Saturday 9 April 2011

Knock-off of the year: Thailand’s Answer to Bombay Sapphire?

My brother-in-law works in Thailand taking tourists scuba diving, but thanks to the monsoon he ends up spending half the year in the UK. On his most recent return he brought me this glorious curio from Thailand’s Boss Winery. Now, it doesn’t call itself gin and the label bears no resemblance to Bombay Sapphire’s (well, perhaps apart from the script font for “Original Distillation” which is a bit like “Distilled” on the latter), but even if you ignore the highly recognisable square blue bottle, I notice that the inside of the back label has an illustrated list of the botanicals just like the ones that appear on the Bombay Sapphire bottle.

You have to admire someone who releases a product and calls it “White Elephant”, though I assume the British meaning of the phrase is not widely recognised in Thailand—where a white elephant is a symbol of justice, peace and power (it appears on certain naval and diplomatic flags, as well as the old flag of Siam). In fact the whole package is endearingly makeshift, from the dodgy English (why is the label in English anyway? Are they hoping for an export market?) down to what appears to be a blob of Tippex on the back label—do you suppose they spotted a mistake and had someone sit down and Tippex each label by hand? I particularly like the little trophy that appears on the front label: there’s no explanation of what it represents, so perhaps they just felt they deserved one.

Note the illustrated botanical list on the inside
of the back label and the same on the BS bottle
How does White Elephant compare to Bombay Sapphire? First off, it’s hard to say what it is intended to be: it just says it’s a spirit, not a gin. The back label says it is made from tropical fruits, but I can’t make out the botanical list through the glass (I tried soaking off the label but it would not budge) and it looks as if they are named in Thai anyway. Interestingly this product is not mentioned on the company’s website—it seems they primarily make wine from indigenous fruit, including the rather scary-sounding Black Rhizome Wine. But it’s fair to conclude that it’s either a gin-like flavoured spirit using local ingredients (it’s colourless so I would guess the botanicals are macerated before distillation rather than infused afterwards), or it could simply be a vodka-style drink using these tropical fruits as a source of sugars rather than grain or grape—perhaps simply distilled from the company’s wines or post-fermentation residue, like grappa.

Sticking my nose into a glass of Bombay Sapphire I get citrus first, then coriander and the warmer, dry notes of cassia and perhaps the soft, oily, nuttiness of the almonds. Bombay Sapphire is made entirely in a Carter Head still, where the botanicals sit in a “flavour box” through which the alcohol vapour passes, rather than macerating in the spirit before distillation, and this produces a lighter flavour and mouthfeel with fewer of the heavy essential oils from pot still distillation. I haven’t tasted this gin in a long while and, neat, it’s actually quite fierce and astringent compared to, say SW4, which is smoother, with more woody, aromatic action going on in the mid-range.

The back label. Click to enlarge
White Elephant actually turns out to be quite lightly flavoured—making the Bombay Sapphire seem full-on by comparison. There is a fruitiness on the nose but the most dominant element is the spirit itself. If I were being nice I’d say it had whisky-like “maltwine” flavour, reminiscent of genever. If I were being less nice I’d say the fumes remind me of Bostik. It catches at the back of your nose and, as the spirit “opens out” in the glass, the smell actually gets worse.

I don’t know if I expected big, almost synthetically in-your-face, fruit flavours but the palate is much the same as the nose, dominated by the rough spirit, like crude, unaged Scotch. You can detect some sort of tropical fruit, plus something rooty and earthy. Even a hint of banana. But mostly it’s that alcohol.

The only good thing I can say about White Elephant is that it is probably not as bad as the bottle of Moutai that someone gave me. This is a Chinese spirit distilled from wheat and sorghum and it has a similar sour smell and taste, but much more intense.

Mixed 2:1 with tonic water, the botanicals in White Elephant, if there are any, fade even more and that odd, dusty, sour taste of the spirit actually gets worse. All round, it’s not a fun experience. If you find yourself in Duty Free at a Thai airport, avoid this.

1 comment:

  1. Super, hope I get a chance to try some. Not made by Bruce Springsteen is it?