Thursday 10 June 2021

Pickering's Gin, 1947 Gin and Navy Strength Gin

Back in December I reviewed the Brussels Sprout gin made by Pickering’s of Summerhall in Edinburgh. We’d stumbled across it while visiting friends during festival season, spending our days in damp basements that had become “venues” for three weeks. Although I ultimately can’t recommend the sproutwater, the basic Pickering’s gin was very agreeable.

I noted that in addition to their main gin they also did a “1947” edition, and now they have a navy strength too. So I decided to do a “horizontal flight” comparison.

The story goes that Marcus Pickering and Matt Gammell decided to start a distillery and make gin after Marcus inherited a gin recipe from a friend of his late father. Like many new gin-makers they had no experience of distilling, but unlike many they actually built theirs. They mention that their various previous business ventures together have revolved around, among other things, engineering, and the pair clearly love to make eye-catching promotional things. Things such as a pop-up tasting bar that folds out of a vintage trunk, a modified Japanese airport fire engine that dispenses cocktails from tanks through hoses, and a mechanical Martini mixer adapted from a wind-up gramophone and some 1960s chemistry equipment (which, as far as I can tell, can still play 78s). So far so Steampunk—Hendrick’s had better watch out. (Although one could observe that the Pickering’s creations are all actually functional, rather than just visual whimsy. In the words of Sir Reginald Pikedevant, “Just glue some gears on it and call it Steampunk”…) 

The Pickering's mechanical Martini mixer

The actual recipe, allegedly from a document handwritten in Bombay in 1947, was “full of fragrant spices and fresh citrus fruits”, evidently quite punchy, while the 21st-century Pickering’s people decided modern punters wanted something softer and smoother, so they tweaked the recipe. They also use a bain marie heating system for the still (rather than direct heat) which they feel coaxes out the soft, subtle flavours. The botanicals in the main gin are juniper, coriander, cardamom, angelica, fennel, anise, lemon, lime and cloves. The 1947 edition, which, as its name suggests, is “made precisely to the original recipe”, adds cinnamon. Pickering’s Navy Strength Gin is, as far as I can tell, the same as the main recipe but bottled at 57.1% ABV. You also can’t help but notice that it proudly sports a military bearskin, to mark its becoming the official gin of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

Now I’ll be honest that I was surprised to read that the basic Pickering’s gin actually has no cinnamon in it. Tasting it again for this comparison, I opened the bottle and got a pleasing spike of juniper, followed by a creamy orange citrus character plus sharp lime and lemon notes, something floral and a warm, middly, woody note that I might have guessed was from cinnamon. Apparently not. Swirling it in a glass I get some caramel and mint too—though I suspect that herbal impression may be from the fennel. All of the above appear on the palate, making an immediately balanced impression. It is smooth and almost chocolatey, but still with the juniper backbone. But I could swear I’m getting cinnamon too. While it is the juniper that greets you, I would characterise this gin as being warm, smooth and spicy, rather than lean, fresh, crisp and dry.

In a Martini it retains this character, rich, smooth and perfumed. In fact if you like your Martini stern, airy and crystalline, you may consider this gin a bit wallowy. Oddly, in a Negroni the juniper comes out more. It’s a punchy but balanced example of the cocktail, bitter-sweet but smooth.

Given that the basic Pickering’s struck me as warmly spiced, I did laugh a bit when I first opened the 1947. It just seemed a bit bonkers to make another gin that was even more dominated by these elements. To me it is less well balanced, without the juniper structure that I personally require in a gin and more of those herbal notes, in addition to cinnamon. On the palate you can find juniper but it is sort of lurking in the background.

Given that I thought the normal gin made a warm, dark Martini, you won’t be surprised to hear that a 1947 Martini is rather on the muddy side. In a Negroni you still get a warm, spicy, bitter-sweet drink, and in fact you can find the juniper if you dig, but it doesn’t rise up to offer the effortless but complex triumvirate of a classic Negroni.

The fact that the 1947 formula seemed to play up the herbal elements (which I first interpreted as mint but which in fact must be fennel) reminded me of absinthe and made me wonder if this gin might work best in drinks that included absinthe. The Corpse Reviver No.2* sprang to mind and I have to say that it’s actually rather an intriguing triumph in itself, with the fennel and anise obviously sitting comfortably alongside the absinthe and the lemon and lime flavours marrying with the lemon juice and triple sec. But of course, lacking juniper, it’s not your classic Corpse Reviver.

If there were any doubt which version of the gin goes to make the Navy Strength it would be dispelled with one whiff of the majestic juniper fumes that come from the open bottle. It’s an immensely appealing aroma (if you like gin, and ginny gin at that). It’s remarkably smooth and drinkable despite its high strength. 

A Gimlet made with Pickering's
For scientific purposes I made a Negroni with it, and unsurprisingly it tastes like a Negroni made with the normal Pickering’s gin but on steroids. Using the standard equal proportions it’s a bit unbalanced, to be honest; you could just use less of the gin, but you might as well just use the regular-strength gin. In a Martini, this gin comes into its own, creating a powerful concoction, clearly a classic, juniper-driven Martini, but complex and evolving on the tongue. I was using Belsazar Dry vermouth, and its herbal strands intertwined voluptuously with those fennel and anise notes in the gin. Needless to say, a normal-sized Martini made with the navy strength will tend to make you squiffy.

Thinking about the citrus elements, I also tried a Gimlet. Classically this is a blend of gin and lime cordial,** though some prefer to make it with fresh lime juice and sugar syrup, which is nice but not the same. (Others suggest making a lime syrup by adding lime juice and zest while making sugar syrup, though I have not tried this.) I’m pleased to report it works very well. Again, the softness of the gin combined with the sugar in the cordial makes for a smooth, approachable drink. As before, I prefer the more prominent juniper from the regular Pickering’s but if you’re not that keen on that element then a Gimlet made with the 1947 gin will make a rich, complex, spicy, citrussy glass of happiness.

Pickering’s gins can be had for about £26 a bottle from various outlets, but if you buy direct from Pickering’s themselves you can currently buy a full litre for £28.

* Equal parts gin, lemon juice, triple sec and originally Kina Lillet—Cocchi Americano is a good modern-day substitute—plus a smidgeon of absinthe.

** The proportions are moot. Some say equal parts, but I think that makes for a cloying and tooth-curling sweetness. Perhaps start at 2:1 or 3:1 and see what you think. 

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