Thursday 28 October 2010

A most unusual way to make gin

The exterior of the Horseless Carriage

The Hendrick's marketing machine is such a thing of Shock and Awe that few people (at least few in Our World) can be unaware of their calculated image of playful eccentricity and oddness. So I was almost surprised when, as part of London Cocktail Week, there was an opportunity to learn about how the actual product is made.

The Hendrick's roadshow had set up on the forecourt of a disused petrol station and there was eccentricity aplenty with a croquet lawn, threnody from a musical saw and one of the famous Hendrick's roll top baths, filled with rose petals. The actual seminar was inside the Hendrick's Horseless Carriage, what looks like a railway carriage adapted for road transport. The snug, dark wood interior is filled with bric-a-brac and strange specimens—but also, mercifully, with gin.

Brand ambassador Louis Xavier Lewis-Smith gave us a preliminary talk on the history of distilling and gin in particular, with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation which he himself had not previously seen— perhaps a test of prowess through which all ambassadors must go before they can get the really good postings. (It wouldn't surprise me to discover that Hendrick's has its own embassy in Moscow.) We were also confronted with an array of samples that turned out to be a rare opportunity to taste the liquid as it comes out of the still.

Around the bath it reads, "I can resist everything
except temptation." Wilde, I believe.
Hendrick's is made by William Grant, the whisky distillers. Their involvement with gin dates from when they bought a gin recipe and two stills at auction in 1966 from the London firm Taplow's. One was a Bennett pot still made in 1860 and the other a Carter-Head still fashioned in 1948; both have been restored and have been used since 1999 to make Hendrick's, which is itself a blend of the output from the two stills.

The Bennett still is basically a copper pot that is filled with neutral grain spirit and botanicals (Hendrick's aren't too specific about what these are—"flowers, roots, fruits and seeds" is all they will admit to, though juniper, coriander and orange and lemon peel are clearly involved), which are left to steep before the whole lot is heated and the resulting vapour condensed into a distillate that emerges at 80% ABV. One of our samples was precisely this—we were warned that we might not want to put it into our mouths undiluted, advice which we, of course, ignored.

The Bennett still has a reputation for producing a robust product and at 80% the predominant note for me was caramel or butterscotch, but when you add water to bring it down to roughly 40% there is a huge rush of citrus aromas, earthy roots, pungent, piney flavours and a hint of warm aniseed. Robust indeed. The long maceration prior to distillation has extracted profound flavours and plenty of oils from the botanicals, visible in the "legs" up the side of the glass when swirled—moreover, when you add water it "louches" like absinthe, going slightly milky. As with absinthe, this is the oils, dissolved at 80% ABV, emerging as an emulsion of fat droplets as the alcohol concentration drops.

Sitting down with Louis and an array of samples before us
The Carter-Head still, also very rare, is a more complex affair. Louis showed us a diagram which was frankly over my head, but in essence the rising vapour passes through a matrix of channels and baffles with the intention of controlling just what parts of the molecular soup are allowed through and which fall back down into the bubbling liquid. The botanicals are not steeped, in fact not even allowed into contact with the neutral spirit: they are packed into a "flavour box" through which the vapour passes on its way to be condensed back into liquid.

Our next sample was the 80% ABV distillate from the Carter-Head. It was fascinating how it clearly had the same general flavour profile as the previous one (having been made with the same botanicals)—there was citrus and earthy spices—yet its aroma was finer, lighter, more delicate and dry, and it was sweeter and peppery on the palate. There was no clouding when water was added, suggesting the heavy essential oils had been left behind.

The finished product is a blend of the two distillates. For professional reasons Louis was not able to reveal in what proportions they were mixed, though I pointed out that the high-strength sample of the blend louched almost as much as the pure Bennet sample, something Louis had not thought of before and which he admitted was a bit of a giveaway. (Not that I have enough of a science brain to know how to interpret this.)

Brand ambassador His Excellency Louis Xavier Lewis-Smith
But there is more to the Hendrick's formula than this: it famously includes rose petals and cucumber in the mix, yet these are not flavours that can be acquired by adding rose and cucumber to the botanicals, so they are added as essences to the final blend before dilution to bottling strength. Some bartenders turn their nose up at Hendrick's for this reason. (Interestingly, Martin Miller's gin also contains cucumber essence—though it's not something they dine out on as Hendrick's does. There is a rumour that someone from Miller's actually defected, taking the idea with them.) We were given samples of these essences—the rose from Bulgaria, the cucumber from the Netherlands—and again warned against tasting it, which we again ignored. The rose essence was a bit too concentrated to get the full bloom of aroma but the cucumber was rather delicious, I thought.

More forecourt shenanigans. The ornament on the bonnet of the car is,
unsurprisingly, a winged cucumber
We have talked before about how it was only 18 months ago that the EU defined gin at all. Louis mentioned with some pride that Hendrick's was, in a way, responsible for this, what with their audacity in adding flavouring essences after distillation. As such, Hendrick's cannot be classified as a London gin, but is technically a distilled gin, and Louis is happy with that. In the exploding gin market* there is clearly room for all sorts and Hendrick's extraordinary marketing efforts clearly have more effect on the typical consumer than any EU definition.

In the interests of science, Mr Bridgman-Smith did the Institute proud and attempted to create his own Hendricks by blending the two distillate samples, adding rose and cucumber essences and bringing it down to bottle strength**—though, under the imperious eye of a stuffed stoat, he admitted he had done this "without much success". Thus proving that a premium gin is not something that any old muppet can knock up with a few flavourings.***

*There may actually be a market for exploding gin which no one has tapped yet. I did come across a rum the other day that is made by a Kiwi bloke who blends various spirits then adds chilli, pipe tobacco and gunpowder. Perhaps mercifully you can't readily buy this stuff but allegedly have to barter for it with him online.
**Like many gins Hendricks is bottled at two strengths, 41.4% for the UK market and 44% for the US. This whole concept of "export strength" is something we will look into in greater depth in the future, but DBS was rather fascinated by the fact that the two Henrick's ABVs were so close, and so precise. Louis explained that at different concentrations different flavour elements manifest themselves, and rigorous experimentation had found that these two ABVs were both "sweet spots" at which the drink tasted particularly good.
***Interestingly, Sacred, an incredibly artisanal gin, is made by an ex-headhunter in the City who distils all the botanicals separately then blends them. You can even buy a kit of the separate botanical distillates, so you can create your own version.

1 comment:

  1. How terribly wacky. Have they been on the wacky backy?