Saturday, 27 July 2013

Sacred Rosehip Cup—a thoroughly English aperitivo

To Primrose Hill last week for the launch of Sacred Rosehip Cup. The Sacred Spirits Company is basically Ian Hart, a thoughtful boffin with a twinkling curiosity, who has built a vacuum still in a room in his house. Dotted about the place are tubs of neutral spirit with various single botanicals macerating in them; when he deems each one ready he puts it into a glass vessel, then uses a big vacuum pump located in a garden shed to lower the pressure in the vessel till the spirit starts to evaporate. No heat is used to cause this evaporation;* the theory behind cold vacuum distilling is that the botanicals don’t get “cooked” and so retain their natural flavour.

Ian’s gin is doing very well for itself and keeps winning all kinds of awards. But he is always looking at ways of applying his concepts to other drinks. He makes a Spiced English Vermouth, intended to partner with his gin for a perfect Martini, and his latest wheeze is the Rosehip Cup, which is actually intended to be a sort of English answer to Campari. Like other aperitivos and vermouths, it is an infusion that is not redistilled, and is bottled at 18% ABV.

The starting point, Ian explains, was to use rosehip for fruitiness, rhubarb for acidity and gentian for bitterness.** They were going to call it a Rhubarb Cup, but the end result does not really taste that rhubarby—so he felt that those who don’t really like rhubarb (and it can be divisive) would be put off, while those who do would be disappointed. Hence the name Rosehip Cup.

The colour of Campari originally came from crushed cochineal beetles but nowadays is artificial. Ian didn’t want to go down the artificial route, however (the ingredients of the Cup are all natural and mostly organic). The rosehip actually made the tincture a pale, pinky-brown rather than the bright red he wanted. He considered cochineal, but then had a stroke of luck: he discovered that red grape skins, which are actually a purple colour and are the source of the colour of red wine, turn bright red in the presence of the acid from the rhubarb. This is where the colour of Sacred Rosehip Cup comes from. Ian has observed that, if you dilute the Cup with soda water, for example, as the acid concentration drops the drink turns purple again.

Ian with his Negroni kit gift pack
The signature serve is the Negroni, undoubtedly the classic Campari drink (equal parts gin, Campari and red vermouth). Ian prescribes the use of his own Spiced English Vermouth—you might say, “well he would,” but he explains that the Rosehip Cup is actually not as bitter as Campari, whereas the Spiced English Vermouth is more bitter than, say, Martini Rosso; and the Rosehip Cup needs this extra bitterness. At the launch I am given one of these Negonis to try (using Sacred gin, of course): it is a light, fruity example of its kind, with a slightly downplayed juniper, as one might expect from a complex gin like Sacred. Perhaps a good, light summer Negroni.

Ian is actually planning to sell a “Negroni kit”, of three 20cl bottles of Sacred Gin, Sacred Rosehip Cup and Sacred Spiced English Vermouth (see photo left). That’s everyone’s Christmas presents sorted, then.

Alternative ways to drink the Rosehip Cup are with Fentiman’s Rose Lemonade or with Prosecco; the latter produces a dry, fruity number, a bit like adding Pimm’s to sparkling wine, if you’ve ever tried that.

Rosehip Cup on the left, Campari on the right
Back home I line up a direct comparison between Campari and the Rosehip Cup. As you can see from the photo, they look pretty much identical. Tasted neat they are similar but Campari has a more citric, floral nose with a steely savouriness, and a hint of cooked peppers, celery, even onion, and maybe some cinnamon. All this is carried through on to the tongue, plus bitterness, obviously, and something woody (perhaps that’s the cascarilla bark).

By comparison the Rosehip Cup, while broadly similar, has a softer and more fruity nose, comforting like rosehip syrup. It is sweeter on the palate, though with bitterness too, and there is something like parma violets in there as well.

A Negroni made with the Rosehip Cup (apologies
for the garnish—I didn't have any oranges)
I don’t have any of the Spiced English Vermouth at home, so I knock up a Negroni using Martini Rosso, and then source some extra bitterness from Peychaud’s Bitters (which I find is more simple heads-down bitter, whereas Angostura has has other aromatic things going on too). The end result is very agreeable, a good showcase for what a fine cocktail the Negroni is, and I find one can dial in all the bitterness one wants using this method.

