Monday 10 November 2014

Big Gin makes a big impression

While helping to judge the recent Craft Distilling Expo Gin of the Year, it was my great pleasure to meet Ben Capdevielle and Holly Robinson of Captive Spirits Distilling, part of the wave of “craft”, “boutique” or “artisan” distilling that is sweeping the US at the moment. Based in Ballard, near Seattle, they make Big Gin, both in its standard form and in a version that has been aged in ex-bourbon barrels.

Theirs is not a happy-go-lucky tale of casting around for something to do and hitting on the idea of making a gin on a whim.* Ben is actually a third-generation distiller—his grandfather was a distiller for Templeton Rye** during Prohibition—and the pair spent four years visiting distilleries and experimenting with botanicals and distillation variables before finally launching their product in 2012. “We are using the traditional method of making gin,” Holly explains, “and creating a small scale, boutique brand just using two 100-gallon pot stills. We are exclusively a gin company, instead of making a variety of spirits like most of the budding brands. We have a few other gin-centric products that will trickle out in the next few years…”

Holly and Ben (second and third from the left) at the Craft Distilling Expo Gin
of the Year judging
As the name suggests the idea was to make a bold, unashamedly gin-flavoured gin. “We took this away from all the big players in the gin game,” Holly says. “Consumers are used to drinking Beefeater, Bombay, etc—we wanted something that ginners could identify with, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.” The botanicals are indeed mostly conventional—juniper, coriander, bitter orange peel, angelica, cassia, cardamom, orris—plus grains of paradise (not unusual either, being present in Bombay Sapphire) and Tasmanian pepper berries. The spirit base is made from corn. “This was the most neutral base we found to impart the botanicals,” Holly says.

Uncork a bottle of Big Gin and it is certainly big, with a strong waft of juniper. But it is more complex than that, with orange peel, dried fruit and a pronounced floral note like crystallised violets, perhaps from the angelica. There is also a herbal stemmy quality and a hint of ginger. It is big, bright and rich.

A Last Word made with Big Gin
On the palate it is powerful but remarkably smooth and sweetish, given that it is a hefty 47% ABV. Perhaps the corn-spirit base lends this sweetness. The flavour follows on from the nose, with that floral note to the fore and a slight peppery-bitter finish. It easily works in a Martini or gin and tonic, basically making its own rules. It is well-suited to a Negroni, clearly making its presence felt, whereas more delicate gins can sometimes get lost in the present of the Campari and vermouth.

Another muscular cocktail to test a gin is the Last Word, traditionally equal parts gin, Green Chartreuse, lime juice and maraschino: it has a balance between the sweetness of the liqueurs and the tartness of the lime, but these elements and the herbal blast from the Charteuse can drown the gin. I have to say that even Big Gin struggled here. But I noticed that on Simon Difford’s website he is now advocating a 3:1:1:1 ratio (the 3 being the gin). With Tarquin’s Cornish Gin I find that it does really need these proportions before you can really taste the gin in the mix, but Big Gin reaches that point at only 2:1:1:1.***

An Aviation made with Big Gin
I felt that Big Gin was less successful, however, in an Aviation, being perhaps too powerful for the subtle flavours of the maraschino and crème de violette (of which there is only about a teaspoon, otherwise the colour of the cocktail veers from the pale lilac-blue meant to represent the sky, from which the drink gets its name: try something like 50ml gin, 12.5ml lemon juice, 12.5ml maraschino, 5ml crème de violette).

You can get a sense of the big, savoury qualities of Big Gin from the recommended cocktails on the Captive Spirits website. The Out-of-Towner involves making a fennel syrup (plus gin, lemon juice and triple sec), and two of the recipes use elderflower liqueur (such as St Germain). The Morning Paper tops gin and elderflower with sparkling wine and a splash of grapefruit juice, and there is definitely a continuum between the gin botanicals and the sweetly pungent qualities of elderflower.

