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!