Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Opihr gin's eastern promise

We had a Casablanca-themed Candlelight Club event last month and one of the cocktails devised by our mixologist David involved Opihr gin, of which I had not previously heard. Launched last year by Quintessential Brands and distilled at Greenall’s, it describes itself an an “Oriental Spiced Gin”, and the schtick is that the botanicals come from the fabled Spice Route—the interactive website carries you on a sea voyage, taking on board cubeb berries from Malacca, Tellicherry black peppers from Malabar, cumin seeds from Turkey, juniper from Italy, coriander from Morocco and sweet orange peel from Spain. I gather there are ten botanicals in total, the others being cardamom, grapefruit peel, ginger and angelica.

The name comes from a Biblical region, the hangout of King Solomon and famed for its wealth and exotic spices. The bottle is rather appealing, featuring a pair of colourful elephants. What’s not to like about a gin with elephants on it?

Opihr themselves describe the gin as having “citrus notes balanced with earthy aromatics and warm, soft spices”. On the nose the first thing that hits you is a sherbet-like sweetness, then a strong element of limes, oranges, and dry lemony coriander seed. You can detect juniper in there too but it is not very dominant. It’s quite complex, the enticingly juicy Opal-fruit lime character balanced by savoury notes of cumin and maybe turmeric.

On the tongue this gin is strongly biased towards cardamom, which gives it an exotic sweet-seeming approach, strongly redolent of rose. Cardamom is a common enough spice in gin but the heavy presence here serves to make this product smack of the souk. There is coriander too and some black pepper on the finish.

This character persists in a G&T, and also in a Negroni (equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari). I find that often more subtle gins get lost in this punchy concoction, and it can be a good place for in-your-face spirits such as the Hernö juniper-cask-aged gin with its almost eye-watering resinous juniper fumes. So I was surprised that Opihr’s distinctive cardamom character came coiling up from the cocktail. It works well, with the sweet smoothness balancing against the bitterness of the Campari and vermouth.

An Opihr Gin & Tonic with prescribed chilli garnish
It’s a gin that is relatively easy to drink on its own, and it is possible that (as with D1) this was something the developers had in mind. It works perfectly well in a Martini, the gin’s essential character blending with the bitter herbal elements of the vermouth without trouble. As you might expect, the rose-like quality of the cardamom sits comfortably with the floral character of the crème de violette in an Aviation cocktail (gin, maraschino, lemon juice and violette). In fact you could argue that it blends in a bit too much, almost getting lost. I might have thought that this citrusy gin would be an obvious contender for a Gimlet (gin and Rose’s Lime Cordial), and it is an interesting combination; but the sweetness of the cordial actually emphasises the drier spices of the gin and seems to evoke a bitterness. It’s a somewhat awkward union and I’m not sure this is really the best gin for this cocktail.

One recommended serve is a G&T garnished with a red chilli pepper! I give it a try, and (insofar as a cocktail with chilli in it is a good idea) it doesn’t not work. I guess we are used to the combination of chilli, cardamom, coriander and cumin in curries, and it is normal enough to balance chilli heat with sweetness; while the gin isn’t actually sweet, the cardamom does give an impression of sweetness. They also suggest using the gin in a Red Snapper (a Bloody Mary made with gin instead of vodka), another cocktail with peppery heat in it.

Despite the Spice Route USP, none of the botanicals is unique to Opihr—London Dry Gin, that most quintessentially English of spirits, has always been made with spices shipped in from all over the world. Whether you’ll like Opihr depends on how much you like cardamom and to what extent you think gin really should be dominated by juniper. I assume it is, like so many new gins these days, aimed at people who would not normally drink gin at all, hence the emphasis on the impression of sweetness from botanicals like orange and cardamom (liquorice is often used to achieve the same effect), and the downplaying of gin’s defining flavour, juniper. I quite like it myself, but because of the lack of juniper it would not be my desert island gin.

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