Thursday 12 September 2013

Hernö: like gin, but more so

A rare bottle of Hernö Juniper Cask Gin, with a cask in the
background (the real ones are much bigger)
I went to the launch of a new gin on Monday, from Hernö in Sweden, proudly the northernmost distillery in the world (is this good?). Mrs H. rolled her eyes when she heard. “Another gin?” she said. “Surely we’re all ginned out now?”

It certainly seems that each new gin must have to fight its corner to get noticed, but what we’re also seeing is exploration into new types of gin. Not very long ago few people would have heard of Old Tom gin, the sweeter style that predated London Dry, but launching your own version seems to be the latest fad. Then there is navy strength* gin, with several of those launching recently. And also aged gin.

The gin we were launching on Monday, at the bijou Charlotte’s Bistro in Chiswick, fell into this last category. Hernö take their normal gin blend and age it, for just 30 days, in barrels made, not from oak as might be normal, but from juniper wood.

I’d not had the pleasure of sampling Hernö gin before. Their standard product, Swedish Excellence, comes in at 40.5% ABV. In their own 250-litre copper pot still at their distillery in the village of Dala near Härnösand, they distil it twice (presumably starting with commercial neutral spirit), first to make a vodka, getting the character from the interaction with the copper, then the second time to make the gin. Before this second distillation the botanicals are macerated, for varying amounts of time. The juniper and coriander are in there for 18 hours, but the fresh lemon peel, which master distiller Jon Hillgren explains he cuts himself from lemons bought at the local shop, is added just before distilling. The botanicals, which are all organic, also include cassia bark, black peppercorns, meadowsweet, lingonberries and vanilla.

DBS enjoying some Hernö. He's also a
fan—in fact they quote his tasting notes
in their brochure and on the website
I like a gin that fundamentally tastes of gin, and I’m immediately taken by Hernö. Big, aromatic juniper hits you first and bright, fresh citrus, but you can also clearly pick out the cassia and black pepper. It seems stronger than 40.5%, perhaps because the pepper gives a subtle bite.

There is also a Hernö Navy Strength, which is exactly the same gin but bottled at 57% (the water for dilution comes from their own well and there is no chill-filtering), and I’m even more taken by it. At this strength the vanilla comes through more strongly but you can still pick out the other ingredients; the residue in an empty glass develops a strong cassia character. Somehow they have made a very elegant gin, with some modern twists to an essentially classic profile. Where other gins might throw many more botanicals at the problem (or maybe fewer) and end up with a homogenised, one-dimensional taste, Hernö doesn’t take the flavour profile in any terribly whacky directions, but somehow manages to have a 3D vividness to the flavours that are there, yet deft and polished, without any sharp edges. It is gin, but more so.

So what of the aged gin we are here to launch, Hernö Juniper Cask Gin? The idea of wood-aged gin may well have caught on as an adjunct to the search for the true nature of Old Tom. All we really know about the latter is that it was sweeter than London Dry, most likely to mask the roughness of the underlying spirit in the days before the invention of the column still made relatively pure alcohol easy to achieve. Some assume that Old Tom was simply sugared, others believe the perceived “sweetness” came from a heavier, spicier botanicals, such as liquorice. Some have suggested that the barrels used to store and transport the spirit before the 1861 Single Bottle Act would have affected the flavour—and indeed ageing in wood has long been a way of softening and adding complexity to spirit (the whisky industry is based on it, and Seagram’s gin in the US has always been rested in oak barrels for three to four weeks before bottling).

You can see how the gin has soaked through
the wood of the barrel
Most wood-aged spirit has spent some time sitting in oak barrels, which imparts a classic vanilla/butter flavour. But Hernö, which is pretty juniper-led to start with, instead gets to sit in barrels made from juniper wood. Jon explains that none of the available juniper trees in Sweden was big enough to produce planks more than a couple of inches wide, so the timber was imported from the US and made into barrels by Sweden’s only cooper. Jon admits that juniper wood is not really ideal for storing liquids, as the contents seep through to the outside. The wood exudes a resinous sap which can be clearly smelled.**

After just 30 days the gin has a pronounced yellow colour. But instead of plump, creamy oak character, you get enhanced high notes, a fresh resinous zing and a bright fruitiness. The juniper presence borders on the menthol-like but that just-peeled lemon element still comes through too, along with something floral and a hint of anise. On the palate it does not seem as dramatically changed as it does on the nose, but it is instructive to compare the cask gin side by side with the navy strength. The balance with the latter seems to favour the warm spice notes more, meaning that ironically it comes across as “woodier” than the wood-aged version.

Add tonic water to the cask gin and a sweet, clover-like floral note emerges (perhaps this is meadowsweet?). It’s a great combo, though I find it needs a bit more tonic than usual to achieve a comfortable balance. Likewise it makes a fascinating Martini, but again it seems to want a fairly a “wet”mix of about two parts gin to one part vermouth. With its pokey, piney juniper thrust, the cask gin also stands its ground easily in a Negroni, which I think is essential in this in this gutsy combination.

Hernö gins, as with any other boutique product, are not cheap: the Swedish Excellence is about £30 for 50cl, and you’ll be lucky to find Navy Strength or Cask Gin at all. But do seek it out. There is something rather life-affirming about the way they have passionately reinvented flavours we think we are so familiar with.

And the Cask Gin comes with a cap of beeswax that Jon obtains from a neighbouring beekeeper and hand dips himself.

* About 57% alcohol by volume, the point at which, if you splash some on to gunpowder, the powder can still be ignited. Rum which could pass this test was said to be “proof”, hence the old measurement of “degrees proof” as a way of indicating alcoholic strength, where 100 degrees is this tipping point. Hence “overproof” rum that is stronger than this.
** Jon confirms that in time they will experiment with reusing the barrels, perhaps creating distinct second fill and third fill editions.