Gin. Let’s face it, when I started going out drinking in the 90s, it was deeply unfashionable to order it; the sort of thing only your grandparents would appreciate. So I stayed well clear of it. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve discovered a love for this quintessentially British spirit. And as we approach the end of Negroni Week and the eighth World Gin Day taking place on 11 June, what better time to tell you more about a drink that’s played such a supporting role in my nation’s history.
Although it had its origins in Holland, as early as the 16th century gin gave our soldiers some much needed “Dutch Courage” before heading in to battle. By the 19th century it was being used by the army to fight off malaria in India by making quinine more palatable. Even the herbs and spices that, along with juniper berries, give the spirit its unique taste hark back to the days when the mighty ships of the East India Company would arrive home with exotic ingredients from all corners of the world.
However, it’s probably the Gin Craze of the mid-18th century we have to thank for today’s quality spirit. The cheap, unlicensed and often potentially lethal concoctions being sold to the poor finally led to the Gin Act of 1751 and the establishment of several new distilleries; familiar names such as Gordon’s, Plymouth, Beefeater and Tanqueray that we know today.
Gin has always had its fans, but in the last six years something extraordinary has happened – the number of distilleries in the UK has doubled. “We owe a lot to Hendricks and Sipsmith” says Leon Dalloway from The Gin Journey. “Hendricks changed the market with their new flavour profile, chucked cucumber in their G&T and blew everyone’s mind. Sipsmith brought craft distillation back to London with a love for experimentation and showed the world what could be done with gin.”
“Since then, others have emerged with exciting personalities, enticing packaging and interesting stories. Distillers get to be very expressive; they get to paint their perfect flavour profile onto a blank canvas using the finest botanicals they can lay their hands on.”
Olivier Ward, who established the Gin Foundry with his brother Emile, agrees. “Outside the glass, there’s so much to talk about from the flavour of the spirit to where it’s being made, how and by whom. It’s a conversation starter and now that there are so many styles being made by so many makers of differing backgrounds – there’s a lot to pick from.”
“In the glass, it has the ability to transcend a moment and transport you into distant memories evoked by all its varying subtitles in aroma and flavour. People always think I’m joking, but I really do believe there is true artistry in making a good gin.”
And the huge difference in taste between gins has been one of the surprises for me. Yes, they all have juniper, but distillers are combining this with ingredients such as hops, lavender, watercress, raspberries, silver birch, cider apples and even wood ants. It’s claimed that in the right hands any plant can be used successfully.
Mix it with one of the many flavoured or traditional tonics on the market. Before you drop in a slice of lemon or lime, consider garnishing it with something to compliment the botanicals in the gin like orange, pink grapefruit, rosemary, cucumber, cherry, rhubarb or nectarine. And hey presto… your humble G&T is now a work of art in its own right!
Many of the 233 licensed gin distillers in the UK make small batches of the spirit. That includes the world’s first airport distillery at London Gatwick who produce 12 litres of the spirit each week to a recipe created by Matthew Servini, an expert in 16th and 17th century gins. The London Dry Gin (and the bar it is served at) is named after Nicholas Culpeper, an English botanist, herbalist and physician who was born in 1616 less than two miles away from the end of the runway.
It seems everyone is at it these days. Even I’ve had a go at making my own and it’s surprisingly easy. I took some vodka (I know, I should wash my mouth out – with gin), add juniper berries and some botanicals and 36 hours later I had my own delicious booze. It even won over some friends who weren’t big gin drinkers! Maybe there’s a new career awaiting me?
I’ve got a lot to learn and have been expanding my knowledge via a huge number of gin-related blogs, bars, clubs, pop-ups, tours and events. They’ve all been truly fascinating and have left me with a very different view on the drink. I’d implore you to experience an event or tour for yourself and discover your next favourite gin. Jym who, with his wife Marie, founded GinFestival.com, says “Gin’s amazing because it’s so versatile. It’s not limited by base spirit, botanicals or tradition so there’s incredible scope for distillers and bartenders to play around – even if you think you don’t like gin, I can almost guarantee that there’ll be one out there that you’ll love!”
But in the interests of time, I asked all of our experts for their advice on any British gins that have caught their eye that we should check out.
Leon suggests trying Silent Pool or Tarquin’s – “two exciting gins that are trying something different yet still breaking the market” – Pickering’s up in Scotland have resurrected an old Bombay recipe that takes you back in time and Warner Edwards Victoria’s Rhubarb Gin is so good, “I want it on a drip at all times.”
Olivier says that “picking a favourite gin is like picking a favourite child – we all have one, but you can never say it!” However, he suggests Makar Glasgow Gin and 58 Gin from Hackney. “Both have very distinct flavour profiles and I’m rooting for them as they move from micro production to the next stage. It’s been fascinating watching their progress and how they are developing their fan base.”
“I’m a big fan of Sir Robin of Locksley Distilled Artisan Gin,” says Jym. “Quite simply, it’s one of the best out there. Made over in the Steel City, Sir Robin of Locksley is what I’d call a sipping gin because it’s so good over ice with a little pink grapefruit peel. It’s gentle yet flavoursome with elderflower, warm cassia and dandelion and a touch of pink grapefruit. If you don’t fancy it neat, it really does make a lovely G&T as well as mixing beautifully in cocktails. It really ticks all the boxes!”
We should remember that gin doesn’t just go with tonic. “It’s a great, if not the best, base for a cocktail,” says Leon. “Its neutral taste yet complex flavour profile make it something you want to develop. I’m a bartender at heart so I like to play with my spirits and gin is a lot of fun to play with. I’m rocking back into using Plymouth in my Martinis, a classic and so tasty!”
And at times, it’s great to drink on its own. Olivier reveals that his current tipple is Martin Miller’s new barrel aged release, 9 Moons, on the rocks which is “delicious!” Although he admits that he’ll never say no to a Negroni cocktail.
If all that’s piqued your ginterest but you don’t fancy drinking alone, then you can join:
- Leon on one of his popular Gin Journey tours (held regularly in London, Manchester, Liverpool or Edinburgh)
- Olivier and Emile at their Junipalooza event in London this weekend (11-12 June) where 43 master distillers will be serving up their finest gins or online any time via their website
- Jym and Marie at one of a number of Gin Festivals up and down the UK throughout the year
Alternatively, now you’re much more educated, you could pull up seat at The Old Bell Inn at Delph in Lancashire and order your way though a Guinness World Record of 404 different varieties of the spirit from around the world like the expert you now are! Now all I need are some directions…
Don’t worry if you’re not in the UK. Around 70% of our gin is exported, so you won’t have to look far to find a British gin somewhere near you.