Gin ramblings

Recently we’ve seen scandals tear through politics, the police and press. We’ve been rioted, we’ve been looted, we’ve been screwed by hikes and strikes. And bankers. We’re living off less but everything costs more. There’s an apocalyptic mood lingering over the city, and it won’t go away.

While recessions bring a general feeling of doom and gloom, some can ride out the storm better than others. Like funeral directors and the drinks industry. Recession or no recession, people are always going to die, and people are always going to drink—on the odd occasion the two become interlinked.

While so many industries have stalled and floundered over the past few years, one that has risen from the flames is gin.
On one hand, its popularity could be a Hogarth-esque commentary on society steering people to hard liquor.

Hogarth's 'Gin Lane'

On the other hand, gin’s revival could be down to its image-change and the explosion of gins containing new and interesting botanicals hitting the shelves.

What was a fusty old lady’s drink only a few years ago is now quaffed by hipsters and fashionistas in vast amounts (…though still not quite 18th century amounts—by 1743 the Englishman was guzzling 2.2 gallons/10 litres of gin each year!)

JJ Goodman, cocktail creator at the London Cocktail Club, put gin’s revival down to variety of new flavourings in the spirit: “It’s all about gin these days but gin with botanicals, infused with things like coriander, lemon and orris root.” He said.

Hendricks can be distinguished by its cucumber notes, Sipsmith has zesty lemon notes, Saffron Gin does what it says on the label, and Hoxton Gin is distilled with grapefruit and coconut—its creator Garry Calabrese, who also founded The Hoxton Pony, said of the new wave of gins: “As long as a spirit has a core base of juniper in the mix – 50% or more – and it retains some character of juniper on the nose and palate, then it’s a gin in my view.”

“These advances have not only made the category more accessible to a younger palate, but also created interest with bartenders.” He added.

While there are lots more brands using lots more botanicals, the trend can be traced back to the birth of Bombay Sapphire in the 1990s—the first gin to divulge what was in the bottle by listing its ten botanicals on the bottle.

Now, at this point I should tell you that I am actually a bit of a botanicals geek, and to explain why, I need to tell you a little story.

Last year I did a spectacular piece of wangling, and got myself on a Bombay Sapphire trip to Tuscany with nine of London’s best bartenders to see the orris and juniper harvest. (Photos are my own)

It was 7:30am on a cold, groggy Monday morning, and only three somewhat bedraggled bartenders had made it to the airport on time. As a couple more of the group turned up, a voice scratched over the tannoy announcing that the flight had been cancelled.

We waited until everyone had arrived, and then piled in taxis to a bar. Ten hours later we piled back in taxis to the airport, then got a bus the other end to finally take us to our villa round midnight.

The hassle involved in manoeuvring nine bar tenders from London to Tuscany was at the forefront of my mind when Bombay Sapphire’s head botanist Ivano Tonutti started explaining the complications of botanical harvests to us to next day.

To give you a rough idea, the cubeb is from West Africa, the cassia bark is from Indo-China and the lemon rind is hand-peeled and hand-dried by hundreds of Spanish farmers who come together under a co-operative.

Each botanical has a specific season, each needs storing in a different way, each is susceptible to price fluctuations if there’s been a bumper or poor harvest, and each needs to somehow make its way from different corners of the world to one single distillery. Just thinking about it is stressful—it takes a military operation of epic proportions to end up with hundreds of thousands of identically-tasting bottles each year, sold at a consistent price.

Generally speaking, the more things are mass-produced, the less human interaction is involved. But it’s impossible to take the human element out of harvesting the delicate botanicals that go in gin.

It would be convenient for the berries to be grown on cheap, flat land near the distillery…but the thing is, the best juniper berries are grown on Tuscan hills – the microclimate there means that the snow kills off the bacteria on the hillside, and then it drip feeds the soil as it melts.

This comes with several problems though. Firstly, the bushes are ‘wild’ in that they’re not owned by specific people, but families have rights to the land which they’re grown on. Secondly, the slopey nature of the hills mean that there’s no heavy duty machinery to help with the harvest. Instead, the berries are ‘coaxed’ off the bush by pickers who whack them with a stick using a certain finesse which leaves the green berries on the bush, and knock the purple, plump berries into a sieve.

The orris root is hand peeled by the communities who live round the orris farms. They come together in a hall, and sit with a bucket between their legs to catch the gnarldy skin that’s scathed off with an old, curved knife.

Christian Audigier said that “everyone drinks more during a recession; they want to forget.”

But the interesting thing about the story of gin is that people seem to be drinking better rather than drinking more. Instead of the Hogarth-ian debauchery of moonshine, the trend is toward hand-harvesting, vapour-infusing and beautiful-marketing. Gin has remained stiff-upper-lipped in the face of it all, and with an ever widening-audience, has helped its consumers stay stiff-upper-lipped too.

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