Gin: In a glass of its own
Forget ice and a slice – the new super-premium gins are much too interesting to be drowned in tonic. David Gerrie reports on a new spirit of adventure
Wednesday 12 May 2010
It was Sir Winston Churchill who famously declared the only way to make the perfect gin martini was to pour a liberal amount of the chilled spirit into an equally frigid and correctly-shaped glass, pop in a couple of olives and show the glass to the vermouth bottle on the mantelpiece. So it is, perhaps, only fitting the nation's first dedicated gin bar should open just a juniper berry's throw from Blenheim Palace, the place of his birth.
Here, one can sample "The Ultimate G&T", which uses Blackwood's 60 per cent, which claims to be the world's only vintage gin, and Q tonic, featuring hand-picked cinchona bark (quinine) from the Peruvian Andes and organic agave - albeit at a wallet-busting £16.75-a-pop.
In any other year, this could be seen as merely another gimmicky splash in the glass from the spirits and leisure industries ever eager to find new ways to persuade us to part with our booze dollar. But the fact that The Feathers, in the charming Cotswold village of Woodstock, Oxfordshire, has managed to gather no fewer than 50 gins from eight different countries and has installed a "Gin Ambassador" in residence to guide the less sophisticated gin drinker through their menu, is as good a sign as any that the intensely aromatic spirit has come a long way since it was 18th Century London's crack cocaine of its day. back then, it was drunk not only like water, but instead of it due to the potentially lethal qualities of Adam's Ale at that time.
Others are following suit. London's Harvey Nichols has opened a martini terrace on its fifth floor until the end of July. The truth is the days of your only choice being whether you want your gin in a green, blue or clear bottle are long gone. The rise and rise of vodka as the fashionable drink has at last seen gin distillers responding in a remarkable and highly profitable manner.
Just as vodka enticed consumers with increasingly varied and expensive offerings – think Grey Goose at upwards of £45 a bottle – so gin has gown up, in a bid to restore the place it once occupied in the sophisticated art deco era of cocktails and cruise ships.
The main weapon in its delicious arsenal is the creation of super-premium gins, infused with ever-more exotic botanicals, sometimes in small batches and made in such unlikely locations as The Shetlands. Paying more than £20 for a bottle of gin was unthinkable in the Nineties, but now super-premium brands such as Oxley, distilled at minus 5C, are pushing well in to the £40-plus region and producing sales figures that are causing the collective jaws of more established gin distillers to hit the floor with a mighty thud. And while the gin market in general is declining by 7 per cent a year, many super-premium offerings are reporting annual sales increases of up to 48 per cent.
The common consensus is that the instantly recognisable blue bottle of Bombay Sapphire kick-started the move towards more upmarket gins, but the real seismic change came with the launch of Scotland's Hendrick's, widely referred to as "the Glenfiddich of gins", thanks to its ability to reach a whole new type of gin drinker, just as the latter did for single malts (coincidentally, they're both owned by the same company, William Grant), and which is now the world's leading super-premium gin, selling 250,000 bottles a year in the UK alone. Magners made massive inroads simply by suggesting we put ice in our cider, and Hendrick's pulled off just such a devastatingly simple trick by telling us to ditch the lemon slice and instead slip a slice of cucumber (preferably peeled and seeded) into our gin. It helps that the humble vegetable is one of the botanicals used by the brand as an infusion, together with rose petals and coriander, with the overall effect gaining momentum as it became known as a gin for people who didn't think they liked gin. "We thought if the balance of our botanicals was so delicate, why obliterate it with a whacking great wedge of lemon?" says Nick Williamson, marketing controller for First Drinks Brands, which distributes Hendrick's in the UK.
Others quickly followed. Caorunn, another Celtic gin, suggests you serve it with a slice of apple. Geranium proposes to tickle our taste buds with a more floral accent. Other more left-field botanicals now being used in the distilling of these super-premium brands include almonds, green cardamom, cassia bark, Javanese cubeb berries, ginger root, grains of paradise berries, liquorice root and the violet-tinged orris root of the iris.
And these high-end gins are getting stronger, too. While 37.5 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) is the starting point for gin, brands such as Williams Chase clock in at 48 per cent. This brand turns organic apples into cider, which is then made into vodka and subsequently into gin. Supermarkets haven't missed the point, either. Blackfriars, Sainsbury's own super-premium brand, comes in at 43 per cent.
