Monday 11 January 2016

The world's first quinine gin?

Despite the plethora of gin-based cocktails out there, I’m sure that most of the world’s gin gets guzzled in combination with tonic water. This combination stems from the days of the Raj, when British Army officers and East India Company employees were issued with quinine to ward off malaria, and found its intense bitterness could be mollified by mixing it with gin, water, sugar and lime. They developed a taste for the drink, and modern tonic water contains the quinine, water, sugar and citrus elements.

Although various attempts have been made to produce quinine syrups or concentrates, it’s surprising that (given the bloom of exotic gins on the market) no has tried putting quinine in gin itself, until now: 1897 Quinine Gin from Maverick Drinks uses cinchona bark, the source of natural quinine, as a botanical.

The other botanicals are juniper, coriander, angelica, orange, lemon, nutmeg, cassia, cinnamon, orris and liquorice—which are macerated and traditionally distilled in a copper pot still—plus pink and white grapefruit peel and lemon peel which are cold-distilled separately with the cinchona. In this latter process, instead of using heat to boil off the alcohol, a vacuum pump is used to reduce the pressure inside the vessel to the point where the alcohol evaporates. Adherents feel that by not “cooking” your botanicals you extract a different, and more natural, flavour from them. Oxley gin uses vacuum distillation and has a similar emphasis on fresh citrus. When you reduce the pressure to the point of evaporation, the temperature naturally drops—in the case of Oxley it drops to -5 degrees Celsius. Sacred Gin also uses vacuum distillation, but distiller Ian Hart uses a warm water bath to keep it at room temperature. Whereas Oxley macerates all the botanicals together and distils in one shot, Sacred botanicals are all macerated and distilled separately then blended (Ian does this so that different botanicals can be macerated for different lengths of time). So 1897 Quinine Gin is a hybrid: clearly the producers felt that the benefits of cold distillation (in this case at room temperature) were felt with the citrus, but not with the other botanicals. (I gather that cold distilling juniper gives a much gentler, grassier flavour than the sharp pine resin character we are used to.) It is bottled at 45.8% ABV.

The number in the gin’s name is the year in which Sir Ronald Ross discovered the parasite in mosquitoes that causes malaria, paving the way to an effective treatment.* The day of his discovery, 20th August, is apparently World Mosquito Day. Of course the fever-fighting properties of quinine had been known for a long time before that,** but Ross’s discovery in theory meant that insecticides could be used to curb the spread of the disease. In fact mosquitoes have proved good an evolving resistance to these, and even today a child dies every minute from malaria. Consequently, half the profits from sales of this gin (at least £5 per bottle—enough to buy, deliver and install a mosquito net) are donated to the charity Malaria No More UK.

Note the intriguing embossed background pattern. No explanation is offered
The gin comes in a handsome rectangular bottle that combines weighty opulence with a rough-hewn, artisanal quality. The cap is dipped in black wax and the  labels are black and silver. The front label, which is elaborately embossed (including a background pattern that I at first took for the veins of a leaf but which turned out, on closer inspection, to be a geometric design that to me suggests African textiles or decorative woven baskets) features a stylised cinchona tree. The border features lines from Ross’s poem.*

So what does quinine in a gin taste like? Not so easy to say: we seldom encounter it on its own, and most of us just know it as being bitter. Yet, as Ian Hart once showed me, it is easy enough to distil out the bitter elements from a bitter ingredients (he gave me macerations of hops and gentian to taste—very bitter—and then distillations of the same macerations—not bitter at all). I’ve got a bottle of the Battersea Quinine Cordial, an experimental quinine syrup made by Hendrick’s a few years ago: it has a sort of heady, dusty, woody, aromatic smell to it, like some vermouths or cocktail bitters, and a rubbery floral element on the tongue—plus a pronounced bitter finish. (But I should point out that this product also contains orange flower, lavender and holy thistle as well as cinchona bark.) Maverick describe the bark as adding an “ethereal flavour and floral aroma” to their gin.

A GT Turbo made with 1897 Quinine Gin and Battersea Quinine Cordial
Sniffing the bottle of Quinine Gin I’m hit first by orange and grapefruit, then spices—cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg—and sandalwood, plus something floral and a hint of chocolate. In a glass you get a delicate and distinctly sweet balance of juniper with juicy orange, something leafy and a parma-violet floral weight. You expect it to be sweet and heavy on the tongue but it fact it is dry with a slightly bitter finish. It has poise in the way it subtly balances juicy, fruity citrus, woody spice with a dry chocolate finish, and heavy floral elements. The sinus-clearing resinous character of juniper is definitely there, but this is not a juniper-led gin. Citrus is what dominates.

I try it in a few obvious cocktails. It makes a lush, perfumed Martini, and this is a great way to appreciate the gin. It also works well in an Aviation, with its citrus and floral elements sitting perfectly happily with the violet and lemon ingredients. I expected that it would get rather lost in a Negroni, but in fact the fruity/floral character shines through, balancing nicely with the bitterness of the Campari to produce a mellow, thoughtful version of the drink.

Ironically, one drink that I did not think worked so well was a gin and tonic. It will vary depending on what tonic you use (perhaps the clean, blank canvas of 1724 might be more forgiving), but with Schweppes I found that the lack of juniper thrust made the gin get a bit lost. Better to appreciate this gin in a Martini, and it would probably make a good Gin Old Fashioned too.

On the subject of which, since I’ve got the Battersea Quinine Cordial out, I can’t resist trying a GT Turbo. I think this may have been invented at Purl, but it combines gin with tonic syrup and some lime juice to make a short drink that is meant to be a sort of compressed G&T. The end result will depend on the syrup you use (and there is no standard here), but with 50ml of Quinine Gin, 20ml Battersea Cordial and 20ml lime juice you get something that is indeed oddly like a condensed G&T, with a sharp, cleansing bitterness that fans of Campari will appreciate. The fruitiness of the gin is a good foil to the woody dryness of the tonic syrup. On paper we’re in the same ballpark as the Corpse Reviver No.2—short, sweet and sour, citrus and a bit herbal (particularly if you use a quinated amaro like Cocchi Americano or China Martini)—but this is altogether leaner and with a nettle-y asceticism, more about the bitter high notes.

1897 Quinine Gin is available online from Mast of Malt and Amazon at about £40 for 70cl.

*He was so chuffed that it prompted him to write a poem: 

This day relenting God
Hath placed within my hand
A wondrous thing; and God
Be praised. At His command,

Seeking his secret deeds
With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death.

I know this little thing
A myriad men will save.
O Death, where is thy sting?
Thy victory, O grave?

The last two lines are from Corinthians 15:55. I suspect few boffins write poetry when they have a major breakthrough these days; they probably tweet about it instead. Not sure which is better.

** It was in use to fight malaria in Rome in 1631. The South American nations where cinchona grew naturally tried to band the export of seeds but eventually they were smuggled out. By the time of Ross’s discovery quinine production was at its peak in the Dutch colony of Java, fuelling the colonialist tendencies of the West. The Second World War cut the British off from the supply, leading them to develop synthetic alternatives. Since 2006 quinine has no longer been recommended by the World Health Organisation as a first-line treatment for malaria.

1 comment:

  1. Regarding the mysterious embossed pattern on the front label, Emma from Maverick tells me, "it was designed with a reference to the African artwork experienced by the artist whilst out in Malawi This is where he experienced malaria and its effects first hand and became passionate about doing something to highlight this back home in the UK".