Saturday 30 May 2020

Hernö Pink BTL gin

Just as the lockdown was taking effect I had an email from Jon Hillgren of Hernö. I’m a big fan of their gin, which is classic in its profile but somehow manages to be more vivid and 3D than most. Jon announced he had “a bottle” he wanted to send me. When it arrived it turned out to be the new Pink BTL gin.

Pink BTL comes across as a gin with issues. You’ll notice that it is emphatically the bottle (or more specifically the label) that is pink, not the gin. Jon would have no truck with giving gin a silly colour. In fact the accompanying letter begins with the sentence “This is a no-bullshit gin” in large type, a phrase that is repeated on the label. I’m not sure if having the word “bullshit” on you label might offend some potential stockists or customers, but you have to admire Jon’s conviction. The label also states: “This is not a cocktail. Pink Gin is a cocktail. This is a pink bottle of gin.”

The letter goes on to bemoan that many producers are jumping on the gin bandwagon but offering products that aren’t really gin. So Pink BTL is an attempt to be creative with gin, offering the fruity, floral profile “that so many are asking for”, while emphatically staying true to the juniper-driven essence of what makes gin gin. In fact we are told that Pink BTL actually uses more juniper than the regular Hernö gin.

The letter explains that neutral grain spirit is infused with juniper, coriander and strawberries, heated to 60 degrees C and left for 18 hours. Then rose petals, cassia, black pepper, lemon peel and vanilla are added and the liquid resdistilled, one-shot, then diluted to bottling strength (42%) using water from Hernö’s own well.

On the nose resinous pine and lemon peel are up front, but lurking behind is a sweet strawberry fruit. It really is quite subtle—as if Jon was terrified of its becoming cloying. You almost feel as if Jon has approached this whole project against his will. But it’s a point worth making that if you buy this gin because you want a sweet, fruity drink—and perhaps you don’t really like gin—then you will be disappointed. In fact, to you, it will simply taste of gin.

On the palate it has a smooth, polished mouthfeel. The juniper is strong but not fierce, and behind there is gentle strawberry and black pepper on the finish.

I try a fairly Dry Martini, made with Belsazar Dry, in what looked like 10:1 proportions, though it could have been wetter. Juniper is still up front, but the vermouth adds an exotic saline finish, joining that black pepper again. The nose has a definitely creamy note—we’re looking at strawberries and cream! It’s a clever balancing act between the stern juniper rod of classic gin and a soft, flighty summer fruit angle from the strawberry and rose.

An Aviation made with Hernö Pink BTL
I wondered how the light florality would work in an Aviation (50ml gin, 12.5ml lemon juice, 12.5ml maraschino and about a teaspoon of crème de violette). As it turned out there was no risk of it becoming cloying in combination with the cherry and violet elements. In fact it makes a very grown-up cocktail, with a complex interplay of savoury and soft flavours. The dry steeliness of the juniper still underpins, with the black pepper helping to keep the drink’s feet on the ground, but the faint strawberry fruit floats behind that, interweaving with the rose and violet. This cocktail is a good one for assessing gins, not least because the sweet and sour elements (maraschino and lemon juice) are present in quite small quantities.

I’m interested to see what elements come out when served just with tonic water. It certainly makes a nice enough drink, though in fact the dilution is not especially transformative. It’s still reassuringly juniper-dominated, though you do sense the rose now.

I also try Pink BTL in a Corpse Reviver No.2 (gin, curaçao, lemon juice, Cocchi Americano and a dash of absinthe). It’s a tough gig for a gin, as it’s up against some powerful sweet, sour, bitter and pungent flavours. This one turns out to be a nice example of its kind, and the strong juniper backbone of the gin can be relied upon to keep any classic gin cocktail on the straight and narrow, but I wouldn’t say that Pink BTL shone in this combination.

Ultimately, although Pink BTL has a strong presence, the things that make it different are those fairly subtle notes of strawberry, rose and black pepper. As a final experiment I make a White Lady, skipping the egg white and reducing the quantities of curaçao and lemon juice by half—normally you’re looking at about 50ml gin and 25ml each of the other two, but I cut these to 12.5ml, along the same lines as the Aviation. Sure enough, this works. It’s not a classic White Lady but you can appreciate the character of the gin.

And it’s a character worth appreciating. In the right sort of cocktail, in the right proportions, it creates harmonies with thought-provoking subtleties. Out of the ones I tried, a straight Martini probably works best, but in the Aviation—or other cocktails constructed with similar proportions—it has a lot to give, and makes for an adult drink with summery echoes.