Wednesday 19 October 2022

Maverick spirits from Brewdog

I was intrigued to notice on the supermarket shelves two spirits made by BrewdogLone Wolf Gin and Seven Day Vodka

Brewdog, as their name suggests, are best known for brewing beer, and have established their brand mainly through controversy. They have repeatedly produced what they claim is the world’s strongest beer: Tactical Nuclear Penguin was an alleged 32% ABV and, when a German brewer trumped them with a 40% beer, Brewdog came back with the tastelessly named Sink the Bismarck at 41%, followed by The End of History at 55% (a record that has since been claimed by Snake Venom from fellow Scottish brewery Brewmeister, alleging an ABV of 67.5%). Brewdog are forever being censured by the UK’s Portman Group, a drinks industry self-regulation body, and are also litigious themselves, having threatened legal action against a pub called Lone Wolf and another called Draft Punk, which they considered an infringement of their Punk IPA brand.

The super-strength beer was achieved through freeze-distillation, chilling it to a temperature low enough for water to freeze but not alcohol, allowing the ice to be removed leaving a more alcoholic liquid behind, but Lone Wolf and Seven Day Vodka seem to have been distilled in the normal way. The distillery boasts a “triple bubble” still, with three bubble-shaped swellings in the neck rising out of it. A traditional pot still is not that efficient at separating out the elements in the fermented mash, producing a distillate that retains more of the flavour but usually means the process has to be performed two or three times. The triple bubble still, which seems to be a sort of pot/column still hybrid, can effectively perform these multiple distillations in one pass, with an emphasis on purity rather than retaining flavour from the mash. Head distiller Steven Kersley also says the design allows plenty of copper contact—copper is the material of choice for stills as certain undesirable elements in the vapour stick to it, drawing it out of the final distillate.

The distillery’s line-up of stills, with the triple bubble job on the left. Last year they moved operation to a new facility in Ellon, which (judging from photos) lacks the huge mural of a wolf.

Vodka brands tend to bang on about purity rather than flavour. Maybe they just decided that this is a better marketing ploy, since most people probably think vodka doesn’t taste of much anyway. In reality, if you sit down and taste several vodkas side by side you quickly realise how much variety there is, at least if you’re tasting neat. If you want purity you can, of course, just buy 96% pure neutral spirit and add water. In reality the various filtration processes that vodka is subjected to are more about imparting a desired flavour.

Seven Day Vodka is so called because they say it takes seven days to make, three of which are in the triple bubble still, starting from a wheat and barley base. It has a nose of vanilla and icing sugar, with a hint of red berries and cocoa nib. On the tongue it is smoothish, though with a bitter, slightly sharp top note—a tad sour with a ghost of vegetation—that overbalances the palate, with too little coming from the chocolately body.

Vodka cocktails tend to smother the taste of the vodka itself, though I find that a vodka Gimlet (vodka and lime cordial) can retain the character of a characterful vodka. Sadly this is not a very characterful vodka and I find myself repeatedly adding more vodka to the mix in the hope of striking a harmonious balance.

Interestingly, this is one of the few vodkas that benefits from being served from the freezer. Although it’s a hip way to drink vodka, all too often I find this just kills the flavour, and it’s disastrous for subtle and sophisticated products like Haku. Perhaps Seven Day Vodka just doesn’t have many subtleties to kill, but in all honesty it is highly approachable served this way, with an impression of gentle sweetness, the cocoa character coming to the fore and with a slight, odd, hint of ginger on the finish. This is certainly how I will deploy the rest of this bottle.

Lone Wolf Gin takes its name from the original name of the distillery, intended to be a battle-cry for turning your back on convention and doing things your own way, though (after a physical move) the place is now just the Brewdog Distillery. Unlike the vodka, this gin is not short on flavour, though perhaps again lacking in subtlety. Regular readers will know I like a gin that tastes of gin, and this one is certainly juniper-led, with a fierce resinous waft of it on the nose, joined by lemon and lime citrus, a warm caress of lavender and some earthy notes. On the palate the juniper continues to dominate, an evergreen pine thrust, accompanied by a lightly chocolate low-mid and a slightly bitter finish.

A Dry Martini is usually a good showcase for a gin’s nuances and its interplay with dry vermouth, but a Lone Wolf Martini is crude and frankly a bit silly, with that pine-resin character completely dominating. In a Negroni (gin, Campari and sweet red vermouth) it makes a bit more sense: this cocktail is a complex blend of powerful flavours with strong sweet and bitter elements, and the gin easily makes its presence felt. But that presence is a sinus-scouring resinous one, so that has to be something you want. Perhaps the best serve is a simple gin and tonic, where even quite a modest proportion of gin will be clearly detectable.

Brewdog don’t list all the botanicals on their website, but it turns out that in addition to Tuscan juniper they do use Scots pine as well, which explains a lot. Elsewhere online I’ve found references to grapefruit peel, pink peppercorns, Angelica and orris roots, Kaffir lime, mace, lemongrass and, indeed, some lavender. Going back to it I’d agree there is aromatic pink peppercorn on the nose.

A Brewdog Vesper

Given that I have both a gin and a vodka from the same distillery and—for want of a better word—the same philosophy, it makes sense to make a Vesper. This cocktail, described in the James Bond novel Casino Royale, requires three parts gin to one part vodka to half a part Kina Lillet, well shaken, and garnished with a large strip of lemon peel. (Kina Lillet hasn’t been made since the Eighties and Cocchi Americano seems to be the closest analogue.) On the face of it you’d think the proportions would render the vodka irrelevant, but I found with Roku gin and Haku vodka, from Suntory, something interesting happened. And here I can confirm the same: despite the high concentration of gin, this drink presents a subtler and softer offering than a Lone Wolf Martini, doubtless partly because the Cocchi is bitter-sweet, but I sense that that the vodka is also lending a sweetening, mellowing effect. Make no mistake, that pine juniper character is not to be denied, but if you have these products then this is a good way to deploy them.

As you can tell, I’m not vastly impressed by either of these spirits, but I should point out one thing they have in their favour: they are relatively cheap. The vodka is just £20 for a 70cl bottle and the gin £25 (though I think I bought mine marked down to £21). Both are 40% ABV. By comparison, most “craft” gin seems to be around £35–37. 

On the other hand, however, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire and Sipsmith are all cheaper than Lone Wolf and I’d sooner drink those.

Brewdog also make three “flavoured” gins (I mean, it’s not as if the regular gin is short of flavour)—peach and passionfruit, cactus and lime and cloudy lemon—a navy strength Gunpowder Gin (featuring additional Szechuan and black peppercorns, bitter orange and star anise), plus three flavoured vodkas: raspberry and lime, passionfruit and vanilla, and rhubarb and lemon. I haven’t had the opportunity to taste any of these, but I tend to take a pretty dim view of this sort of thing.