Friday, 8 October 2010

When is a gin not a gin?

Brockmans gin, with a cocktail containing it, crafted by John Clay

Gin is everywhere. The rate at which new gins are launched these days is extraordinary—particularly when so many of them claim their mission is to get away the traditions of this fusty, musty, old-man beverage.*

Mr Bridgman-Smith tells me that when Brockmans gin was first launched, about three years ago, he went to a tasting and their attitude was, "Hey, we're a gin. A little bit different, but essentially a gin." Last Monday, however, at a tasting at the Juniper Society in London, brand ambassador John Clay's attitude was far more defensive, more along the lines of, "Hey, what is a gin, anyway? All that matters is whether it's a nice drink or not."

The labelling on the bottle, and indeed the Brockmans website, emphasise only that Brockmans is a very smooth gin, which you can easily enjoy over ice. All night. Surrounded by predatory lesbians and men in boar-head masks. (That's the website, by the way. They don't actually say this on the label. Now that would be bold.) All of which comfortably ignores the elephant in the room, which is that Brockmans smells and tastes very strongly of Ribena. Among the usual gin botanicals, including juniper, citrus peel and coriander seed, are dried blackberries and blueberries**, macerated at the same time as the others prior to redistillation. And their influence is huge: we are not talking a subtle ghost of an echo of "Oh, and is there a hint of blackberries and blueberries on the finish?". No, it really is quite overpowering. Underneath this berry fruit are the other botanicals too, but you have to focus hard to perceive them.

John tries to free our minds in his presentation by offering platters of tastebud teasers—a blackberry jelly with a blueberry secreted at its core, a dollop of lemon sorbet, a spoonful of what appears to be Spacedust and a shot of liquor with some sort of red berry frogspawn at the bottom—yes, he's getting seriously molecular on our asses. These are all flavours we should be detecting in the gin, I think. Then he shows us some gustatory parlour tricks to prove the crucial role played by aroma on taste and the importance of saliva in your mouth to taste something properly. (Informative, though I'm unlikely to go out to dinner and leave my saliva at home.) Finally, as we are invited to taste the product itself, he has us burst overhead balloons, showering us with atomised gin. This is all very jolly, and I learned a few things about the mechanism of taste, but you can't help suspecting he is trying to distract us from something.

Brockmans is not alone in adding rare-groove objects into the mix. Hendricks famously includes rose and cucumber, Aviation uses lavender, Old Raj is slightly yellow because of the saffron in it, and Tanqueray Rangpur tastes like a lime Opal Fruit. Interestingly all this comes when, only 18 months ago, the EU decided to lay down the law about what gin could actually be, and "London gin" in particular—the rules governing the latter are far stricter than "gin" in general and "distilled gin" as a rank in between the two. Yet the rules allow any kind of flavouring as long as it is "natural" and "approved". So while The London Gin No.1, despite its name (and the fact that it is made in London), cannot call itself a "London gin" because it is coloured blue by maceration with gardenia flowers—colouring is out, apparently—Brockmans on the other hand can give itself that honour despite being essentially a jam. (The rules do insist that not only must there be juniper in the mix but that the predominant flavour must be juniper. Somehow Brockmans have managed to persuade the elders of the Gin Council that this is the case.)

Ever the imp, DBS brought me a bottle of weird
absinthe, which doesn't taste of much but does
turn violet when diluted. He challenged John Clay
to make a cocktail containing this and Brockmans
and this is the result, a cross between a Clover
Club and a Pegu Club.
Mark has a point, of course. All this categorisation and definition is surely neither here not there: the ultimate question is whether you've made a yummy drink. And I do think that Brockmans is well made. Within the innovation-seeking world of mixology there is surely room for all flavours; John and the staff at Graphic did a good job of trying out different cocktails with the stuff in, and the Clover Club (gin, vermouth, lemon juice, egg white and raspberry syrup), for example, made perfect sense.

But while injecting playful hints of outré ingredients is all very well, you can't help wondering why Brockmans has to taste so strongly of berries. I think the answer lies in that "perfectly smooth" tagline. The creators wanted something that people (and by this I mean women—look at the Brockmans site and you'll see all the videos and still photos bar one feature only women drinking it) would drink plain over ice late into the evening. Like Baileys. And clearly they decided that a massive sweetish berry hit was the only way to make it approachable enough compared to the dry, spiky qualities of traditional gin that make it so appealing as a perky, eye-opening aperitif. Perhaps they hope that one day their gin will become generic—like Baileys—and women will slide up to the bar and purr, "Brockmans on the rocks, please."

But if someone goes into a bar and asks for a gin and tonic and is given something with Brockmans in it, there would be an unseemly riot. Which makes you wonder: instead of getting so defensive when traditionalists huff that Brockmans isn't really gin—and creating a philosophical smokescreen of "What is gin, anyway? And if a G&T spills in a forest and no one hears it, does it really make a sound? etc."—why call it a gin at all? If the market, style and serving suggestions are so different, why fight so hard to be accepted on to the juniper Mount Olympus? John Clay explains that it is to do with categories: gin is a recognised one that people know what to do with and how to sell, and, ironically, its history and traditions give it clout and recognition among consumers. Without that, Brockmans would be out there trying to create a whole new category on its own.

I guess if you want to be different, you need to have something to be different from.

Brockmans retails for about £27 for a 70cl bottle. See the Brockmans site for a list of stockists (though it looks as if you'll have to wear a mask and do some juggling before they'll let you have any).

* If it's so tragically five-minutes-ago, why not leave it alone and launch an alcopop instead?
**Yes, I know that Ribena is blackcurrant rather than blackberry, but I'm afraid Ribena is what it reminds me of.


  1. Bloody good piece. This ain't gin. It tastes more like some kind of boiled sweets that have gone off and fermented into a sickly, sweet, sticky liquid. The website is rather cool, it's wacky in fact, but you're quite right - this is a drink for birds, not blokes. Perhaps it should be classified as "An alcopop on acid". Give me a Beefeater or Plymouth G&T anyday. Like The Titanic, Brockmans certainly should hit the rocks.

  2. I tried this "gin" the other day. It is not a gin in a traditional sense by any means but it certainly tastes like cough medicine. Whoever came up with it plainly had no idea about flavours, that is for sure. Would you go to a bar and ask for a cough medicine and tonic? I certainly would not.

  3. This article is just superb. I encountered those Brockmans people at a fair. Their arrogance about their "gin" is unbelievable. It's not a gin. It's got an odour of bleach and a taste akin to sherbert dip.