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The Makings of Gin:
I’m on a mission to educate myself. I enjoy gin, I drink gin and tonic and I generally like gin-based cocktails. And, although I understand that every gin differs because of the botanicals which are added to the spirit, I find the whole subject a bit confusing. Should I be ordering a small batch artisan gin to go into my cocktail or is that a bit of a waste? How should I taste gin? Obviously it is altered once you add tonic, ice and a slice of lemon or lime. And, what makes a good gin? I’m curious about where I should start.
Luckily, WSET has embarked on a series of events, designed to help a novice like me. I went along to The Punchroom to find out more about the ‘from Still to Bar’ experience. It’s something quite different – the perfect way to while away half an hour waiting for friends. Headphones and iPods are provided and a small wooden tasting tray is brought out, with three glasses and a jug of water. The podcast guides you through sniffing, sipping, adding water and sipping again and all of a sudden the differences are clear.
I was given Tanqueray 10, The Botanist and Old Tom to try. They are quite markedly different gins; the only one I have at home is Tanqueray 10 which I used to make a gin cocktail a few months ago. I’ve tried The Botanist before, it’s the sort of artisan gin you find in upmarket gastropubs and bar. It is made on Islay, by the same people who make Bruichladdich whisky. And, it is positioned as a foraged gin, which uses a total of 31 botanicals – 9 classic gin aromatics and a further 22 local botanicals which are hand picked on Islay. My palate probably isn’t refined enough to fully appreciate it, though I did find it finer and more delicate than Tanqueray 10 (which I like a lot and indulge in far too often).
Old Tom, from a distillery just down with road from me in Bermondsey, is a revelation. It’s made to a traditional recipe dating back to 1840 and although it is classified as a ‘sweet’ gin, there’s no added sugar. Actually, it doesn’t taste sugary sweet either, more earthy with that kind of sweetness you get from beetroot. Not my personal style though, I opted for the Botanist in my personalised cocktail, which was a take on a St Germain, made with the Botanist Gin, absinthe and a lavender cordial.
So, having learnt how to taste gin, I’ve set about finding out a bit more about what makes a good gin. I’ve been surprised to learn that gin can be made from any kind of fermented base. The legal definition of gin in the EU comes down to four different categories. London gin, according to wiki is ‘obtained exclusively from ethanol of agricultural original with a maximum methanol content of 5g per hectolitre of 100% ABV equivalent, whose flavour is introduced exclusively through the re-distillation in traditional stills of ethanol in the presence of all the natural plant materials used…’ It’s not the most romantic-sounding drink is it?
Then there are three basic production methods; pot distilled, column distilled or compound gin (which seems to be just a neutral spirit that has essences or flavouring added). The Botanist is distilled in an old pot-still, Jensens have a custom build John Dore & Co still (the oldest distillery engineering business in the world) and Tanqueray no 10 was actually named after the still in which it is produced (no. 10), a small copper swan-necked still. Now it’s sounding a bit better, a bit less clinical, to me.
Equipped with my new-found knowledge I decided to try a tasting of three of the artisan gins I have at home right now.
Slingsby Gin comes from Harrogate. Apart from one of the prettiest bottles I’ve seen, it claims to be focussed on the natural resources of the area – the water comes from world famous Harrogate aquifer, the base alcohol is a pure single grain spirit and the botanicals are a carefully selected blend of locally-grown local plants and traditional ingredients.
Half Hitch is from Camden Lock and is made using black tea as one of its botanicals, which sounds a little odd to me.
Finally, Adam Handling’s new restaurant, The Frog, has its own label gin, made for them by Portobello Road Gin. The label tells me that it has a selection of botanicals to create an Asian inspired London gin. If you visit the Portobello Road distillery, you can actually make your own gin blend. So the idea of a bespoke gin for a restaurant isn’t just a dream.
Each one had its strengths. My personal favourite for a straight G&T has to be the Slingsby Gin. Light and citrusy, it was an incredibly pure mouthful.
Half Hitch seemed quite rounded and creamy. I think if I made this into a G&T I’d use an orange garnish. Oh, and you definitely don’t taste the tea.
The Frog Gin lived up to its name with a complex Asian nose that would inspire me to make a cucumber and lemongrass cocktail.
You’ve just got a few days to try the WSET gin experience for yourself. If, by any chance you miss it, fear not, there’s a Whisky version coming up later in the year at Showdown.
Priced from £15, the ‘From Still to Bar’ gin experience is available until 31st August 2016 at the Punch Room, with whisky following at Showdown in November. For more information, please visit the WSET website
If you miss this series of events, WSET run regular courses in the evenings and at weekends from their headquarters in Bermondsey Street.