Saturday 19 February 2011

Bringing it all back home III: Prohibition Gin

A couple of weeks ago I found myself in possession of the country’s only bottle of a new gin from Heartland Distillers, makers of Indiana vodka. It’s called Prohibition. I think the name comes from maker Stuart Hobson’s belief that Prohibition pretty much killed off the rich distilling tradition in his state, a tradition that he is manfully trying to revivify. It doesn’t hurt that all things Prohibition- and speakeasy-related seem suddenly in vogue, perhaps thanks to Boardwalk Empire, creating a new “Mad Men effect”. (Not that I’m one to talk.)

So is this authentic bathtub gin, taking crude alcohol and trying to mask the roughness with juniper essence (a roughness that is often attributed with boosting the whole cocktail tradition, as bartenders added emollient ingredients to make the underlying spirit palatable)? Not a bit of it. Stuart takes his super-smooth, award-winning, sextuple-distilled vodka and in the last distillation adds his botanicals in a Carter Head style flavour-box, through which the vapours pass. “This vessel is packed with the fresh botanicals in a specific manner to obtain the flavor profile we desire,” Stuart explains.

I was under the impression that this tends to create a lighter style of gin than a pot still process where the botanicals are actually macerated in the spirit before distillation, but Stuart says, “I would characterise our gin as a full flavour gin. We’ve broadened the flavour profile so you can taste all of the botanicals we use. Many gins boast of all their botanicals, but when you taste them all you get is the juniper. With Prohibition Gin all of the botanical flavours are present. The use of fresh botanicals produces a clean fresh mouth feel.”

So it’s not a juniper-led gin. One sniff of the bottle—a powerful whiff of curry powder to me—and you realise we are in the same territory as Aviation, made by Ryan Magarian in Portland, Oregon. Ryan even has a name for his non-juniper-led school, “New Western Gins”. To me Aviation has powerful savoury elements, with lots of coriander. Prohibition is similar, but actually with more of a concession to juniper, plenty of citrus edge plus a very strong element of celery seed on the finish. It’s remarkably balanced, with citrus and cassia finding a place, and something like lavender on the palate; oddly I always get tomatoes, but I guess it’s just the Bloody Mary ingredients in the gin that get my juices flowing, plus the citrus. Doing a direct comparison you find that Aviation actually has a fattier and more biscuity nose and striking fennel notes.

Here I am tussling with Emma Stokes over the precious
bottle of Prohibition
“You are spot on with the flavour profile,” says Stuart—though he won’t actually reveal all the botanicals, only juniper, coriander, angelica root, cassia, licorice root and grains of paradise. “I like to tell people that this is not your grandfather’s gin, this is richer and fuller flavoured. I would be comfortable with it being thought of as a New Western Gin.”

But the interesting thing about this “new” gin that it actually very much is your grandfather’s, or rather Stuart’s grandfather’s. He says he came across the recipe in a nineteenth-century book on distilling techniques. This got me thinking: if it really represents an older style, does it shed any light on the ongoing debate about exactly what “Old Tom” gin—a style that was popular before London Dry Gin took over—actually tasted like? DBS and I are comparing the different theories and compiling samples of the different approaches to modern revival Old Tom styles for a future group test, but my eye was caught the other day by a mail-out from David Nathan-Maister. In addition to being a strong advocate for the Campaign for Real Absinthe, David also deals in vintage spirits, including the sorts of pre-ban absinthe upon analysis of which the new “authentic” absinthes are based, but also including old rums, bourbons and the odd gin.

This mail-out describes, among other jewels, a batch of gin distilled in or before 1913. Author Dave Hughes has tasted a sample and comments: “With time in the glass the citrus notes begin to take over while the mature herby character is always there. It would appear that coriander must have been a major component as it begins to show after a long while in the glass. All rests on a gentle supporting spice.” His reference to the strong coriander element reminded me of the New Western style.

Ted Breaux’s comments on this batch are: “The gin is much lighter than the typically juniper-heavy London-dry style that dominates today. It is far more like the lighter, sweeter Old Tom style that was popular in both the UK and the US toward the end of the nineteenth century, which was specified in many of the gin cocktails in the earliest bartender guides—cocktails that aren’t as enjoyable when overpowered by juniper. What is significant is that it is isn’t a ‘Holland gin’, with a malt wine base, but is an example of the newer style (for the period), which was based upon a redistillation of a neutral spirit—something not possible until after the invention of the multi-plate alembic in the 1830s.”

An Inhibition made at home
Some people believe that “Old Tom” does refer to a maltier Dutch style (you can create an impression by rinsing a glass with malt whisky then adding gin), others to something that is simply sugared, while Christian Jensen’s recreation aims for “sweetness” through the botanical balance rather than added sugar. But could it be that the New Western styles, with big flavours but less emphasis on juniper, might offer a clue? I intend to try using Aviation and Prohibition to make some of the old cocktails that specifically call for Old Tom (in books that also specify London gin or Plymouth gin in other recipes) and see how well they work.

I leave you, however, with a thoroughly modern cocktail dreamed up on the spot by Graphic barman Adam Smithson when I went in there with the precious bottle:

40ml Prohibition
5ml Coco Kanu coconut rum
10ml Creole Shrubb rum orange liqueur
25ml lime juice
20ml homemade chai syrup
Top with soda and garnish with a lime wedge

Stuart Hobson himself was delighted with this recipe when I sent it to him—possibly because, of course, the Indiana Infusions range includes a Chai Tea one. Using this instead, Stuart has posted a variant on the Prohibition Facebook page.

I knock up a version using what I have to hand: Prohibition gin, “Windward white rum with coconut” from Asda, Cointreau, lime juice and Indiana Chai Tea Infusion, and decide just to shake it and serve it straight up. If you can get the proportions right (the coconut in particular needs microbalancing) the result is fascinating. The coconut and lime are quite prominent, but work surprisingly well with the savoury spice elements too. I think I could become gently fascinated by Prohibition gin.

1 comment:

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