Monday 16 March 2020

Cornish gin update 2.0

Back in Cornwall last summer I popped once again into John’s Liquor Cellar in St Ives to see if they had any new local gins in. What they suggested this time was Caspyn Midsummer Dry Gin, made by Pocketful of Stones who have a distillery just outside Penzance in Long Rock. In fact the man behind the distillery is a displaced South African, Shaun Bebington, but the lure of the coastal life he grew up with drew him from London where he’d been running a pub. The name Caspyn came from a Neolithic stone circle near the distillery: it’s actually called the Merry Maidens—apparently Bebington misread a sign that was actually an acronym: CASPN, “Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network”, but by the time he realised his mistake the gin was named.

I was immediately taken by it: the nose is a perfumed tapestry of citrus and other fruits—blueberries, pears, melons—with cucumber and dry spice like cumin. On the tongue it is fruity and spicy, with a curious salty finish (what could be more Cornish than that?). The cucumber is not a coincidence: the very pale green colour of the gin is because fresh cucumbers are infused in it. In a Martini it intrigues with a combination of floral perfume on the nose and a relatively savoury, vegetal palate, again with that very subtle briny finish.

In fact the Midsummer gin is a relatively recent addition, a development from the original Caspyn Cornish Dry Gin (the suggestion is that the Midsummer is nothing more than the original Dry Gin with those cucumbers infused in it). This brings us back to the old question of what makes, or might make, a gin intrinsically Cornish—last time I idly suggested gorse and brine, and Caspyn does indeed have gorse in it, which they say combines with orris to give a sherbet finish. (There is no suggestion of brine, but, as I say, I do get a hint of salt on the finish.)

Mind you, the other botanicals don’t seem particularly Cornish: floral hibiscus, citrus from lemon and orange peel, lemongrass and lemon verbena, Japanese tea. And it’s lemon that really hits you on the nose when you sniff the Cornish Dry, plus something vividly herbaceous; there is also a floral note, something like berries, and an earthy echo at the end, but overall the nose is bright and zingy. By comparison the nose of the Midsummer version is mellower, slightly waxy, with a definite cucumber note but also savoury hints like agave or dill pickle.

On the palate the Cornish Dry is sharp, dominated by that lemon zestiness, with a peppery finish. They do say the aim is to make it taste like a crisp Cornish spring morning, bright but cool. Again the Midsummer version is mellower, with the citric spike softened and more of a fleshy vegetal warmth. Maintaining the climatic analogies, the distillers say that the Midsummer gin is intended to evoke a hazy summer afternoon. Both gins are absorbing, with vivid flavours that reveal themselves in layers, inviting close contemplation, but if the Midsummer really has just had cucumbers bunged into to it for a while, it’s interesting how much of an effect they have had.

Of course putting cucumber into gin is not new—Hendrick’s famously do it and so do Martin Miller’s. But Hendrick’s don’t use fresh cucumber: they use a commercial essence sourced from the Netherlands (I’ve tasted it neat, and found it rather delicious). In each case it seems well established that trying to macerate cucumber prior to redistillation, as you do with normal botanicals, doesn’t work, so it has to be added after distillation. Why do Hendrick’s use an essence rather than the real thing? I guess with their multi-shot technique (essentially producing a botanical concentrate, which is then diluted with alcohol and water to boost the volume for bottling) it is perhaps too difficult to get a strong enough flavour this way. The Caspyn Midsummer certainly achieves a distinct cucumber flavour, which balances deftly with the other flavours.

I like both these Caspyn gins. After I first tasted the Midsummer I decided I wanted to post about it but, tellingly, I got through it so quickly I had to order another bottle, along with a bottle of the original Cornish Dry for comparison. As I write this both bottles are nearly empty. This tells you all need to know. They are vivid and inviting, with a smooth spirit base that makes them all too easy to drink neat.

But of course most of us don’t drink gin neat most of the time. I was afraid that the Cornish Dry’s pronounced fresh lemon effect of the lemon peel, lemongrass and lemon verbena, when combined with the citrus thrust of most tonic waters, might be too much, but in fact it works well. What seems to come out in this combination is a midrange herbal spiciness and a gentle earthy note. The Midsummer mixes with tonic to bring out the cucumber character, mellow and relaxed, again with an earthiness. It is savoury almost to the point of being like food.