Sacred Rosehip Cup is £28.50 from

* Actually the vessel rotates in a warm-water bath, which is simply to keep it at room temperature, otherwise the drop in pressure would cause the temperature to drop dramatically too. Oxley gin is also made using vacuum distillation but they, I believe, allow the temperature to drop to –5 degrees C.

** Campari won’t say what their ingredients are; Ian said he thought the bitterness came from gentian, though I see that whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry believes it contains the bitter-sour fruit chinotto and cascarilla bark, while this person is adamant it contains “quinine, rhubarb, ginseng, orange peels and aromatic herbs”.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Some tequila cocktails

A Matador cocktail

Asked to name a tequila cocktail, most people would pipe up with the Margarita (roughly two parts tequila to one part lime juice and one part triple sec, with an optional salt rim, though some nowadays advocate replacing some or all of the triple sec with agave syrup). It’s a great platform for tequila, with a natural harmony like that between rum, lime and sugar in a Daiquiri. And indeed salt and lime, Matthias Lataille of Olmeca Altos (see the last post) tells me, are staples of the cuisine in Mexico. But can you name any more tequila cocktails?

For the Mexican-themed New Sheridan Club party Matthias had come up with some suitably vintage drinks, the first of which was the Picador, from the 1937 Café Royal Cocktail Book. As you will notice, it is identical to the Margarita, though with no mention of salt. Most of the (many) theories about the origin of the Margarita hail from the 1940s, and usually revolve around its being named after a customer called Margarita/Margaret—for example, that it was created in October 1941 at Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada, Mexico, by bartender Don Carlos Orozco for Margarita Henkel, daughter of the German ambassador. But the Picador predates those, although the book gives no information as to the drink’s origins.*

¼ fresh lime or lemon juice
¼ Cointreau
½ tequila
Café Royal Cocktail Book (1937)

Also in the same book is the Toreador, which essentially takes the Picador and replaces the Cointreau with that other great period ingredient, apricot brandy. I really liked the idea of this one, but I’m not sure there is really a synergy between tequila and apricots.

½ tequila
¼ apricot brandy
¼ fresh lime or lemon juice
Café Royal Cocktail Book (1937)

El Diablo is a long drink that seems to have been born in California in the 1940s. This is the recipe from Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink (1946), with US ounces converted to millilitres:

A Margarita (left) and a Mexican Mule
El Diablo
45ml tequila
15ml lime juice
15ml crème de cassis
Ginger ale
Add all to an ice-filled tall glass and top with ginger ale

Some would boost the tequila to 50 or 60ml and double the lime and maybe the cassis too. Others use ginger beer instead of ginger ale. Sometimes the cassis is dropped in at the end and allowed to sink, like the grenadine in a Tequila Sunrise. It’s a nice drink, though for me the most interesting aspect is actually the pairing of tequila and ginger, so it’s not surprising that Matthias’s final drink is not really a period one exactly, but a tequila version of the Moscow Mule (which in itself is a vintage drink):**

Mexican Mule
50ml Tequila
15ml lime juice
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Ginger beer
Build in highball glass and top with ginger beer. Some add the Angostura on the top at the end

During my own experiments I made the discovery that tequila goes rather well with pineapple juice. But I should have guessed that I was not the first to notice this, and in fact there is a well-known cocktail called a Matador, which effectively replaces the triple sec in a Margarita with pineapple juice, though some recipes include triple sec as well, and it can be served long on the rocks too. Here is the recipe from Trader Vic’s Bartending Guide (1947):

30ml Tequila
60ml Pineapple juice
Juice of half a lime
Shake and strain into a cocktail glass

A Paloma made with pink grapefruit juice and
Briottet pink grapefruit liqueur
Some would use more tequila than this, so it’s worth experimenting. But get the balance right and it’s a great combination. Personally I think it works better if you nudge the tequila to 45ml and the pineapple to about 70ml, then add a generous teaspoon of maraschino: the sweetness and subtle cherry favour fill a gap.

