Google ‘gin’ and you’ll be swamped with new tastes, flavours, bottle shapes and packaging and stories of how a new generation of gin makers came to develop their particular recipe. The drink is enjoying a renaissance with new distilleries, not unlike those seen in the gin alleys of London of the 17th and 18th centuries, springing up everywhere. First made in Holland as quack medicine 300 years ago, ‘jenever’ was sold in pharmacies to treat a range of complaints from stomach cramps to gout and gallstones.
Today it appears a distillery opens weekly in the US and UK, and each is producing very different drink, with hundreds of different flavours from the floral Turicum of Zurich to the cucumber-imbued Hendrick’s from Edinburgh, Scotland available. A decade ago, your gin search would have revealed perhaps Gordon’s and Tanqueray ,while the Schweppes brand of soft drinks dominated the mixers.
Today, new boutique brands offer a huge range of hyper local distillations; for example, MerryMen (made in north Wales and inspired by Morris dancing); Elephant (made in Germany and inspired by Africa) and 1606 gin which uses spring water from the southern English spa town of Royal Tunbridge Wells.
Gin making is booming around the world with distillers pointing to the provenance of their botanicals, the herbs and spices that gives each gin its unique flavour. Gin is basically flavoured vodka, and with the right ingredients and patience can be made at home.
A gin made in sitting room in north London is branded ‘Sacred’ due to the inclusion of the Biblical spice Boswellia Sacra (frankincense) in addition to 11 other botanicals including juniper, cardamom and nutmeg. While Bath gin draws inspiration from 18th Century author Jane Austen and uses wormwood, famously found in the distillation of Absinthe, and Kaffir lime leaf, used in the rums of Madagascar, Reunion and Martinique.
Put to the test
In a gin masterclass Jonny Gibson of the Sussex Wine School took around 20 gin lovers on tour of the drink’s exotic history, distillation methods explained why some gins are labelled ‘London Dry’ (no added ingredients post distlilation except water) and how to make a great Martini (freeze the gin, coat the ice with vermouth and drain) at a evening in Hotel du Vin, Tunbridge Wells. Jonny runs all sorts of tastings and offers tutoring for the WSET courses.
We sampled it neat and splashed in the now-ubiquitous Fever Tree tonic to get a feel about the art of making gin and understand that not all gin is created equally or with the best combination of botanicals. All drinks claiming to be gin must contain juniper berries, but after that it’s the master distiller, or you if you want to create your own at home.
The six gins up against the taste test on our tasting night were:
Sipsmith London Dry 41.6% ABV
Distilled in west London in three copper stills named Prudence, Patience and Constance, the tasters noted the floral notes with an obvious citrus flavour from using Spanish orange and lime peel. Was generally liked, although several found it a bit flowery or citrusy.
Pickerings Gin 41.6% ABV
Made in small batches by an Edinburgh family this gin proved the most popular of the gins to the tasters. Smooth and full of flavour, its easy to distinguish fennel, anise and a lemon/line flavours. Uses a custom-built bain-marie to heat up the alcohol gently allowing the flavours to emerge slowly from the botanicals.
Bathtub Gin 42% ABV
Made in small batches using the traditional ‘cold compounding’ method in which botanicals such as cinnamon and cloves are steeped in the alcohol base and not heat distilled. This gin was described as having an unusual pale yellow colour and highly perfumed.
Silent Pool 43% ABV
Distilled in the Surrey Hills using 24 botanicals including locally grown lavender and chamomile, flavours which come through quite clearly. Several testers indentified honey notes. Popular with those liking a florally distinct flavour.
Whittaker’s Yorkshire Dry Gin 40% ABV
One of the new brands that pride themselves on foraging ingredients form the Yorkshire Moors particularly bilberries (often known as whortleberries) for that added sharpness to the taste. This was my personal favourite particularly, as Jonny describes, the background sweetness of hawthorne berries, combined with the ‘spicy aroma’ of bog myrtle, which taste both bitter and balsamic at the same time, and is quite rich like vanilla’.
Brighton Gin 40%
Distilled by a group of friends living in Brighton, this gin is designed to be drunk with tonic offering “and subtle notes of juniper coming to the fore as you swirl, releasing sweet-scented fresh citrus and a touch of spice. The persistent hints of orange make this gin gentle and approachable. Tastes great on the beach’.
Jonny’s upcoming courses in Tunbridge Wells and Brighton include a summer rosé tasting and an evening of English sparkling wines. There’s no heavy selling, unlike many other tastings, and there’s no hint of obligation to buy a bottle to two. It’s all about sharing knowledge and taking part.
Photos (c) The Gin Guild and The Lemon Grove