Although Captive are determinedly not planning to make a whiskey, they are interested in pushing their gin in different directions, such as the bourbon barrel aged example now on the market. “All the worlds best spirits are aged in bourbon barrels,” Holly explains. “With Big Gin being so flavorful, we thought it could stand up well and one could still actually taste the gin. Thankfully, we were correct.”

A Martinez made with Bourbon Barreled Big Gin
Ageing gin is all the rage it seems, but at a tasting of several of them earlier this year I did feel that none of the examples seemed particularly successful, with the wood notes somehow quarrelling with the essential gin flavour. But there is certainly a tradition: Seagrams have always rested their gin in charred new oak barrels to smooth off the rough edges of the spirit.

The barrel-aged version of Big Gin came as a revelation to me, however. Perhaps there is something about the prominent orange notes in the gin which marries well with the wood flavours, or maybe there is something about these particular barrels (which presumably have had bourbon in them for a long time, damping down the sawmill quality of fresh wood). On the nose the sharp juniper of the base gin is softened but still present, while a warmth and sherried sweetness are added, plus an enhancement of the dried fruit flavours I noticed before and a pleasant woody, almost mossy, mustiness. On the palate there is excellent integration of the aromatic gin elements and the tannic, vanilla wood flavours, plus clear notes of bourbon, emphasising the orange peel.

On a whim I try to make a sort of sweet Martini using Regal Rogue Bianco and the result shows remarkable balance and harmony from two strongly-flavoured ingredients, a little like a Martinez with orange and herbal notes all blending well. I try making a Martinez, using 2 shots gin, ½ a shot each of dry and sweet vermouth and a dash of maraschino, the result is sublime. Likewise in a Negroni it works as well as the normal Big Gin but with an extra dimension that fits naturally, as in a Manhattan or Boulvardier**** (which it virtually is). It really is a revelation.

A Spring Fling made with Bourbon Barreled Big Gin
There is a recommended cocktail, the Spring Fling, that once again uses elderflower liqueur, this time with the barrel-aged gin plus dry vermouth and some celery bitters. It’s an extraordinary tour de force, with the elderflower merging with the big herbal flavours of the gin, followed by a sweetness emerging and woody notes, then a fiery warmth. You also get a sense of sun-kissed Mediterranean aromatic herbs, like thyme or oregano. The prescribed garnish is grapefruit zest, but I only had lemon to hand and its aroma floats over the other flavours, balancing without muddying.

If you like gin then you should try Big Gin. It’s nice to come across a product that is not trying to make a “gin” for people who really want vodka, nor is it trying push the flavour in outré directions for reasons of gimmickry alone. But at the same time Big Gin is distinct. And it is big.

In the UK you can buy Big Gin through Master of Malt for £39.96 and the bourbon barrel aged version for £44.85.

* Talking to Holly you realise that the process of starting up a distillery is more of a bureaucratic slog than most of us realise, especially in the US. “There is a lot of red tape, but mostly several different levels of permitting, each of which cannot commence without the previous—it's a domino game. First Federal, than State, then City, then Fire, etc… Every state/city has different ideas of what/how things should be done. That’s the confusing part. Once that is all waded through, it’s a slow start to getting product out the door.” To help with all of this the couple got a third partner, old friend Todd Leabman, to help with the paperwork and accounting.

** The good folk of Templeton, Iowa, apparently carried on distilling whiskey throughout Prohibition and Al Capone is said to have like it so much he would send a driver all the way there from New York to stock up. 

*** It an interesting experiment, because if you start with the punchy sweet-and-sour traditional recipe and just add more gin, it’s easy to think, “Oh, no, this is getting too dry.” But if you come back to it later and try it you do realise it as a good, subtler cocktail. All the lime and Charteuse are very much there, but now you can taste the details of the gin too. Hurrah.

**** 1½ shots bourbon or rye whiskey, 1 shot Campari, 1 shot sweet vermouth, so a sort of mash-up between a Negroni and a Manhattan. It was invented by New Yorker Harry McElhone after he emigrated to Paris, fleeing Prohibition, and set up Harry’s New York Bar. He created it for ex-pat Erskine Gwynne in honour of his Parisian magazine The Boulvardier.

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