Saturday 6 July 2013

Two Birds, Dodd's, Sacred—gins that show their craft

All looks orderly as DBS hands out pens and scoring sheets at the beginning of the session…

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to join a panel for a blind tasting of British “craft” gins, organized by DBS in association with the Craft Distillers Alliance. OK, so the obvious first question is: what is a “craft” gin? The name suggests something homespun and artisanal, and that is essentially what it is—and it’s apparently on the rise. It’s been going on for some time in the US, where there are more than 500 craft distillers, and now it’s happening here too. We tasted 18 gins, which were reckoned to be fully 90% of all the UK craft gins in existence (i.e. two declined to take apart), so we’re a little way behind the Yanks; but DBS points out that a year ago we couldn’t even have organised a tasting like this at all. Anyway, for the purposes of the tasting a “craft distiller” was someone who used their own still (as opposed to getting their gin made for them by a big distiller like Thames or Greenalls), but was not one of the major players.
The tasting took place at the “Ginstitute” upstairs room at the Portobello Star on Portobello Road in London, with the support of Fever-Tree mixers. Each gin was blind-tasted neat and we were asked to rate its nose, palate and balance, as well as giving it an overall score out of 100. Then we rated them all over again with tonic water. The resulting scores of all nine judges were aggregated to produce an overall winner.

Straight away it became clear that the concept of the craft gin was more useful than you might imagine: perhaps freed from the “regression towards the mean” understandable in a vast commercial enterprise, these gins went in some strange directions. In fact it was only the seventh sample we tried that we agreed seemed to be especially juniper-led.

Ultimately the laurels went to Two Birds, a gin produced in Market Harborough and only launched earlier this year. It is made in a still designed and hand-built by the gin’s creator Mark Gamble, in batches of just 100 bottles at a time. It contains five botanicals, of which only juniper is admitted to. (I notice that on their About page there is a photo showing juniper and elderflower, so I wonder if the latter is in the mix—they do emphasise that their gin is all about celebrating the English countryside—although I don’t think I can taste it.) The style of this one is actually quite classic (suggesting that, for all the experimentation going on with gin profiles these days, the judges essentially liked a gin that tastes of gin); this was the one that prompted me to write “Juniper at last!” in my notes. It also struck me as sappy and spicy with an orange note. On the palate neat it was smooth and approachable but well balanced in a classic way. Tasting it now against Tanqueray as a control, it has a bit more of an emphasis on cardamom and sweet/roundness, where Tanqueray is drier, more upright and with more coriander.

Tasted neat, the joint highest scorers were actually Sacred Coriander (see below) and Dodd’s gin, made in Battersea by the London Distillery Company (and named after Ralph Dodd, the idealist who founded a company of the same name in 1807, but never actually got to make any gin). The bulk of the botanicals (which include juniper, angelica, fresh lime peel, bay laurel, cardamom, red raspberry leaf and London honey) are distilled in a 140-litre copper alembic, but “the more delicate botanicals” are separately processed in a cold vacuum still, in the same way that Sacred gin is. The two distillates are then blended.

I myself actually seem to have ranked Dodd’s 10th in the neat round (I put Two Birds top, with Chase Williams, Sacred Coriander and Dà Mhìle all in joint second place), describing its nose as “wood resin and varnish [from juniper, I assume], with a hint of grapefruit and a smidgeon of curry” and adding that the palate has an “interesting balance between powerful high notes and earthy warmth”. Tasting it again now I would say its balance is heavily towards sweet, floral flavours of angelica and cardamom.

Sacred should come in for a special mention. Ian Hart makes the stuff in a vacuum still in his house, distilling each botanical separately then blending them at the end. This gives him the freedom to make different blends, and he sells packs containing the basic gin plus a selection of single-botanical distillates so you can experiment with tweaking the flavour this way or that. He now also makes gins that are heavily weighted towards one botanical—5% normal Sacred Gin mixed with 95% distillate of just one botanical. He had entered no fewer than seven samples into our tasting: his normal Sacred Gin, plus his Juniper Gin, Coriander Gin, Cardamom Gin, Orris Gin, Pink Grapefruit Gin and Liquorice Gin.

And it was certainly worth his while. Although he didn’t take the overall victor ludorum, in the aggregated scoring his standard Sacred Gin came second, his Coriander Gin (i.e. 95% coriander distillate with just 5% Sacred Gin mixed in) came third and this Cardamom Gin came fourth. As mentioned, tasted neat his Coriander Gin was joint first. And in the scoring for tasted-with-tonic-water, Sacred Gin came first, followed by Sacred Coriander.

In my own notes, with tonic I put Sacred Cardamom top, followed by Sipsmith VJOP (a special juniper-heavy blend made for the Japanese market), then Sacred Gin and Sacred Coriander in joint third place.

Not only does this suggest that Sacred is a Good Thing, but it also shows that we don’t necessarily need a huge number of botanicals to make a satisfying gin,* particularly when it is to be consumed with tonic water. Certainly this tasting reveals that one gin can be excellent on its own but not rated at all with tonic, and vice versa.

For me, a logical conclusion would be to look more closely at Sacred Coriander. It seems to be something of a jack-of-all-trades, coming joint first neat, second with tonic and third overall. And when I aggregate my own scores I find that Sacred Coriander comes first. On his website Ian sells the Pink Grapefruit, Cardamom and Juniper gins, as well as the standard Sacred Gin, but not the Coriander. “We will indeed be selling Coriander Gin shortly on our website,” he explains. “It’s just that the USA has bought nearly all our stock! I have been distilling coriander for the last few days, and we will be bottling 3,000 more bottles shortly.” I suggest that he must be a bit sick of coriander right now, but he replies, “Coriander is fascinating—so many different flavours come out at different points of the distillation!” Clearly a man who loves his work.

By the end of the session, things are a bit more
chaotic and voluble…
Tasting some of these samples now, side by side and knowing what they are, I’m struck by just how powerful the Sacred Coriander and Cardamom gins are—which perhaps gives them the ability to stand out in a mass tasting, particularly diluted with tonic water when tongues are getting tired. As soon as you, for example, blend these two together the overall punch seems to reduce exponentially. Sacred Gin itself contains 12 botanicals and is indeed quite subtle, particularly with tonic. I would describe it as elegant, refined and with an emphasis on rich, smooth, exotic elements. (Its name comes from the fact that one of the botanicals is frankincense; I’m not sure I can exactly pick it out, but you can believe there is a heady resinous note, like hot solder.)

The single-botanical gins are actually a great way to appreciate the flavours of particular spices: the coriander is pungent with a combination of lemony high notes and a liquorice-like sweet rooty layer; the cardamom has an immediate confectionary appeal, a powdery sweetness with elements of lemon, lime and mango, but with a bitterness on the finish. But would either by my desert island gin? No, I don’t think so. All of which actually shines quite a light on the tricky business of gin blending, and on the achievement of Two Birds, and also Dodd’s and Sacred, in producing recipes that pleased all nine judges on the day!

* Mind you, it didn’t always work. The Sacred Liquorice Gin rated as not really smelling or tasting of much at all, and ranked second from bottom in my overall scores; clearly this is one botanical that plays its part in a blend but does not work on its own.

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