Gin O’Clock – Part Ninety Six

If the ubiquity of their product is a hallmark of success in the world created by the ginaissance, then Whitley Neill must be doing rather well. Supermarket shelves, offies and bars and gin palaces are groaning with their extensive ranges of gins. I tried their original gin, featuring inter alia the fruit of the baobab tree and Cape gooseberries, and was impressed – see https://windowthroughtime.wordpress.com/2017/02/14/gin-oclock-part-twenty-three/

The world has moved on and as I have explored a wider range of gins, my preference has crystallised towards gins which are prominently juniper-led. I seem to be becoming more increasingly out of synch with the gin-consuming public, or at least what gin distillers imagine they want, because coloured and flavoured gins really don’t float my boat. However, as this blog is meant to reflect what is going on in the world of gin, then it would be remiss of me to shut my eyes to what is a significant and vibrant part of the market.

Rhubarb has been a go-to for distillers because it adds a contrast to the piney, peppery flavours imbued by juniper berries. Whitley Neill have gone one step further by adding ginger to the mix to create their Whitley Neill Rhubarb and Ginger Gin. They have certainly got the product presentation right. The bottle is a striking violet colour, quite what that has to do with either rhubarb or ginger, I’m not certain, and the labelling is in a discreet white band about a quarter of the way from the base of the bottle. There it tells me that the gin was “inspired by the glory of the English Country Garden. Essence of rhubarb adds a tart crisp edge whilst the real ginger warms the palate”. It also tells me that they have been distilling for eight generations, from 1762, so you would hope they would know what they are doing.

A couple of things about the labelling put me on alert, the contrast between essence of when describing the rhubarb component in contrast to the real used in relation to the ginger and the impression that the hooch is distilled by them when it is outsourced to Halewood Wines and Spirits in Liverpool. I will pass on my usual moans about the absence of any information about the other botanicals. I understand that the starting point is their original gin to which the rhubarb and ginger have been infused so, if that is the case, it is juniper, Cape gooseberries, baobab fruit, coriander, lemon peel, orange peel, angelica root, cassia bark and orris root.

Removing the artificial cork stopper from the rather dumpy bottle, the immediate hit on the nose is one of rhubarb and ginger, pretty much to the exclusion of anything else. In the glass the crystal-clear spirit is surprisingly sweet to the taste, unlike any other rhubarb gin I have tasted which have been somewhat on the tart side. The sugary sweetness, if you spill some it is very sticky, is probably testament to the use of an essence rather than the real McCoy. Once the spirit has settled down, the juniper attempts to make its presence known as do the citrus element before finishing off with a warming, peppery aftertaste.

It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, although it was a little too sweet for my taste and the essential components of a gin seemed somewhat left behind. It was another one of those gins, there are too many around in my opinion, that seems to be aimed at people who don’t like gin. Why spoil a perfectly good gin to make this concoction?

Until the next time, cheers!

Gin O’Clock – Part Ninety Five

Why not produce a gin that has a vivid indigo hue and changes colour? That will get us noticed in the crowded market that the ginaissance has produced. That, I suppose, must have been the reasoning behind the decision of Victoria Distillers when they set about designing their Empress 1908 Gin.

I had come across Victoria Distillers from, ahem, Victoria, British Columbia, before when I bought a bottle of their Premium Cocktail Gin in the duty-free shop at Vancouver airport. As from last year (2019) Empress is now being distributed into the UK and I picked up my bottle in our local Asda supermarket.

The bottle itself is tall, cylindrical with the distiller’s distinctive coppery cap masking an artificial cork stopper. The labelling takes the form of a white, slanting ribbon-like banner towards the top of the bottle, giving details of the spirit and the batch number, my bottle was from number 63, and a dark narrow banner at the bottom which reveals the volume and ABV, 42.5%. The glass is clear and what gives it the distinctive dark blue hue is the colour of the spirit inside. It was a bit of a shock when I poured it out.

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of blue drinks, I don’t know why, but I associate drinks with particular colours and blue isn’t one of them. What gives this gin its particular hue are the petals of the clitoria ternatea plant, commonly known as butterfly-pea or Asian pigeonwings. A tea has been brewed from the petals for centuries in South East Asia, it must be pretty strong by now, but it has only recently been introduced to adventurous Occidental tea drinkers. What has made it particularly attractive to enterprising gin distillers is not only the dark hue it gives to the spirit but the fact that the liquid changes colour depending upon the pH of the substance added to it. A lemon, for example, will turn it purple whilst a tonic will lighten it considerably. No wonder it is a favourite with cocktail makers.

