Gin’s grown up flavours and complex botanicals provide so much scope for innovation that it’s become the go-to spirit for forward-thinking independent distilleries.
Juniper may always be the main flavour but the fascination surrounding the new brands is the way each distiller plays with the mix of fruit and spice. The results sparkle in a good tonic – but also play perfectly into the current cocktail trend, with baristas relishing the challenge of the layered flavours.
The proliferation of new speakeasies, gin bars and adoring websites all prove that this particular clear spirit is enjoying a very fresh moment.
The gin story – in a shot glass
In fact, the Dutch hold the key to this most English of spirits. Pharmacists creating a 16th century Dutch medicine known as ‘genever’ sometimes incorporated juniper berries to make it more palatable. A successful move – certainly the visiting English troops thought so. Their quickly-adopted habit of indulging in a nip of genever before battle is the root of the phrase ‘Dutch courage’.
When the soldiers brought genever back to England, it seems the whole country agreed on the allure of the juniper-scented drink. It sparked a feverish ‘gin craze’- partly helped along by the fact that, unlike other spirits, it wasn’t heavily taxed.
Distillery technology advanced and the botanicals were adjusted but gin today is still made by distilling fermented grains with juniper berries and other aromatics.
How to taste gin
Of course, the pine-y flavour of juniper is the main note when tasting gin. But the sharp tones of coriander seed and citrus are common to almost all gins too.
Other popular flavours include angelica (sweet and musky), orris root (violets), cardamom pods (warm spice, herbal, citrus, resin), cassia bark (cinnamon, warm spice), grains of paradise (woody, citrus) and cubeb berries (warm spice, pepper).
To discover your own preferences, it’s best to visit a really good gin bar and taste your way through the selection (within reason), to avoid investing in a battery of bottles.
- Pour: Purists prefer a stemmed glass (to prevent the heat from your hands warming the gin) which curves inwards at the top, to trap the aromas.
- Look: Hold up to the light and examine the colour. Gin is widely described as colourless but that’s not always true. Some botanicals will create a subtle change.
- Dilute: Add an equal part of still water, so the alcohol is reduced, allowing the character of the gin to come through.
- Swirl: Add oxygen and get those flavours active with a gentle swirl of the drink within the glass.
- Sniff: Remember you’re looking for scents of citrus, wood, fruit, spice and flowers. Try to identify the flavours and make a note of your response to them.
- Taste: The first sip will probably be mainly juniper but then the other peculiarities of the blend you’re drinking should come through. Remember to take notes!
There are so many gins on the market, it can be a daunting task to choose one or two. Here’s our pick of the newcomers to start off with.
Rock Rose, Dunnet Bay Distillers
Image source: Dunnet Bay Distillers
Right at the northernmost tip of Scotland, in Caithness, husband and wife team Martin and Claire Murray have created Rock Rose, a gin that celebrates the area’s unique flora.
Martin told us that the establishment of Rock Rose was a long-held dream: “I actually learnt distillation at university but it was 10 years into a career in the oil and gas industry when I finally took the decision to pursue my real passion.
“Caithness has a truly unique environment and we wanted our gin to showcase this heritage and provenance. We hand-forage botanicals, such as sea buckthorn, rowan berries and our namesake, the Rhodiola rosea, from the local cliffs and forest to create our unique Rock Rose Gin taste.”
The result, which took 55 attempts to get right – is a bright, fruity and delicate gin – the recipe for which is known only to Martin and Claire. Each of the ceramic bottles is hand-filled and wax sealed, before being numbered and signed.
How to drink it
A wee gin & jam cocktail
- 50ml Rock Rose Gin
- 20ml Freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 heaped tsp of your favourite jam
- Dash of egg white
- Shake extra hard to create a meringue-like texture, double strain over cubed ice into a rocks glass
- Garnish with a wee extra spoon of jam. Sit back and enjoy.
Sip from: There’s room for plenty of ice in the Lismore double old fashioned tumbler (£55).
Cannonball Navy Strength Gin, Spencerfield Spirit Company
Image source: Spencerfield Spirit Company
Further south, Cannonball Navy Strength Gin is another example of a great Scottish distiller creating innovative new spirits – and another husband and wife team.
Although Alex and Jane Nicol have been producing whisky for more than 45 years, from their 16th century Fife farmhouse, Cannonball is a much more recent addition to the line up.
The 57% abv navy strength gin punches with double strength juniper, a hit of Szechuan pepper and a finishing tang of lemon zest among its botanicals.
Created through a partnership with Heriot-Watt University, it pays tribute to an old style of navy gin, commissioned by the British Navy.
How to drink it:
- 25ml Cannonball gin
- 25ml Campari
- 25ml Cocchi Rosa
Stir with ice. Garnish with orange peel.
- 50ml Cannonball gin
- 25ml Cocchi Americano
Shaken with ice, strain into martini glass.
Sip from: Celebrate the classic with an iconic Lismore Diamond martini glass (£100 for two)
Tarquin’s Dry Gin, Southwestern Distillery
Image source: Southwestern Distillery
We travel right to the other end of the UK for our next choice, the Devon-based Tarquin’s Dry Gin, which came home with a gold award at the International Wine and Spirits Competition 2014.
Aside from that juniper tang, the notes are citrus, thanks in part to the use of fresh orange zest. The company also grows its own Devon violets, as chief distiller Tarquin Leadbetter explained:
“One unusual ingredient is the Devon violet. From these, I take the delicate leaves, which add a vibrant green freshness to the gin and create something deliciously unique.”
The back garden violets sit happily alongside angelica root from Poland, orris root from Morocco, green cardamom seeds from Guatemala, bitter almond from Morocco, cinnamon from Madagascar and liquorice root from Uzbekistan – a truly international basis for a Devonshire gin.
How to drink it:
- 5 parts Tarquin’s Gin
- 1 part dry vermouth
- A drop of Southwestern Distillery’s Cornish Pastis
- Twist of lemon
Tonics and twists
Of course, the best gin in the world won’t shine in a substandard tonic. The Telegraph’s comprehensive review of tonics is probably the best place to read recommendations and, as they say, the winner might surprise you.
And there’s no need to stick to a simple slice of lemon either. Australian gin blogger The Gin Queen, aka Caroline Childerley, has a beautiful article suggesting alternative garnishes, including jalapeno and lime or rosemary and black pepper. Definitely worth trying.
Sip from: Pay tribute to the Devon violets by drinking from the Rebel martini glass purple (£30).
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