Friday 28 January 2011

Botanicals—the more the merrier?

A mixological magpie, DBS is forever accumulating samples. Every time I see him he presents me with small bottles and phials, to the extent that Mrs H. has made me remove the collection of miniatures that was spilling off the booze shelf. David, meanwhile, was wanting some of the bottles back, so I realised it was time I actually drank some.

One of the latest samples he gave me is of a gin called The Botanist that is made on the island of Islay (in fact is the only gin made on the island, as they proudly point out) by the Bruichladdich whisky distillery. This business of making gin as a sideline seems increasingly common: on holiday in Wales once I got talking to a shop owner about a Welsh gin he was selling (must have been Penderyn’s Brecon gin). He told me it was really only being produced as a quick source of ready cash (DBS’s oaked experiment aside, gin doesn’t need to be matured) to fund the real project which was whisky—a previous incarnation of the company having gone bust while waiting for the product to mature. I don’t know if Bruichladdich’s motivation is the same or whether it’s simply that gin is now so fashionable that anyone with anything resembling a still is bashing out a gin to cash in. (While mooching around Gerry’s in Soho the other day we got to sample two new gins made by the brewer Adnams; initial tastes were very promising and I hope to report further shortly.)

In keeping with Bruichladdich’s brand image of sophisticated independence The Botanist augments nine conventional botanicals with no fewer than 22 others all from Islay. In fact it may well be that every single plant growing on the island has been stuffed into the still to see what it all tastes like. (See the full list at the bottom.) These have apparently been “hand-picked” from the wild by the “expert foraging team* from the windswept hills, peat bogs and Atlantic shores” of the island. These are presumably macerated in the spirit before distillation in Ugly Betty, their experimental Lomond** pot still, which runs at a lower pressure than normal and takes three times longer to distil a batch than their whisky stills do. The gin is bottled at 46% ABV and the 2010 offering is limited to just 15,000 bottles.

Ugly Betty is installed
Presumably to assuage traditionalists, Bruichladdich point out that this gin actually has a “historical relevance”. Before the days of legitimate whisky, cask-aged into smooth complexity, clandestine distillers would consume their spirit young and clear, and would attempt to improve the rough flavour by bunging hillside plants into it. One such was juniper, which grows wild on the island. Therefore, they assert, the original whisky, as it were, may well have been more like gin.

This is all as may be, but what does it taste like? The Botanist may have 22 wild, whole-earth, dew-picked Islay botanicals in it, but it also has nine bog-standard ones—they list juniper, cassia bark, coriander seed and orris powder—and it is these that dominate. So first and foremost it tastes like gin. I’m assuming there is orange peel in the mix too, because to me there is a strong element of this. I also get the feeling there is some kind of allium in there, though I may be confusing it with something like Meadowsweet, which I think has a Parsley-like gentle pungency to it. A Botanist Martini has a dry perfume and a prominent herbal notes, with a hint of crystallised violets. Tasting it in a G&T I again get orange and savoury spice, plus berries and mint (not surprising as there are three kinds of mint in the mix, and indeed elderberry).

The Botanist is a complex gin. I don’t think I can taste all 31 botanicals, but who says you have to? It’s an approachable gin that works in all the conventional recipes but rewards greater study. It wouldn’t surprise me if different botanicals popped up as you experimented with combining the gin with other mixers or cocktail ingredients—but alas my tantalising phial is empty.

The Botanist's island botanicals:
White Birch, Camomile, Creeping Thistle, Lady’s Bedstraw, Elderberry, Gorse, Common Heather, Common Hawthorn, Lemon balm, Meadowsweet, Foxtail Mint, Peppermint, Water Mint, Common Wormwood, Grande Wormwood, Red Clover, White Clover, Sweet Cicely, Bog Myrtle, Tansy, Common Thyme, Wood Sage.

* I quite like the idea of being an “expert forager”: I can picture it on my business card. Plus of course the Hollywood movie, where a crack team of the world’s top foragers is assembled, grizzled veterans brought out of retirement for “one last job”, each with their own special skills, personal mythologies and individual hang-ups (“I thought I made myself clear!” I snarl into our mysterious client’s face, “I don’t touch meadowsweet!”).

** Or Lomand, depending on which press release you read. A Lomand still is a cross between a Coffey and a pot still, with removable neck sections and adjustable plates to alter the weight of the spirit that emerges. Only one has ever been built, in 1956 at the Dumbarton distillery, and it is this one, refurbished, that now squats at Bruichladdich.

Some of the samples DBS has recent bestowed: Mozart dry chocolate liqueur, homemade apple gin
crème de mure, Giffard brown crème de cacao and Giffard white crème de cacao

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