First things first, as late as this post may be, at the start of the month I won a competition for Broker’s Gin, a relative newcomer to the Gin scene (since 1998) and previously one that had been marketed primarily abroad, mostly in the USA.
This is quite exciting, as the story of my competitive career had up until this point been ‘Not quite, but nearly’. In this case, all the elements fell together, and though it was close (as competitions in Edinburgh almost always are), I kept the brief closely in mind and came up with a drink that, I felt, captured the essence of what the competition was about.
The competition drew on the theme of the host bar, the Raconteur, and so a storytelling element was part of the scoring. Thus, given that I understood that Broker’s were looking for a signature drink for Scotland, I opted to create a drink that captured the ‘Englishness’ of the Gin (the Gentleman) with the ‘Scottishness’ of the location. In this case, I bridged both with a deerstalking theme and made a drink that was based on a red wine jus I make when cooking venison.
Now, Broker’s is very definitely English gin. It is produced in a 200 year old distillery, based just outside Birmingham, in a still called Constance, from a quadruple distilled pure English wheat grain spirit using ten classic gin botanicals. In this case, these are Juniper, Coriander Seed, Cinnamon, Cassia Bark, Orris, Angelica Root, Nutmeg, Liquorice, Lemon Peel and Orange Peel. These are steeped for 24 hours in the still before she is fired up again for a fifth and final distillation; this process is generally known as maceration, and favours a rich gin with dominant juniper and citrus characteristics. On these counts, Broker’s certainly does not disappoint, which meant that I knew it would be an excellent Gin to stand up to the other ingredients I had in mind.
Drawing on another English theme, I bastardised a little Flanders and Swann:A year ago, last thursday, I was strolling in the glen, when I met a man who thought he knew the lot. He was laying down the laws about the stalking of the stag, And how many in the past year he had shot. So I asked him: “What’s the best way to cook Venison?” “H’oh,” he replied, “h’In a stew.” And I might have gone on thinking that were true, If the animal in question had not put that man to shame, Sidled up, and said: “In a red wine jus…”
If you have never sampled the delights of that musical revue act, I would urge you to – famous numbers include ‘The Hippopotamus“, “Ill Wind“, and of course, the little ditty I borrowed, “The Gnu.” In this case I went on to regale the audience with a story surrounding the members of my hunting party whilst I prepared this delicious sauce, and create a drink that mirrored it. The drink in question was:A Saucy Proposition 50ml Broker’s Gin (47%) 25ml Dubonnet Two barspoons Redcurrant Jelly 4 Dashes Bitter Truth Xocolatl Mole Bitters Method: Shake over cubed ice and double strain into a chilled antique wine or large sherry glass. Garnish with a sprig of Rosemary and zest with a lemon peel (discard after). Add one dash Xocolatl Mole Bitters on top to finish.
Red wine, spices, juniper, red berries, earthy botanicals, citrus, and importantly, a hint of rich chocolate all combine to make a drink of which I was rather proud, especially given that excluding garnishes, we were allowed only four ingredients. The Gin, after all should speak for itself, and here the use of the higher proof Broker’s was absolutely key.
I am something of a fan of Flanders and Swan. I’m very pleased that my friend Tim FitzHigham will be reprising his reprise of M. Flanders with his colleague Duncan Walsh Atkins taking the role of D. Swann at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and I will be indulging my love of puns and clever wordplay to song. He truly is one of the last great English eccentrics, and if I could have had him tell the story while I made the drinks, believe me, I would have. To call this man stark-raving-bonkers is to forget the fact that he rowed down the Thames in a boat made from over 85% of paper, then decided (and succeeded, two years later) on rowing across the English channel in a Thomas Crapper copper bathtub. Tim morris-danced across the best part of middle England to fulfil a 400 year old bet he didn’t even make. He is insane, a constant delight, and one of the most honestly endearing people I know. Would that there were more like him, but for the fact the world would implode.
Broker’s pulled a coup this year at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge in New York, winning the Chairman’s Trophy, making it (in the judges opinion) The World’s Best Gin. It scored 97 points, with Beefeater 24 narrowly missing out with 96, and the next closest being the excellent Citadelle Reserve at 93 – a score it shared with Tanqueray and Plymouth. Citadelle Reserve is worth a try in its own right if only for the fact it is a tremendously rare find – an aged Gin. It is identical to regular Citadelle gin, except that it is rested in used Cognac casks for up to 6 months before bottling, which gives it a rather unusual pedigree and aroma.
One of the best training sessions I have attended to date was a Bombay Sapphire event held at Bramble a few months ago. Global Brand Ambassador Merlin Griffiths exuded enthusiasm from every pore, and he captured me with his approach to tasting the gin. We were each presented with ten tasting glasses, each containing a spirit made only with one of each of the ten botanicals in Bombay Sapphire; this allowed us to really appreciate what each botanical tasted like pre-and-post distillation. When tasting the final spirit, this helped identify the role of each herb, berry or spice in determining the flavour profile of the gin.
It also highlighted the fact that Gin is, arguably, the original flavoured Vodka. Vodka is a distilled spirit. Gin is a distilled spirit flavoured predominantly with juniper. I’m simplifying, but that’s the gist. When I asked Merlin about this he rather deftly avoided the question without really answering it, but Andy Dawson from Broker’s was a bit more up front about this – in fact, he made the point himself. While I’m happy to admit there are very specific requirements surrounding what can and can’t be called Gin, when you distil it to the essence (ugh), that’s basically what you get. As with vodka, the base spirit will have an effect on the flavour of the final spirit; a wheat base will tend towards a lighter texture, potato to a creamy mouth-feel, barley to a rich texture, and rye to spicy notes. How you infuse the flavour will similarly play a role.
Just as vodka can be flavoured in different ways, there are many ways to create a gin. Cheapest is a method called Cold Compounding, in which you make a neutral spirit and then flavour it so that it tastes predominantly of juniper. This can’t be called ‘distilled’ gin, and certainly not ‘London Dry’ gin, but it is gin nonetheless.
Bombay Sapphire use a technique known as Vapour Infusion, in which the botanicals are held in a compartment in the ‘swan’s neck’ of the still. When the still is fired the vapours pass through the botanicals at high temperature while cooling and reforming to liquid on their merry passage, thus picking up the flavours. This produces gins with lighter character, and in the case of Bombay, it draws out the earthier, fruity tones from the Orris and Angelica in particular.
For richer gins such as the excellent Sipsmith, Tanqueray and Broker’s, a process called maceration is used. In this the botanicals are steeped in the distilled spirit for a time determined by the distiller before the still is fired up and the gin is distilled with all the botanicals remaining in the still (still in the still, you might say). This favours a richly flavoured gin where the juniper and citrus tend to be more prevalent, though by no means exclusive when you taste them.
I have recently come by a bottle of William Chase Gin, exciting insofar as it is, unusually for a Gin, made from apples. Chase are becoming known for their potato based vodka, produced from the same potatoes that we all know and love as Tyrell’s crisps. Chase vodka and gin are all made on their estate, from start to finish – unlike almost all other clear spirit producers they don’t buy in their base spirit from elsewhere, they grow, harvest and distil it themselves. This kind of provenance makes for a very interesting product, and I’m very much looking forward to cracking the bottle open. Except it’s a very, very pretty bottle…