Tuesday 21 September 2010

An Orange Fist…in an Orange Glove

Philip Wilson with a Fifty Pound "case gin" bottle
When someone is talking about a drink they make or sell it can sometimes be heavily technical, sometimes heavily business-oriented. But Philip Wilson prefers to operate on a much more personal level. "If we like the guy who makes it, we're happy to bring it in," he says with an affable shrug. "Does he care? Has the basic product been well made or are there flaws and imbalances in there? Right now we're dealing with this Australian whisky maker—we'll sell the square root of not a lot, but we like what he does." OK, this makes Philip sound like a cross between a hippy and a Mafia godfather, and he is neither. But he and his four colleagues at Eaux de Vie Ltd specialise in very niche products so are used to dealing in passion rather than high volumes.

We're at London's Graphic Bar to taste Philip's Fifty Pound gin. Mercifully the name is not an indication of price but a reference to the tax brought in by George II in an attempt to quash dangerous low-end gins that were flooding the place and damaging the nation's health. (Not dissimilar to the situation in France in the late 19th century when the soaring popularity of absinthe led to a flood of dangerously low-grade drinks.) Which is a bit odd considering that Fifty Pound was actually put together for the Spanish market. Yes, there is a huge market for gin in Spain, and a big sherry distributor decided to add one to their list. So they had something knocked up by Thames Distillers in south London (New Sheridan Club Members may be interested to note that this is the same company who manufacture SW4 gin, sponsors of the NSC summer party). Philip was looking through their sherry list and came across the gin. His curiosity piqued he had a bottle sent over and decided to distribute it in the UK.

Fifty Pound is a muscle gin.* It's intended to imitate the old-style London Dry Gin—"big, fat and flavoursome", as Philip puts it. The 11 botanicals (juniper, angelica root, coriander, liquorice root, grains of paradise, lemon and orange rind and savoury, plus another three secret ones) are cold-macerated in quadruple-distilled grain spirit then redistilled just once. (Other gins may use multiple distillations post-maceration to create a "purer" effect, but a single distillation hangs on to more of the essential oils—and this is a gin that packs a punch.) The distillation takes place in batches in a small John Dore still. Crucially, the gin is then allowed to "rest" for three weeks—to allow all those oils to integrate fully with the spirit—before bottling in distinctive rectangular bottles that taper from the shoulder to the base. (The design is modelled pretty closely on the earliest gin bottles, known as "case gin" because the shape made the bottles easier to pack together in cases.) The label of each bottle is marked with the number of the 1,000-bottle batch from which it comes.

Fifty Pound with the Tanq and the Fever Tree we used for the G&T test
Sampled neat, at room temperature, Fifty Pound has plenty of the juniper coming through with a steely graphite top note, and also red berries. But for me the defining characteristic is the orange rind, giving it a warm, spicy quality. It's like a Christmas gin. The official brand characteristics are smoothness and balance, though it didn't strike me as especially smooth on the palate—but then most of the action was on the nose, which is boisterous, like being hit over the head with an orange in a sock.

Philip had also brought some Tanqueray to taste alongside, and the comparison was intriguing. After the Fifty Pound the Tanq nose struck me as delicately perfumed in a floral way, refined and subtle; the palate was woody, aromatic and more lingering than the Fifty Pound. Much as I warmed to the latter I also found myself developing new respect for the Tanqueray.

Philip had one more trick up his sleeve: Death's Door gin, from Wisconsin. Anyone who finds that all gin just tastes of gin should stick their snout into this. It's dominated by fennel, so much so that to me it doesn't smell or taste like gin at all. Not just fennel but a sort of pungent stewed fennel, with hints of other stewed veg and burnt rubber, like a bad ratatouille. Mr Bridgman-Smith couldn't see what I was complaining about and confessed he rather liked it, but for me the one thing it was good for was giving you a renewed appreciation of the other two gins. Just smelling them again after the Death's Door was like collapsing into the arms of the love of one's life (sadly quite close to the truth…). The comparison really brought out a rose-petal bouquet to the Tanq and a aromatic wood note to the Fifty Pound.

Fifty Pound gin is around £30.50 a bottle.

* I keep wanting to pronounce it "fiddy-poun", like it's the obvious thing for 50 Cent to drink with his homies. I think the days of cognac—sorry, "nyak"—as the de rigeur hip-hop drink are surely over.

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