Artisan production, provenance and healthy botanicals are ensuring that the drink is now as clear as its reputation, says Ettie Neil-Gallacher. Illustrations by Gemma Usher
Today’s Gin Craze is quite different, thankfully, to that of history. Ettie Neil-Gallacher discovers how artisan distillers are ensuring the drink remains as clear as its reputation.
As artisan gin production creates new and unique concoctions, why not attempt some of your own? Take your pick from The Field’s favourite cocktails.
THE GIN CRAZE
Gin has come a long way since the 17th century, moving from being essentially British moonshine, synonymous with social failing and moral depravity, to acquiring National Treasure status – the booze equivalent of Judi Dench – beloved by everyone from hipster millennials to maiden aunts. There’s now pretty much a distillery for every day of the year in the UK, with gin sales worth more than £2.7bn. Fifty-four distilleries opened in 2018 alone – more than one a week – and we guzzled down 73 million bottles during the year.
In medieval times, the Dutch found distilled malt wine proved unpalatable so junipers were added for their health-giving properties (they were thought to aid headaches and soothe stomachs) – and so jenever became a medicinal staple. The British observed the beneficial effects on Dutch soldiers of a ‘swift one’ during the central European bloodbath that was the Thirty Years War (1618-48), and this is where the idea of Dutch courage comes from.
When William and Mary ascended the throne in 1689, there were incentives, for political and religious reasons, to encourage production and consumption of gin. These included a tax on foreign spirits (to hit the French brandy market) and the breaking of the monopoly of the London Guild of Distillers, which allowed people to distil their own product.
The British public, male and female, responded enthusiastically. Gin shops could be smaller and cheaper than alehouses as there was no obligation to provide food and shelter. Writer Mark Forsyth noted: “Beer and the alehouses had always been seen as basically male domains. Gin, which was new and exotic and metropolitan, didn’t have any of these old associations. There were no rules around gin. There were no social norms about who could drink it, or when you could drink it, or how much of it you could drink. A lot of places served it in pints because, well… that’s what you drank.”
But with unfettered access came abuses. The poor, and poor women in particular, came to represent the worst excesses of the Gin Craze. Stronger than it is today and cheaper than beer, some workers were even paid in gin. By 1710, 19 million gallons were consumed annually. During the second quarter of the 18th century, adults drank an average of half a pint a day. Much of it was homebrew, cut with ingredients such as turpentine when junipers were scarce, and sulphuric acid for authentic burn.
There are many apocryphal tales surrounding the Gin Craze: of women spontaneously combusting; of the farm labourer newly arrived in London who dropped dead after necking three pints. Perhaps the most depressing is the tale of Judith Defour, who placed her two-year-old daughter in a workhouse. She came to take her out for a few hours, during which time she and her friend strangled the child, in order to sell the clothes she had been given at the workhouse to buy gin. Similarly, Mary Estwick, a childminder, came home drunk on gin, and sat down by the fire with her charge on her lap. She promptly passed out and the child rolled into the hearth and was burnt to death.
This led to moral outrage. Decried by writers and politicians, one of the most damaging and lasting invectives took pictorial form. Hogarth’s twin engravings Beer Street and Gin Lane contrast the health-giving benefits of beer with the depravity-inducing effects of gin. The political response was ineffectual. Between 1729 and 1751, eight Gin Acts were passed. Taxation, licensing and vending restrictions merely drove production underground. Consumption peaked in 1743, as Londoners found ways round the strictures, including the Puss and Mew machine: wooden panels through which money and gin could be exchanged.
More successful was the 1751 Gin Act, which raised merchants’ fees, prohibited distillers from selling to unlicensed ones and introduced minimum production quantities. This put the small operators out of operation and, within a few years, the hold that gin had on the working classes had been broken.
As noted by Sipsmiths, “it was transformed from being seen as an escapism tactic for the working classes to a relatively middle-class spirit”. These people, along with the workers flushed from their labours as the Industrial Revolution swelled the economy, wanted something more salubrious than the old gin shops, and so the gin palace was born.
It was at this time that some big names were established, such as Plymouth Gin and Gordon’s, which remains far and away the top-selling gin in the UK, with sales up by more than a quarter in 2018 to 6.5 million nine-litre cases (which is 2.2 million cases ahead of the second best-selling gin, Bombay Sapphire). Another high-profile brand at this time was J&W Nicholson & Co, which started distilling in 1736 in Clerkenwell. It became one of the leading distillers in Victorian England but the firm was sold off in the 1980s, only to be bought back from Pernod Ricard by cousins and descendants of the original family, Nicholas Browne and Tim Walker, who relaunched it at Lord’s in 2017. Now ‘the spirit of cricket’ and the official gin at the MCC (which bought 50 cases before England’s victory this year), it was ancestor and England cricketer William Nicholson who loaned the MCC the money to buy the freehold. Nicholson London dry is still true to the original recipe, which evolved from the mid-19th century, and Browne says it’s “very much a gin for cocktails”. Walker died last year but Browne and various other relations still own 75% of the brand.
VICTORY FOR VODKA
During the 20th century, gin sales were outstripped by vodka. Gin was still constrained by licensing restrictions regarding minimal production but this was all changed by Sipsmith, which was the brand to kickstart the revolution in artisan gin. Inspired by the craft distilleries boom in the States, Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall lobbied the government for two years to grant them a licence because they planned to produce less than 300 litres at a time. In 2009, their copper pot-based distillery was the first to open in London for 189 years.