"Many people doubt there will any difference in taste between one gin and another, but when they're able to taste a selection, the variation in taste always surprises them," says Neil Whelpton, spirits buyer for Waitrose. "As a yardstick, I receive more news about new gins aimed at the top end of the market than any other spirit. You can try and do whatever you like with packaging, but ultimately, it's the liquid in the bottle which counts and invariably some of these new twists will prove to be like the emperor's new clothes – some will work and others won't.
"Super-premium gins are going the same way their vodka counterparts did in in the past, to the point vodka distillers are now experimenting with the addition of botanicals to give different flavours to what is, after all, a relatively flavourless drink. Also, in a recession, a lot of people are staying at home and by doing so can trade up to a more premium product, generally using price as a guideline to quality."
At London's Connaught Hotel, Coburg Bar manager Mark Jenner says: "About 30 per cent of all our cocktails use gin, with more and more of those featuring super-premium brands. There is a school of thought that says gin is gin is gin, but these high-end labels have a lot more depth and character than vodka, not only due to the increasing number of micro-distilleries, but also because of all the different botanicals now being used, which make them slightly more of the earth. The understanding of gin and where it comes from is easier for people to grasp.
"It's a very exciting time for super-premium gins because they're using sheer quality as their unique selling point – so gin is no longer just something your dad drank. People are becoming more inquisitive and with financial instability, they're are seeking higher-quality gins and through these products can detect new, intricate qualities which take them well past the G&T or martini phase. People are looking beyond the brand for differentials they previously only attached to fine wines. It's the same sort of mentality that has led to the rise of farmers' markets – people want a more intimate buying experience. And the internet has helped an enormous amount. People can look at the various gins' websites, read the stories behind them – and there are some wonderful ones – then shop by price."
One of the most delightful of these stories is Sipsmith, launched last July by Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall, two 34-year-olds who grew up together in Cornwall. They're already in chains such as Majestic, and Waitrose will roll out their distinctive swan's head label at 11 of their London stores in July. Their not-so-secret weapon is Prudence, the first copper still to launch in London for nearly 200 years, designed by Germany's oldest distillery producers, Christian Carl, and the only one of its kind in the world, according to Sam, who always refers to his pride and joy as "she".
From their 500sq ft headquarters – the UK's smallest bonded facility – Prudence now produces 10,000 nine-litre cases a year and that isn't her full capacity. "Given how recently we launched, we have just had an awesome fourth quarter," says Sam. "We'd sold our houses to do this and were running on vapours, both figuratively and literally. We've already sold 3,000 bottles and been taken aback at how quickly we've reached this level. Vodka was the thing in the Eighties and Nineties, but consumers decided they'd run out of options with differently flavoured vodkas and cocktails. There is something more characterful about a super-premium gin than its vodka counterpart.
"Consumers love to tell a story about what they're serving. It's much harder to do that with a bottle of vodka than it is with super-premium gins. People are peeling back the proverbial label and in a sense want to own the brand themselves so they can become a bit evangelical about it. So you have to have a story behind your product. People today love knowing about the provenance of a product, preferably with a good anecdote behind it."
Things to do with gin
* Try cooking with gin. Many venison recipes feature juniper berries, gin's primary botanical ingredient, so it's not as weird as it may seem.
* Go to Ginvodka.org for such tasty treats as gin-flavoured game pate or salmon and avocado en croute, gin and egg sauce, gin-infused prawns with martini aioli, chicken with gin and juniper, duck in gin and lavender, G&T sorbet, or rhubarb mousse with strawberry-gin sauce.
* A friend's grandfather had a great idea for the consistently perfect martinis. Instead of using a shaker and ice, keep a sealed container in the freezer containing two washed stones. When the sun's over the yard arm, flow your gin into the container and shake well. This way, no water dilutes the purity of your gin, yet your martini is still perfectly chilled.
* Don't be a tonic bore. Super-premium gins are at their finest when the only addition is a drop of water to release their oils; banish the quinine taste.
* Gin and fresh orange or grapefruit juice is delightfully tangy, and gin and lemonade is perfect for the tonic-averse.
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