So which of these is the way that Mexicans drink tequila? None, apparently. Matthias tells me that the most common drink is the Paloma, which combines tequila with grapefruit soda, such as Fresca, Squirt or Jarritos, plus a lime wedge. You don’t seem to be able to buy grapefruit soda here, so a common alternative is to use grapefruit juice and soda water, plus something to sweeten it.

Makeshift Paloma
2 shots tequila
2 shots grapefruit juice
½ shot lime juice
¼–½ shot sugar syrup or agave nectar
[½ shot grapefruit liqueur]
Soda water
Shake everything but the soda and strain into an ice-filled highball. Top with soda

Some serve this with a salt rim too, or just add a pinch of salt to the mix. Trying it out, I feel the basic recipe lacks heft in the middle, and it works better with a little grapefruit liqueur (Briottet do one)—the sweetness balances things a bit and it stops the grapefruit character from being watered down by the soda.

* It has also been observed that the Margarita is not very far from a Daisy, a Victorian drink where citrus and a syrup or liqueur are added to a base spirit: and “margarita” is Spanish for daisy…

** The story goes that the Moscow Mule was invented by John Martin, who bought the rights to Smirnoff from impoverished Russian Rudolph Kunett in 1939, along with Jack Morgan, owner of the Cock ‘n’ Bull pub in Hollywood, which had its own brand of ginger beer. Head bartender Wes Price says that they invented the cocktail as a way to promote two products that were proving hard to shift. To seal the drink’s image they came up with a signature vessel, a copper mug with a kicking mule engraved on it—this was apparently prompted by the fact that Martin had a girlfriend who had inherited a copper factory that made copper mugs that were also proving to be poor sellers. In a stroke of genius Martin bought an early Polaroid camera and would get barmen to pose with one of these mugs and a bottle of Smirnoff. He’d give them one copy of the photo and take another copy to the next bar, to show them what their competitors were up to. It worked.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Tequila: busting myths and fighting red tape

Matthias addresses the mob
The New Sheridan Club’s summer party on Saturday had (rather inexplicably, I admit) a Mexican theme. It proved a rich seam, with Frida Kahlo rubbing shoulders with Zorro, plenty of bandidos and Zapatistas, and one guest who came with a bloodied chainsaw and the head of a drug rival in a bucket. Our games included cutting the heart from an Aztec sacrificial victim and shooting a glass off the head of William Burroughs’ wife Joan Vollmer, in a recreation of the ill-fated “William Tell routine” in Mexico City.

A welcome bonus came in the form of Olmeca Altos tequila: Matthias Lataille, the brand ambassador, gave us a brief masterclass at the beginning of the evening, with a tasting of the plata unaged spirit and the reposado, aged in oak for 6–8 months. There was also a menu of tequila cocktails from the 1930s and 1940s which Matthias had prepared.

I like tequila (I like all the boozes, frankly) but I don’t know much about it. This seems to be a common obstacle for Matthias: during our masterclass he was unsurprised by comments from people who said that they had never before tried tequila in a stemmed tasting glass (rather than knocking it back from a shot glass), and never before 2am! The product’s reputation as an exotic but rough-and-ready shortcut to oblivion is clearly a problem if you’re trying to get people to savour its aroma and flavour as a premium sipping spirit.

In fact Matthias tells me that tequila is one of the most heavily regulated spirit categories. It must be made from at least 51% blue agave and can be produced only in the state of Jalisco and limited regions in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. There are plenty of premium tequilas made from 100% agave, but in the cheaper ones the rest of the sugars come from sugar cane. (In fact, Matthias tells me, the prices of these two raw ingredients are constantly fluctuating, meaning that at times agave is actually cheaper than sugar cane.)*

Tequila must be between 35 and 55% ABV, but is typically 38–40%.** A blanco or plata must be unaged, or kept for less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak; a reposado must be barrel-aged between two months and a year; an añejo must be aged between one and three years. In 2006 a new category of extra añejo was introduced, aged for at least three years.

