Friday 23 May 2014

D1 London Gin: By the Power of Blueskull!

The front of the D1 bottle
I was saying to someone only the other day that I couldn’t think of a single gin that marketed itself in the same “ultrapremium” lifestyle way that vodkas like Grey Goose and Belvedere do, the sort of product that uber-cool club kids want to be seen with. Of course vodka does rather lend itself to this sort of thing, given that you are unlikely to turn someone off because of the taste, and in terms of the actual product most of them just focus on being smooth (and in some cases quite possibly sweetened). Gin, on the other hand, is relatively strongly flavoured, and many people just don’t like the steely, resinous taste of juniper.

Low and behold, a few days later I am invited to the launch of D1, a gin that openly targets that market. The launch is held in Kensington nightclub Boujis (where, at the end of the evening with the presentation over, waitresses duly bring out illuminated Belvedere ice buckets, so we are clearly in the homeland of that market). Moreover, the makers, D. J. Limbrey Distilling Co., have teamed up with trendy artist Jacky Tsai, perhaps best known for the floral skull image he created for the late Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2008 collection. Another floral skull appears on the D1 bottle, and at the launch event there were floral skull sculptures on display (apparently so valuable that each one had to have its own bodyguard).

The back of the bottle, showing the Union Flag on the back of
the label; the skull is printed on both sides
There was also an ice skull sculpture—which founder Dominic Limbrey admitted had perhaps been placed a little to close to the air conditioning and it was melting pretty quickly—and a tank of smaller skulls with goldfish swimming around. At the peak of the evening, while a musician screeched away alarmingly on a stringed Chinese instrument (possibly an  erhu), Jacky himself brought in another large ice skull which he dumped into the tank, where it would gradually melt, presumably saying something about change, transition, decay, etc. It was all very elaborate: Gin Monkey, who was called in to consult, told me that the fish tank had to be partitioned so that the fish were not in the same water as the ice, otherwise the temperature change would kill them. Even the Perspex plinths on which art and gin bottles were displayed had been specially made at great expense. Poking through the going-home goody bag I found a Jacky Tsai floral skull baseball cap and a rubber floral skull mask.

The partly-melted ice skull
I chat to Richard Maton of Limbrey and he cheerfully admits that there is no particular connection between the gin and the skull image. It is just a way of identifying the gin with a modern vision of fashionable Britain (there is also a big Union Jack on the back of the bottle label, and the literature uses the phrase “a bold reinvention of the London tradition”). But there is a reason why they have chosen Tsai. The artist came to Britain from China in his twenties and his art combines traditional Chinese painting with Western pop art. And Limbrey are not just targeting the fashionable set in Britain but also have their eyes on the Chinese market. Not many gin brands are out there at the moment, Maton tells me, and Limbrey want to get in there from the get-go.

There is more to this than just marketing. The gin has actually been engineered to serve the target audience. Compared to, say, Tanquerary Ten, Maton points out, it is lower in alcohol and less botanically intense, making it easier to drink neat—it is certainly intended as a “sipping gin” (not a term you hear very often). Most of the botanicals are fairly normal—juniper, orange peel, lemon peel, angelica root, cassia bark, almond and
liquorice—but there is also nettle leaf. There are references to a “daring kick of nettle”, and nettle is a rather British sort of plant, but just as cooked nettle (as in nettle soup) has no sting, neither does distilled nettle. In fact I’m told that its presence adds a smoothness and sweetness balanced by a tea-like bitter edge. (The nettles are actually selected for them by a tea blender.)

Even the plinths on which the bottles were displayed
apparently cost a fortune
Tea. You can see where they are going with this, vis à vis the Asian market. And Maton tells me that the flavour of the gin has been designed to work well with watermelon and cranberry, two popular mixers in that market. The little booklet that comes attached to the neck of the bottle has all the text in both English and Chinese. The recommended serves in the booklet are noteworthy: firstly, you simply stir with ice and serve over more ice, with a twist of lemon (something they call a “London Rocks Cocktail”, though it is hard to argue that it is really a cocktail as such). The second serve is simply mixed with watermelon or cranberry. The final suggestion is the Jacky Tsai cocktail, which blends the gin with blue curaçao. The orange flavour of the curaçao is not going to quarrel with the gin, but I assume the main reason for this ingredient is that it makes the drink blue, matching the colour of the floral skull on the bottle.

A band of skulls
So what does D1 taste like? There is definitely juniper on the nose, though the first thing that strikes me as actually citrus, a juicy Opal Fruit (or Starburst to youngsters) hit of orange and lime—even though there is no lime in it. The tasting notes emphasise blackcurrant and I wouldn’t argue with that. There is more there too; I’m getting the cassia, some nutmeg, a floral note, something sappy and herbaceous, perhaps like coriander leaf, and some savoury, curry spice. But overall it is about fruit (they suggest apricot and I’d agree that is in there). Even with your nose up close in the tasting glass it is a sweet, fragrant aroma, not fierce and sharp or dominated by sinus-clearing aromatic juniper.

Dominic Limbrey addresses the masses
On the tongue it is very smooth, plump and gives an impression of sweetness (liquorice as a botanical is often used to achieve this sensation). The dry spice is notable, as is a florality and the juniper edge. Overall, it is subtly poised but pretty understated.

Diluting the gin half and half with water brings out the woody spice, though the citrus still dominates. The London Rocks serve has the same effect, though I’m struck by the slightly bitter/dry finish here.

Unsurprisingly, D1 makes a very approachable Martini, though there is more to it than that. Using Noilly Prat, even a relatively small amount of vermouth adds striking aromas of vanilla and orange blossom, plus fruit elements like melon or strawberry. Perhaps the understated character of the gin allows vermouth to shine, meaning that perhaps a D1 Martini is a useful testbed for vermouths. As you would imagine, this cocktail goes well with a lemon peel garnish.

Boujis' staff struggle to keep up with demand
And, yes, I can report that D1 does go well with cranberry juice (or “cranberry juice drink” which is the closest you are likely to encounter here), the harmony of fruits getting a (gentle) edge from the juniper and some warmth from the spices. D1 one is less successful in a gin sour, where it struggles against the powerful sweet/sour flavours—although for the first time I am struck by the blackcurrant note that they talk about.

D1 is a quiet and approachable gin, but one with subtleties that can be coaxed out. I don’t know how it will play with the Chinese but it’s worth trying in a Martini. The one thing that doesn’t ring quite true is the name.* It sounds like a wartime secret government department, or a move in a game of battleships (perhaps the next move after SW4?). But apparently the D is just for Dominic, the founder. I heard that the 1 is because it’s the first product, though I don’t think Richard Maton was that specific.

But he did tell me that in Chinese the name read out, “dee-wun”, means “number one”…

D1 is currently only available from Harvey Nichols, priced at £39.99 for a 70cl bottle

* Now, if they want to invade Grey Goose's territory, perhaps they should have simply called it Greyskull

Cocktails on the night included one with puréed watermelon (on the left) plus one with nettle and
peppermint cordial and dry cider (right). I tried one of the latter and one that simply combined the
gin with a nettle and black pepper cordial; perhaps I chose unwisely or perhaps the staff were
just too rushed but I have to say I was underwhelmed

(Left) One of the super-valuable floral skull sculptures; (right) Mrs H. models the rubber mask

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