The gin gets its name from the Fairmont Empress Hotel which opened its doors to customers in 1908. Overlooking Victoria’s Harbour, it was a favourite stopping off point for travellers changing between the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Pacific shipping industry, and vice versa, of course. In the 1920s it became the place to take afternoon tea and its signature blend became a firm fixture. Naturally, a gin from Victoria featuring butterfly-pea had to be named after the hotel.     

The botanicals in the mix, a corn-based spirit is used, are Empress Blend, a Canadian mix of black teas, juniper, coriander, grapefruit peel, ginger, cinnamon, rose and, of course, butterfly-pea flower. With all of this I’m not sure what I expected when I uncorked it, perhaps something a little floral or sweet or even a little like the detergent it looks like. Whatever it was, I was in for a bit of a shock. To the nose the hit was bold and brassy, juniper to the fore and a heavy with citrus. In the mouth the floral elements were the first to shine but then juniper and citrus took hold before giving way to the earthier and spicier components of the mix. The aftertaste was warm and spicy and made itself known.

I was pleasantly surprised by a gin which has a more contemporary twist rather than many juniper-led gins. It wasn’t quite as subtle or well-balanced as I had hoped for and is clearly aimed at the cocktail market. You can have fun, though, presenting your guest with a dark blue drink and watch their astonishment when it changes colour when they add something to it.

Until the next time, cheers!

Gin O’Clock – Part Ninety Four

In the ginaissance, things move quickly, it would seem. It was only in mid-2018 that I was reviewing a delightful bottle of Warner Edwards’ Honeybee Gin. By the time I had got my hands on a bottle of Warner’s London Dry Gin, courtesy of our local Waitrose store, Sion Edwards, one of the founding duo of this distillery that operates out of a converted barn in Harrington in Northamptonshire, had moved on, in 2016, and the labelling, from around 2019, has now caught up to reflect the fact. With so many brands jostling for space, name changes can cause confusion and, initially, I was left wondering whether they were one and the same.

Having cleared that up, I was keen to see what their take on my favourite type of gin, a classic no nonsense London Dry Gin, was going to be like. It seemed a strange route for Warner’s to take, having already produced a perfectly acceptable Dry Gin, Harrington, and a barn-storming Rhubarb Gin, quite innovative in 2014 and perhaps leading the way for surfeit of flavoured and coloured gins that are on the market now. If you are going to be a serious gin distiller, though, you need to have a classic London Dry in your armoury.

My bottle was rather dumpy in shape, with frosted glass and a wax seal with an artificial stopper. The bottle is a work of art with illustrations of Harrington, Curiosity, their still, the wildflower meadow, Falls Farm, the botanical gardens, and the beehives. Think of a Wainwright illustrated map and you will get the general idea. The front of the bottle has a triangular label with a dragon and lion holding a glass and the legend “Farm Born British Gins”. Underneath that is a blue rectangular label which tells me that it is a “London Dry Gin, fragrant, rich and spiced, distilled with our farm’s spring water”. The seal on the neck informs me that it was “handmade in small batches on Falls Farm and distilled by Conor and born in 2018”. Developed in 2018 it may have been, but it was only marketed in 2019 and so is a relative new addition to their impressive range.

At the rear of the bottle, there is more information, in white print, telling me that they “are gin farmers. Our gins are crafted with nature on Falls Farm. This classic London dry gin, distilled with our farm’s spring water, is elegantly balanced with juniper and spice”. It then goes on to give serving suggestions. My bottle also came with a little square booklet tied to the neck, giving brief details of their range of gins. They certainly cram a lot on to the bottle and it is good to see a producer imbuing the slickness of their marketing message with a passion for their product. My only cavil, a bugbear of mine, is that the botanicals are not listed.

I have always held that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, no matter how attractive it seems. What really matters is what it tastes like. With the stopper off, the aroma is piney with some citrus elements and a spicy undertone. In the mouth, the crystal-clear spirit is sensational, juniper and cardamom immediately coming to the fore, then lemon and, possibly, orange, followed by a fresh, almost menthol-like sensation, before a peppery after-finish leaves a warming glow in your throat. It was a complex and well-balanced drink, with all the elements discernible, all playing their part but not overwhelming the mix. And with an ABV of 40% it is a fine addition to any drinks’ cabinet.

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!