Wednesday, 26 June 2013

A thoroughly Scottish gin

The mysterious box opens to reveal…
I was lucky enough to receive a mysterious package in the post the other day, which turned out to be from the folk at Caorunn, a relatively new gin from Scotland. Quite a bit of effort had gone into the package itself, so I have documented what I believe is known as the “unpack” in tech geek circles in photographs on the right.

I was initially a bit perplexed as to what the thing was handles was, but Mrs H guessed that it was for coring and slicing apples in a single stroke. It seems that just as, in a crowded marketplace, new gins frequently have oddball botanicals, so it also seems de rigeur to specify an unusual garnish, and in this case it is indeed slices of apple—coul blush apple being one of the botanicals.*

The other thing you notice straightaway is the unusual five-sided glass included in the package (not the easiest to drink out of but stylish nonetheless). In fact the bottle itself is subtly pentagonal, and the theme carries on in the five-pointed asterisk that graces the label.

A sticker with a five-pointed star, hiding…
Now at this point a weaker man than I would start to fear that this logo, which is to all intents and purposes a pentagram, heralded witchcraft or paganism—perhaps an overture to lure me on a “fact-finding mission” to the Balmenach Distillery in Cromdale on the Spey where it is made, only to find myself burned in a wicker man by villagers wearing animal masks.

Fortunately there is a more prosaic explanation. In addition to six conventional gin botanicals (juniper, coriander, lemon peel, orange peel, angelica root and cassia bark) Caorunn (pronounced ka-ROON) also features five Scottish botanicals as well, rowan berry, heather, dandelion, bog myrtle and the aforementioned apple). In fact caorunn is the Gaellic name for rowan.** In this respect it is like The Botanist gin, which uses only botanicals found on the island of Islay where it is made (which is not to say, I assume, that the actual botanicals used in the gin are all sourced on Islay). That gin manages to rack up a tally of 31 botanicals (which I had thought was a record, though I gather that Monkey 47 actually has 47), making Caorunn seem a model of Zen-like simplicity with only 11. Although Caorunn technically falls into the category of “London Gin” (the highest EU grade, indicating a high quality spirit, natural botanicals with no artificial flavourings, and no colours or flavours added after distillation), the labelling prefers to refer to it simply as “Scottish gin”.

A collection of intriguing objects
Like The Botanist, Caorunn is made by a whisky distillery, in this case the Balmenach Distillery, owned by the Inver House Group, which also includes Pulteney, Balblair, Knockdu and Speyburn-Glenlivet in its portfolio, and apparently a vodka made at its Airdrie facility too. Balmenach was one of the first distilleries to be sanctioned under the Excise Act of 1823.

The gin was allegedly inspired by the landscape of the Cairngorms in which the distillery is located. It is batch-distilled by hand using an unusual still a bit like a Carterhead, in that the botanicals infuse into the alcohol vapour rather than coming into contact with the liquid spirit. But where the Carterhead has a botanical basket at the top of a column, the Balmenach still has a unique copper “berry chamber” in which the botanicals are spread out on four horizontal trays, to maximise their exposure to the vapour. The spirit is triple distilled from 100% grain and the gin is diluted to 41.8% ABV using spring water that filters down through the Cromdale Hills behind the distillery.

The "berry chamber" with trays for the botanicals
Uncork a bottle of Caorunn and you are met by a soft aroma, a blend of inviting spice with an almost chocolatey warmth, and, higher up, a crisp, aromatic stemminess. I open up some Tanqueray for comparative purposes and it has a stiffer juniper/coriander nose. In a glass, Caorunn definitely has a softer juniper element than traditional gin, with subtle herbal notes and a pronounced fruitiness, which I guess must come from the rowan berries. Where Tanquerary packs a prickly high-note punch, Caorunn is softer and sweeter, almost creamy with berry fruit, aromatic apple notes, and a slightly toasty, biscuity finish.

Those mystical objects in detail. Both the bottle label and the etchings of the highball glass
show sort of Rennie Mackintosh stylised images of the five Scottish botanicals in the gin

I knock up a couple of G&Ts, one with Caorunn and one using Chancery, a fairly traditional own-brand gin from Tesco that is made by Greenalls. Where the Chancery emphasises dry spice the Caorunn at first offers a more pronounced orange element plus delicate, fragrant high notes that do seem something like apple. In any case the apple garnish does go very well.

Even the bottle (viewed here from the underside) is pentagonal
In some ways Caorunn is following the trend of producing gins that have a softer, sweeter character than traditional steely juniper-driven gin, presumably to attract people who do not consider themselves gin drinkers—perhaps because they are not that keen on juniper. Where some, like Bloom or G’Vine (and to a certain extent Adnams) add heavy floral flavours, Caorunn is a subtler, more elusive beast. To get the most out of its understated flavour it might be best consumed just with tonic or neat on the rocks, or in a pretty dry Martini (I try one at my usual 4:1 ratio and the gin is almost being masked by the vermouth).

Yes, the apple corer/slicer does actually work
In a standard Negroni (equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari) the gin again seems swamped. But on the Caorunn website there is a large number of rather interesting-sounding recommended cocktails, one of which is a Negroni—but made with Aperol instead of Campari. So I make one like this and it does indeed work much better, the gentler flavour of the Aperol allowing the gin to make its presence felt in the form of gentle juniper and some floral notes.

I try another one from the site, called King James II and created by Mal Spence of Blythswood Square Hotel. It involves an interesting blend of the gin, Lillet Blanc, Pernod, elderflower liqueur, grapefruit bitters and gomme syrup. An inspired and imaginative combination in my opinion, with the anise and elderflower fencing in the foreground and the gin’s apple aromatics seemingly floating over the top. This is an interesting example of a Lillet Blanc cocktail where this ingredient really works—most are just using Lillet Blanc because Kina Lillet isn’t made any more, and it never seems to work, presumably because Kina Lillet packed more of a bitter herbal punch than the soft, sweet, orangey modern drink.

A King James II cocktail
Hats off to Caorunn for producing such a thoughtful cocktail list—many spirit brands will post just a perfunctory five or six “cocktails” that turn out to be simply the addition of a mixer. And the couple that I have tried so far do indeed seem to showcase the gin’s gentle subtleties, where many classic gin cocktail recipes might swamp it. 

Experimenting with flavour blends not led by juniper seems to be frightfully modish at the moment (as we discovered on Monday at the Craft Distillers Association gin awards organised by DBS, more of which anon). So even if you are not a Scottish nationalist you might want to give Caorunn a try. At about £25 a bottle it’s not unreasonably priced.

* At the Beefeater 24 global cocktail competition last December I got talking to one of the organisers and I commented that I thought it was a bit odd that these recommended garnishes are invariably one of the botanicals that go into the gin. He looked a bit shocked and said, “When we train bartenders we tell them always to garnish using only botanicals that are in the gin.” But while this will always keep you on fairly safe ground, there is an argument for saying that if the gin does indeed taste better with a bit more of that particular botanical, why not just add more when making the gin? Of course there may well be a difference between the flavour of a fresh ingredient and the flavour it might lend by being macerated in the spirit and then redistilled. But in any case I would have thought that garnishing could be as much an opportunity to investigate flavour combinations (by adding things that are not in the botanical list) as a way of emphasising a flavour that is already in the gin.

** Apparently rowan berries were used in Celtic medicines—as indeed juniper was also considered to have medicinal benefits, and was first used in spirits as a way of preserving those healing powers rather than as a way to flavour the hooch.

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