This broke the stranglehold of the big distillers. Once again, small operators sprang up and a proliferation of artisan distillers has erupted onto the drinks scene, many making both a London dry and a distilled gin. However, despite the homespun craft image many of these purport to embody, many aren’t making their gin from scratch but rather buying in neutral grain spirit and then infusing it with botanicals. Neil Ridley, drinks writer, presenter and co-author, along with Joel Harrison, of The World Atlas of Gin (published in September), explains that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it gives variety of flavour within the base spirit: “The distilling and licensing laws in Europe, and especially in the UK, make it harder for smaller producers to make a spirit from scratch, especially to make it cost effective.”
An example is Archangel Gin in Norfolk, the firm growing many of its botanicals while buying in neutral-grain spirit. School friends and Catholics, Peter Allingham and Jude De Souza even planted juniper. The old pilgrimage route to Walsingham ran along the back wall of the distillery and the belief that every pilgrim is accompanied by two angels inspired the name. Allingham recommends a Paddington Bear: two parts Archangel, one part Campari, three parts freshly squeezed orange and lemon juice, a teaspoon of Peruvian marmalade and a dash of orange bitters – “it’s stealth”, he warns.
Others are following a grass to glass philosophy as there is increasing desire for gin to reflect its provenance. So in addition to making their own neutral-grain spirit, they source, grow or even forage botanicals. This approach “undoubtedly builds confidence in the provenance of a gin, demonstrating an authenticity which consumers are looking for these days”, explains Ridley.
Among those adopting this approach is Dyfi Distillery in Mid Wales. “In terms of our priorities, number one is quality, number two is provenance and number three is sustainability,” explains co-owner Danny Cameron. Of the 35 botanicals used, 25 are foraged from within the biosphere, though Cameron is careful to point out that flavour is paramount. If a botanical from elsewhere tastes better, that’s what they’ll use. With such a narrow brief, it’s hardly surprising that their gins are produced in micro-batches. Their Dyfi Original, a London dry, won the Best British Gin at the Great British Food Awards in 2018.
Copper Rivet in Kent is passionate about how provenance should be reflected in the gin. The firm views its neutral spirit as one of the 10 botanicals because it’s grown within a 20-mile radius, so Abhishek Banik, head distiller, believes “an element of terroir plays a part in the flavour”. Using its own, purpose-built, patented copper still, Copper Rivet set out to create a ‘soft’, classic G&T gin, with “creamy, fruity flavours”.
Echoing the idea that the grain spirit isn’t really a neutral element of the gin is Christian Perez-Solar, production manager at Arbikie in Scotland, which uses its own potato vodka as the base element. The firm makes two gins, Kirsty’s Gin and AK’s Gin, but he recommends drinking both straight out of the freezer. “They’re magical when you drink them neat. You get an explosion of flavours.”
GRASS TO GLASS
The makers of the Oxford Botanic Garden Physic Gin also recommend drinking it neat. Corey Mason, master distiller at The Oxford Artisan Distillery, says, “it loses complexity when it’s mixed”, while Simon Hiscock, Oxford Botanic Garden’s director, agrees that it’s the best way to appreciate the “distinctive flavour: botanical with an oily, medicinal finish”. TOAD also adopts a grass-to-glass approach but with an academic bent, inspired by the 1648 list of plants grown in the garden. Of the 25 botanicals used, 24 are on that list. The 25th is Szechuan pepper, because it “adds a special note to the gin”, Hiscock explains. Mason says they adhered to a strict principle: “Most gins tell a story about the locality of the distillery. This tells the history of 400 years of botanical herbs.”
From history to geography (and in keeping with Ridley’s prediction that imported gin is the next big trend), London to Lima is run by husband and wife Alex James and Karina Karena de Lecaros James. Having left the Life Guards and become a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Distillers, Alex James suggested to his wife, who is of Peruvian origin, that they move to Peru to start distilling in the jungle. With two babies, a Parson Russell terrier and 18 suitcases, they emigrated. One life-threatening virus and much hard physical labour later (including laying pipes up a mountain to get water from a glacier), their Pisco-based gin, using five Peruvian botanicals and four imported ones, is going down a storm. Alex collects his own grapes and rents a still from the local landowner (“we met playing cricket – he was my wicket keeper”). With a still of his own design, he redistils his base spirit, “isolating flavours I want from the grape, which brings quite a lot of fruity floral notes and softer mouth feel than normal grain-based spirit”.
The latest gin regulations have encouraged other innovations, such as the trend for whisky producers to make gin – they have the equipment, after all. William Grant pre-dated the Gin Craze II with its Hendrick’s Gin in 1999. But Bruichladdich is a good example of this tangential enterprise, having started producing its Botanist gin in 2010, using 22 botanicals, it’s “evocative of Islay”. Other newer distilleries, such as Isle of Harris, start with gin, while waiting for their whisky to mature. Ridley points to the financial benefit of this: “The sheer cost of setting up a distillery is a real commitment and if you set out to make whisky, you’ll see no real return for at least three years, so making gin is an opportunity to bring in some revenue.”
It seems that gin has always tapped into the British aptitude for innovation, lending itself to reinvention and small-scale production. Thankfully, today’s distillers are displaying a greater interest in provenance rather than paint thinner.