Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Test Valley Gin

In the Hampshire market town of Romsey to visit my elderly mother-in-law a few weeks ago, we were hunting for lunch among the tentatively opening shops (it’s a place with an ageing population, so I guess they have to be careful in COVID times). In a deli that I’d not set foot in before I noticed a display of local gins (inevitably these days, I suppose). One that caught my eye was Test Valley Gin, from Wessex Spirits.

They don’t give much away on the label other than that the botanicals include fresh herbs—I wondered if these were infused post-distillation, as the gin has a pale yellow hue. The gin’s website doesn’t elaborate much more, other than to mention fresh basil and thyme specifically (and they do indeed use the word “infused”).

Uncork the bottle and you are not overwhelmed by aroma—maybe a hint of orange. In the glass the bouquet is herbaceous with a sweet and aromatic angle. Knowing that there is thyme involved I can believe that this is the source, and perhaps the basil contributes to the sweet fragrance. I happen to have a sprig of fresh thyme to hand from the garden, and the fragrance is not the same, but related. There is a savoury woodiness too, and something vaguely salty like olives—in this respect the gin reminds me somewhat of Gin Mare. And as it opens up in the glass I’m sure I’m getting off wafts of something low and honky like bananas.

So a pretty complex nose. On the tongue it is immediately soft and sweet, with a delicate sappy herbal note, lingering pungently like watercress, and a sugary weight. Despite being diluted to a bottling strength of just 37.5% ABV (the minimum permissible for a gin, so I guess done to keep the duty as low as possible) it has a respectably long finish.

I try Test Valley in a Martini with Belsazar Dry vermouth: straightaway there seems to be a natural harmony between the herbaceous character of the gin and the botanicals in the vermouth, with the two ingredients forming a continuum, a wide vegetal vista on the tongue, plus a sweet, buttery mouthfeel. I initially mixed and tasted it without chilling, and I would say that any application of ice—whether shaken or stirred—has the disadvantage of of diluting what is already a fairly dilute gin, washing away some of the flavour. (Some stronger gins actually benefit from a bit of dilution and only really come into their own with a bit of ice, but not this one.) A solution might be what DTS calls the Diamond Method, keeping the gin in the freezer, but at 37.5% ABV I think that Test Valley Gin would start to freeze, unless you are able to have a dedicated booze freezer set to an ideal temperature.*

I also try a Negroni, though the results are less exciting. The gin certainly harmonises with the vermouth and Campari, but at equal parts it gets a bit lost, and even at 1½ parts gin it’s still hard to pick out.

A Test Valley G&T with prescribed thyme garnish

Although Test Valley do suggest a Martini as a suitable serve, their first choice is a G&T, garnished with a spring of thyme. It certain works, with that herbal character sitting comfortably with the tonic (Fevertree Light is my go-to). But I do find you have to add quite a bit of gin before the distinct flavour comes through—again this is probably a reflection of the niggardly ABV. So in my opinion a Martini is probably the best platform for this gin, making an intriguing and savoury beverage.

* Of course this is something you can turn to your advantage. I first discovered this issue with Bombay Dry/Bombay Original, which I prefer to Bombay Sapphire. In the past it was hard to come by in the UK, but when you found it it was a respectable ABV; now it has been relaunched here as the brand’s entry product they have reduced the strength to 37.5% to keep the price down. In order to avoid further dilution from ice, I tried keeping it in the freezer and found that it does indeed start to form ice crystal inside the bottle. However, I realised that if I quickly emptied the liquid contents into a jug, warmed the bottle to melt the ice left inside, poured the meltwater away, then decanted the gin back into the bottle, I had simply removed some of the water, leaving a higher ABV gin behind. Sure enough, after doing this a couple of times the problem goes away, as the residual liquid is presumably now alcoholic enough to resist freezing—and you end up with a more concentrated flavour.

However, I don’t know if some flavour component might be lost with the ice. So it occurs to me now that, instead of melting the ice then just pouring it away, you could actually use that meltwater to make ice cubes that you could then use to make your Martinis! Crikey, sometimes my genius astounds me.

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