In an Aviation cocktail the Cornish Dry slots effortlessly into the drink with poise and balance, though the Midsummer is perhaps a bit too bohemian and savoury for the floral/tart structure of this cocktail. In a Negroni the Cornish Dry again shows its classic credentials and works well, but again the Midsummer is a bit odd. In a straightforward Dry Martini the Cornish Dry is crisp and sharp, with a warm and slinky midrange perfume—very inviting. By direct comparison, the Midsummer again seems strikingly savoury; it’s nice but certainly not a classic Martini. I’m beginning to think the Midsummer gin’s natural place is in a G&T, which is probably how it was intended.

The Caspyn gins come in chunky, round-shouldered bottles with wood-capped corks for a high-end feel. The labels have hand-written batch numbers. The Cornish Dry features a picture of a basking shark, rather a local emblem in Cornwall, also featuring on Tarquin’s label, though I’ve never actually managed to see one in the flesh. The Midsummer Gin, somewhat bizarrely, features a picture of a hoopoe—an odd choice for a gin that is meant to evoke an English summer. Is this a reference to Bebington’s South African roots?

“I first started thinking about using the hoopoe whilst I was is Croatia doing some juniper research and one happened to cross my path,” Shaun tells me. “The hoopoe does reside in South Africa during the Southern Hemisphere summers but flies to Europe for the Northern Hemisphere summers, mostly to the countries around the Med. Occasionally they overshoot their migration route and end up in Cornwall. I’ve yet to see one but I’ve seen photos. I liked that it was symbolic of our occasional summers here in the UK and I liked the link between South Africa and Cornwall.”

The connection between South Africa and Cornwall has just got stronger, as Shaun tells me he is now making a version of Caspyn gin at West Coast Distillers in Langebaan, South Africa. “The South African version is made with South African botanicals,” Shaun explains. “They are very similar but whereas the Cornish version has Cornish lemon verbena and bergamot (Earl Grey tea) the SA version has rooibos, honeybush and citronella pelargonium, a lemon-scented geranium.” This recipe is intended only for the South African market, though Shaun tells me that he hopes to bring the Nightshade Gin and Mutiny Bitters made at Langebaan over to the UK.

My (virtually empty) miniature of Penzance Bathtub Gin
For reasons I forget, we stepped into a deli in Penzance, and I noticed they were selling a “Penzance Bathtub Gin”. OK, I thought, I’ll bite. But for how much? Even a tiny 50ml sample bottle was £8—the equivalent of £112 for a 70cl bottle. You’ll be pleased to hear that, if you like the stuff, you can get a better deal by buying a larger bottle now from their website, though it looks as if changes have been afoot. When I got my sample last summer it was (as you can see from the photo) sold as a bathtub gin—the joke being that Penzance’s famous Art Deco lido, the Jubilee Pool, made it a town with a vast bathtub. (And since Prohibition bathtub gin dated from the same era as the Pool, all the more reason for Penzance to have its own version.) But I see that they are now selling it simply as “Penzance Gin”—the label design has the same image of the lido, but the word “bathtub” has been removed. But I will assume for now that it is made in the same way.

I wondered which distillery had made the gin, but the label simply said it had been made in association with the Cornish Hen. Which turned out to be the deli where I’d bought it. So seemingly a very local, handmade thing. The website says it was dreamed up by three friends over a few drinks at a local pub quiz.

The current label, shown on the website
As you can tell from the colour, this is an infused gin. They have clearly bought neutral grain spirit (or perhaps just vodka from the supermarket), macerated it in their own botanical blend, and sold it on. Nothing wrong with that. Would you want to pay £8 for 50ml? Well, I wouldn’t. It is very strange stuff: on the nose there is a strong orange citrus note, but combined with something wheaty that reminds me overall of orange Club biscuits from my youth. In fact the citrus is so strongly combined with notes of wheat, and even butter, that it profoundly suggests lemon drizzle cake.

The makers do not say what goes into it, other than that it features gorse. The palate seems clumsy after the Caspyn, with the same orange peel and wheat flavours in a rather thin, astringent spirit base. And, if I’m honest, I don’t feel there is much about it that reminds me of gin. But the product seems to have taken off rapidly in a way that makes it possible the current product is not quite the same as the batch I tasted.

Caspyn Cornish Dry and Caspyn Midsummer can by bought widely online for about £39. Penzance Gin can by bought from for £38.

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