Thursday 1 September 2011

Is there a "Scottish" gin style?

The gang gather at Graphic in London's Golden Square

It hadn’t escaped DBS that there were an increasing number of gins coming out of Scotland these days, joining the juggernaut that is Hendrick’s, made by William Grant of whisky-making distinction (for more on that gin, see our previous review). So last week a posse of ginthusiasts assembled at Graphic for a blind tasting of some dozen spirits that were linked only by the fact that they are all made north of the border. You could argue (and some did) that “Scottish gin” is not a recognised style—although this is something David wanted to put to the test. But even if it is not, comparative tastings usually shed some useful light.

So to cut to the chase, here are my notes (bearing in mind that at the time we did not know what the samples were). Each gin was sampled on its own and with tonic (and sometimes just with water).

1. Old Raj Red (46%) Notwithstanding the blindness of the tasting, this was immediately recognisable as one of the two Old Raj samples, because of its colour—faintly yellow, as a result of the saffron that is infused post-distillation (by the company chairman himself, apparently). It had a sweet, fruity nose with a hint of blackcurrant, it seemed, and a silky mouthfeel. A classy heft to it. Made a pretty well balanced G&T (though for my money the best use of Old Raj is in a Martini).

2. Edinburgh A nettly, slightly pungent nose with perhaps a hint of smoky rubber. The palate was dry but with a definite hint of banana. It worked better in a G&T but still there was that banana element, which I didn’t like at all. Bit sweet.

3. Cadenhead Classic More juniper-led than perhaps any of the others; quite traditional in its come-on. Has an underlying perfume but also a hint of allium, or something else savoury. The palate is dry but with a “dry sugar” botanical flavour. Marries very well with tonic in a classic way. A classy example of a conventional conception of gin.

The blind samples in their numbered bottles
4. Hendrick’s 41.4% Nose seems dominated by citrus, orange in particular, with a sweetish palate. [Odd that I wasn’t struck by rose or cucumber, the signature botanicals of Hendrick’s.]

5. Caorunn May be my imagination but it seems almost to have a greenish tint to it. Pencil juniper on the nose, then citrus, then coriander, then a warm bottom note, more or less in that order. The palate is fairly balanced but a bit sweet, and with an interesting aftertaste, the sweetness joined by a lingering vegetal flavour. Quite fiery too, despite that sweetness. Add tonic, though, and it falls apart slightly, actually becomes a bit crude.

6. Hendrick’s 44% Nose of citrus but also something sappy and herbal. Hint of coal tar. Palate is balanced; smooth but not over-sweet. Nice orange/aromatic finish.

7. The Botanist The nose is a bit like a less subtle version of No.6. Has a definite “green” note. Palate seems a bit flat. With tonic it seems a bit crude and heavy-handed compared to some of the others.

8. Boe A dry, herbaceous nose of thyme or lavender, and a light, balanced palate showing poise. Add tonic and citrus emerges. Quite interesting though I suspect the floral/lavender element might get a bit cloying to me after a while.

9. Old Raj Blue (55%) Yellowish, so clearly the other Old Raj. A bit hard to get a handle on neat, because the high strength keeps some of the flavour elements bottled, but with tonic it becomes smooth, floral and perfumed, with a bit of ginger.

10. Darnley’s View A floral nose but just edging towards rancid plasticene. A fruity palate but surprisingly dry after that overmellow flowery nose.

11. Hammer A dry nose led by juniper and orange. Palate is dry too but quite balanced, though ultimately rather low key; which is perhaps the idea. [This isn’t a Scottish gin at all—it’s made in Norway—but David included it as a sort of control or touchstone, because it sells itself as a London Dry Gin; but I wasn’t struck by its standing out from the overwhelming “Scottishness” of the other samples. In fact for me the one that stood out as a more classic style was Cadenhead Classic.]

12. Blackwood’s, 2008 A nose or spearmint chews and lemon and lime. Light and dry on the palate with a pleasant lemony aromatic quality. As a G&T it works rather well, the lean, lemon notes sitting comfortably with similar qualities in the tonic water.

My favourites? Knowing what Nos 1 and 9 were, and therefore lumping them together, I would say that my top three were 1/9, 3 and 6, which is to say Old Raj (in both formulations), Cadenhead Classic and Hendrick’s 44%. It’s hard to say what order I’d put them in but probably the Old Raj (made by Cadenhead) and the Cadenhead Classic would vie for top spot—meaning that the Cadenhead distillery is probably where I should go and live.

Overall as a group we voted Hendricks 44% into first place, followed by Old Raj Blue (55%) in second, Hendrick’s 41.4% in third, Old Raj Red (46%) in fourth and Cadenhead Classic in fifth, which is broadly consistent with my own conclusions.

Hendrick's (US export, 44%)

Old Raj Blue (55%)

Hendrick's (UK version, 41.4%)

Is there a “Scottish style”? Some of the gins play on their Scottishness in terms of presentation and ingredients—many include heather, The Botanist includes a whopping 31 botanicals all of which grow naturally on the island of Islay where it is made, and Blackwood’s make a big deal of how their botanicals are hand-picked on Shetland in a particular season (though don’t actually state that all the botanicals come from there, any more than all the Botanist ones come from Islay). But it’s telling that our top five in the blind tasting don’t really fall into that category: the Cadenhead gins are fairly classic (with the saffron being not very Scottish at all) while Hendrick’s key ingredients are rose essence from Bulgaria and cucumber essence from the Netherlands.

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