this country, thanks to the ginaissance, to be going on without having to consider ones produced from farther afield. But I’m not one to shut my eyes to what is on offer globally, particularly if it fits my taste requirements almost to a tee. It doesn’t do to be a little Englander.

Always one willing to judge a book by its cover, my eye was immediately drawn to the wonderfully elegant bottle housing Puerto de Indias Pure Black Edition Gin. It is tall and black, using brass embossing to fine effect at the front, representing the Tower of Gold, one of the symbols of the city of Seville and around which its trading activities were concentrated. The glass at the rear and below the bottom section of the bottle are embossed within the glass itself. It is stunningly simple in design but highly effective and, if nothing else, is a welcome aesthetic addition to my gin shelf. The labelling is disappointingly uninformative, save for that it is “Sevillian Premium Gin”.  

The name of Puerto de Indias takes as its reference Seville’s monopoly status in trading relationships between Spain and its territories in the Americas, the gateway through which gold, other valuable minerals, and unusual fruits and vegetables came into Spain and the rest of Europe. The distillery is located in Carmona and is one of the oldest and most traditional distilleries in Andalusia.

There are, currently, three gins on the market under the Puerto de Indias brand, which was launched in the latter months of 2013; the Black Edition, which we will go into more detail in a minute, a strawberry-flavoured gin and the Classic, which, at an ABV of 37.5%, promises a more traditional flavour, whatever that may mean. The Black Edition, the latest of their gins, was launched in March 2016.         

It takes as its inspiration, so says the inevitable marketing blurb that seems to go hand-in-glove with gins these days, springtime in Andalusia. So, we are warned to expect the gentle aromas of orange blossom and citrus, mingled with strains of jasmine and vanilla. It is supposed to conjure up a picture of the province at that time of year. However, we are advised, it is not a flavoured gin and is aimed to appeal to the serious gin and tonic lover. I tend to take this sort of drivel with a sip of gin.

Astonishingly, they were not wrong. Quite simply, this is one of the finest gins I have ever tasted and has bulldozed its way into my favourite handful of gins I have tasted. It is one to be savoured and kept for those special occasions when you want to rise above the humdrum.

Removing the screwcap, a cork stopper would have really finished this product off, my nostrils were greeted by the reassuring smell of pine, courtesy of the juniper, and jasmine but there was also a distinctly floral overtone. None were so overpowering as to hinder the others from getting a look in. In the glass the spirit was crystal clear and in the mouth was a perfectly balanced mix of spiciness, floral notes and citrus from the region’s oranges and lemons. It made for a very smooth drink with enough astringency in the aftertaste to remind you that you were drinking not only a gin but a high-class gin.

It shows that you do not have to have to go too far off the piste in terms of botanicals to produce a distinctive and thoroughly enjoyable gin. Often less is more and simplicity is to be preferred over unnecessary complexity. I’m sold.

Until the next time, cheers!