Friday 10 August 2018

Cornish gin update

I was back in Cornwall on holiday last month and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the range of locally produced gins had expanded.

In a seafront bar in St Ives I tasted a sample of the murky St Ives gin, cold compounded using locally-foraged botanicals, such as seaweed, gorse and basil. The literature states, “a special blend of 13 botanicals gathered from the Cornish coastline, cottage garden and cliff tops come together to create this distinctively different gin experience,” but I’m assuming not all the botanicals are local, and indeed the website actually states that local ingredients are used “where possible”. I confess I was not immediately taken—it seemed a bit cloying and not very ginlike—but I will withhold judgement until I’ve given it a proper tasting.

In John’s – The Liquor Cellar, again in St Ives, I asked for a recommendation and came away with an elegantly square bottle of Foy gin. It’s made in Fowey, which is indeed pronounced “Foy”, and the producers must have decided it was simpler to spell it that way than be forever correcting people who asked for “Foh-ee” or “Fow-ee”. The label gives little away, other than that is has six botanicals and, intriguingly, is made from their own alcohol. “They” turns out to be Fowey Valley Cider, and producer Barrie Gobson confirms that the base spirit is made from apples. They also make a vodka, an eau de vie distilled from their vintage cider, and a liqueur blending the eau de vie with apple juice.

Barrie’s description of the development process is interesting: “I had a few groups of tasters in the area—all gin fans. My first few creations got the ‘OK, but not great’. I personally think a lot of the new gins have rather overpowering botanicals with a lot of ‘aniseedey’ and ‘liquoricey’ flavours. Eventually I gave up on the unique ingredient idea and went back to some very old recipes for inspiration. This was the breakthrough and eventually our ‘back to basics’ classic dry Foy Gin was born.”

Neat, the gin leads with juniper and prominent juicy orange peel. There is also a definite stemmy, herbal element and warm sweetness that reminds me of gingernut biscuits but may just be suggested by the orange. The sweetness extends to a floral note. On the tongue it is dry; I’d like to say I can detect apples, but I can’t. There is a delicate whirl of warm spices and a lean, slightly bitter, finish. In a G&T it has quite a distinct character, with a whiff of what reminds me of fresh cucumber and dry woody spice like coriander or cumin on the palate.

The whole “artisan gin” game seems to accept, as one of its rules, that these gins are pricey, typically around £35 a bottle. But Foy gin is £32 for just 50cl—the equivalent of £48 for a regular bottle—so you would have to be jolly keen on it to make it your everyday snifter. Some of that price is going to come from the expensive-looking bottle. It has occurred to me that self-consciously “local” gins could have a scheme where you can take your empty bottles back to the distillery shop and get them refilled at a discount, but I guess this might defeat the object—having an expensive-looking bottle is your justification for charging a premium price. (Making your own base spirit certain pushes up costs, but the gin itself is never going to be the expensive bit: even an off-the-shelf bottle will probably cost the producer more than its contents.)*

The other two gins I came away with were both from brands I’d already tried and liked, Trevethan and Tarquin’s Cornish Gin, but in each case I discovered they had produced a Navy strength edition and decided to give them a try.

Generally speaking (and I believe it is the case for these two) a Navy stength gin is the same recipe as a distillery’s regular offering, but bottled at around 57% ABV. Apparently back in the 18th century, when globe-trotting Royal Navy officers were stocking their ships with gin (there was a Naval ordinance declaring how much gin was required to be carried on board), there developed a suspicion that suppliers were watering the stuff down. Being in the Navy they had plenty of gunpowder knocking around and they discovered that if gin were spilled on to gunpowder, the gunpowder could still be lit if the gin was at least 57% alcohol. So that become “Navy strength”, since it was easy to test if any given sample complied.

So what, in this day and age, is the point of Navy strength gin? I have often wondered this myself. In a G&T you could simply adjust the amount of tonic and it would come to the same thing. Drink it neat? Really, at 57%? I suppose that if you feel that stirring or shaking with ice dilutes your Martini too much, then you might feel that Navy strength can counter this—so that after dilution from shaking, the gin comes back down to the ABV you wanted in the first place.

Neat, Trevethan Chauffeur’s Reserve is pretty intense. I’m definitely hit by that coriander-driven character, but I’m sure I remember a more complex interplay of flavours from the regular-strength version. I make a Martini and it still feels a bit closed. I experiment with re-shaking it repeatedly, therefore introducing more water from the ice each time, and I’m struck by the velvety smoothness of the mouthfeel, almost chocolatey.

So I try some basic gin cocktails, staring with an Aviation (roughly two shots gin, half each of lemon juice and maraschino and about a teaspoon of crème de violette). The Foy makes a nice drink, still with that vegetal/cucumber thing going on. Then I try one with Trevethan and suddenly I change my tune—the character of the gin shines through, the coriander dry-spice vibe sitting very comfortably with the wood-tannin element of the Luxardo maraschino. It’s a thought-provoking experience—the two versions are the same cocktail but quite different drinks.

So perhaps this is the point of Navy strength gin. There are definitely cocktails out there where more delicate gins are just swamped by the other ingredients. I try a Corpse Reviver No.2, which definitely falls into this category of cocktail. (Classically it’s one shot each of gin, curaçao, lemon juice and Kina Lillet plus a dash of absinthe—Kina Lillet hasn’t been made since the 1980s, but Cocchi Americano works well, and China Marini works well too, though its dark colour messes with the visuals.) Again the Trevethan is a triumph, easily standing up to—and harmonising elegantly with—the other components.

The simple but powerful Negroni (equal parts gin, Campari and red vermouth) can challenge more subtle gins, but here again the Trevethan makes its presence easily felt.

Tarquin’s Seadog gin is his Navy strength offering. As soon as you stick your nose to the bottle there is an extraordinary parma-violet floral concentration. This gin does use violets, picked from Tarquin’s garden, although it’s interesting that I wasn’t struck by a floral character from the regular gin. I think the chap who sold me the Seadog might had intimated that they adjusted the balance of the botanicals for this expression, but it’s worth noting that the botanical bill includes orris and angelica too, which might actually be where the floral thrust is coming from. Neat I also get a black pepper element. Stirred with ice I notice that the gin louches a bit, testament to the high concentration of essential oils dissolved in all that alcohol.

A Negroni made with Tarquin's Seadog gin

I try a Seadog Negroni, and once again get proof that this cocktail is a good showcase for Navy strength. Mind you, that’s not to say that the Negroni is the best thing to make with Seadog: the fruity/floral character, while rising clearly above the powerful flavours of the vermouth and Campari, does seem to lend the drink a Jelly Baby character, and I’m not sure that is a good thing.

A Seadog Aviation turns out to be more successful. I confess I was expecting this to be slightly pointless and one-note, given that the cocktail has crème de violette in it anyway, but it’s a profound drink with an intense synergy between the sweet and floral notes and the wood tannin edge of the maraschino—definitely a drink where the distinct barrel-aged character of Luxardo really works. Moreover there is a definite dry violet note floating above the sweet/sour/fruit combination of the liqueur and the lemon juice. (I use Bitter Truth crème de violette, which is pretty dry, and not really like a liqueur at all.)

Finally, I try a couple of White Ladies with the Navy gins (gin, curaçao and lemon juice—it should have egg white too, for a silky texture, but I didn’t have any to hand). Both drinks were a success, though for me the refined coriander backbone of the Trevethan makes for an elegant, patrician beverage that nudges ahead of the floral exuberance of the Seadog version.

* This is based on what Martin Price of SW4 told me.

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