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
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
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
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
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
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.