Tuesday 23 November 2010

The Number of the Gin is 209

Branding gimmicks? Not a bit of it. Graphic
manager Sarah Mitchell is handily placed to
give you a sense of scale.

What’s with numbers all of a sudden? There is “6 O’Clock” gin from Bramley and Gage; only last week we were tasting Berry Brothers’ “No.3” gin; and last night at the Juniper Society it was “No. 209” gin. (I’m not a number, I’m a free gin!) The figure this time comes from the birth of the distillery in California’s Napa Valley in 1882: in those days, to guard against illegal distillation, a distillery had to display its licence prominently, and this establishment was the 209th to be licensed in America.

The original project was part of the Edge Hill Winery set up in 1867 by Civil War general Erasmus Keyes. This was later bought by the enterprising William Scheffler who not only built a still, but built a vacuum still—working on the principle that if you lower the pressure within the still the liquid will boil at a lower temperature. Scheffler believed that this made for a more “sanitary” product, a healthier alcohol, if you will. That may or may not be hooey, but he won a medal for his product at the Grand Exposition in Paris in 1889—at a time when Napa Valley was a joke backwater in the global booze fraternity. (The medal turned up on eBay in 2004 and the firm were able to buy it back.)

It’s interesting to see the UK brand Oxley now make such a song and dance about their use of vacuum distillation—they don’t claim it is healthier but they do believe that by not exposing the botanicals to high temperatures they are preserving flavour elements that would otherwise be destroyed by “cooking” them.

The current owners of Distillery No. 209 moved the business to Pier 50 in San Francisco. They say that, thanks to the Dot Com boom, actual industrial space in SF is hard to find, which is why they ended up on a pier—the only distillery in the world built over water. Technical Director Arne Hillestand (known as “The Ginerator”) adds that by being built over water the distillery benefits from a far more consistent temperature.

Blimey, there's that brand again…
No. 209 is a proudly American gin. Its water comes from the city’s private supply at Hitch Hitchy in Yosemite, dammed in 1923 and piped all the way from the National Park. Arne filters it through charcoal and resin beads to remove all particulate matter, then ionises it. “It started as meltwater,” he tells us, “and I try to bring it back to meltwater.”

But the product’s taste derives from more than just good water. “Traditional London gins have a lot of juniper, coriander and often some liquorice. I wanted to tone down the juniper a bit and bring up the citrus and spices.” Arne is not alone in this restlessness with gin orthodoxy and indeed he acknowledges he is part of a movement that was named “New Western Gin” by Ryan Magarian of the Oregon gin Aviation (a product I find rather fascinating and to which I will be returning in a future post).

San Francisco may seem terribly remote to us here in London but, for the record, Arne sources his botanicals from a dealer in Peterborough, Joseph Flach & Sons Ltd, coincidentally also founded in 1882. The mix focuses on juniper, coriander seed, sweet angelica from the north of England, Cardamom (apparently the second or third most expensive spice in the world, owing to its pickiness about growing environment), cassia, a bark that is very similar to cinnamon (and indeed much “cinnamon” sold in the US is actually cassia) and bergamot, a citrus peel that will be familiar to lovers of Earl Grey tea—much of the bergamot grown is for its essential oils that go to flavour that classic brew. The mix is macerated in the spirit overnight before being slowly distilled over 11 hours in small batches. In fact the gin is distilled five times in the pursuit of smoothness and purity.

Head distiller Arne Hillestand. In addition to banners, logos and
giant bottles, our American visitors brought with them the fabled
PowerPoint technology as well
No. 209 are a socially aware brand. Arne uses only a small “heart”, the central portion of each batch distilled in the firm’s swanky new copper pot still (sourced again in the UK, this time from Forsyths in Scotland); the leftover “heads” and “tails” (the first and last liquid to come out of the still with any given batch) are not poured down the drain, though, but given to a chap in southern California who recycles it into some sort of motorcar fuel. Arne even makes a special version of 209 that is kosher for Passover. His usual corn neutral spirit is out, so he gets spirit made from sugar cane. He even had to replace the cardamom—considered by some strict Jews as essentially a pulse, as it comes in a pod—with locally sourced bay laurel leaves.

Arne is a clearly a man with an attention to detail. The bottle is a rather common square-shaped “case gin” design (for easy packing in a case), but the litre bottle comes with a cap that happens to contain exactly a 50ml double measure—something that bartenders in the room had noticed. “If you’re going to make a good cocktail you have to be precise,” Arne shrugs.

Tasted neat it is, reassuringly, quite clearly gin. The initial nose has a green, juiciness that evolves into a sweet, warm perfume, at times almost cloyingly sweet. I’m convinced I also got a hint of green apples, though clearly none went into it. The palate is fiery at first (it’s bottled at 46%) but with a sweetness, and also a strong dryness, like the fragrant dryness of lead pencil shavings. It has similar fat, waxy mid-notes to Aviation, though not in so obstinately profound a way as that very savoury gin.

Oh, look. There's that brand again
I am handed a No. 209 Martini at the beginning and I’m struck that the cardamom comes across even with the other elements there, seeming to complement the fresh lemon twist particularly well. In fact even tasted neat you get a sense of something like grapefruit peel—which must be the bergamot, apparently less sour than a lemon but more bitter than a grapefruit*—again seeming to marry well with the spice: you get both dry exoticism and juicy fruitiness at the same time. No. 209 may have only six botanicals, but you sense a poise and confidence in the non-juniper path they have chosen, even if the end result is more diplomatically gin-like than the likes of Aviation or Death’s Door.

Arne finished his presentation with a quote from Oscar Wilde: “It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears 
is said to be seen in San Francisco.
 It must be a delightful city and possess 
all the attractions of the next world.” Is No. 209 a glimpse into heaven? That’s pushing it, but it’s certainly a refined and though-provoking tipple.

No. 209 is about £37.50 for a litre.

*Actually I think there are other botanicals, including other citrus elements, that Arne won’t tell us about.

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