Olmeca Altos is a premium expression from the existing Olmeca brand, the fourth biggest in the world and the largest in Europe. It was developed as a collaboration between master distiller Jesus Hernandez and UK bartenders Henry Besant and Dre Masso. Regular Olmeca has a lot of Aztec styling about the bottles, and it looks as if the Altos versions originally did as well, but they are in the process of switching to a simpler, cleaner design, with “Olmeca Altos 100% agave” stamped into the glass (with the word ALTOS dominating, to help distinguish it from regular Olmeca) and a certificate of authenticity as the only front label. The glass also has a knobbly texture to it; I’m not sure if this meant to suggest rough-hewn stone or just rustic glass, but I gather the whole redesign was aimed at emphasising the “craft” qualities of the product. (The dedicated Olmeca Altos website features the slogan “The Colours of Tequila”, along with a lot of super-saturated imagery of red soil and blue-green fronds; perhaps this is just meant to pick up on traditional colourful Mexican folk art, but it does rather suggest that you can expect some psychedelic experiences drinking this stuff!)***

New style plata and old style reposado bottles
The production process is fairly “crafty” as these things go. The agaves are all grown in the Los Altos region, at a height of 2,104 metres, where the red volcanic soil is apparently perfect. After 7–8 years the plants are harvested; the leaves are trimmed off by skilled jimadores, leaving a piña, the heart of the plant. These are then cooked to release the sugary sap. For Olmeca Altos the piñas are all cooked slowly in a traditional brick oven, which they say brings out the herbal flavour of the plant. Next the fibrous flesh must be pressed to release the juice. A proportion of the agave that goes into Olmeca Altos is crushed using the traditional tahona method, where a two-tonne wheel carved from volcanic rock rolls over the pulp.

The distillery, Destilería Colonial de Jalisco, was originally built to make Patrón, but after that deal fell through they were left with the brick ovens and the tahona stone, relatively unusual in a modern distillery. To make the most of it, Olmeca produce the super premium Tezón, which is 100% agave, all of it mashed by the tahona. Olmeca Altos is intended to get as much of that character as possible, but at a more affordable price (it’s about £30 a bottle for the plata in the UK), to which end, it is made from a blend of tahona-crushed pulp and modern milled juice. It is also specifically aimed at cocktail-making, which might explain the emphasis on the less aged end of the scale.

The tahona wheel: in the old days it would be pulled round by
a mule, but today it is machine-powered
So what difference does the tahona make? The alternative method is to put the cooked agave through a steel mill, where the pulp is washed with water to extract all the sugars, before the solid matter is sieved out. With the tahona method, however, the crushed pulp is fermented as it is, fibres and all, which one assumes imparts more of the agave character to the finished product. It is slower to crush the pulp in this way and the fermentation with the plant fibre is slower, so it is inevitably a more costly process.

One treat at our masterclass was some strips of cooked agave that Matthias handed round for us to taste. They are a dark brown and look a bit like anchovies. They are juicy in the mouth, but with a fibrous core, which you don’t really want to swallow. The flavour is complex: I’m hit by caramel first, and something that reminds me of poached pears. Other people suggest plums, plantains, sweet potatoes, dates, figs. This is a very handy experiment, because I can see that Olmeca Altos is about extracting as much of that agave flavour as possible.

Matthias with some strips of cooked agave flesh
To help me get a handle on this flavour, at home I dig out some other tequilas that I have knocking around, for comparative purposes. I have blanco, reposado and añejo samples from Excellia, a French-owned brand (from the people who brought you GVine gin) that matures the spirit in barrels previously used for Sauternes and Cognac (ex-bourbon barrels are more common), plus a blanco and reposado of Tierra Noble (samples that were pressed on me at a trade show a couple of years ago, and I don’t think the brand is actually distributed here; I seem to remember that their schtick is also that the tequila is both grown and aged at high altitude).

It’s hard to describe the essential taste of tequila, but I guess it is herbal, smoky, almost petrolly at times. For me cooked pears are in there and something like tarragon or anise. Out of the three unaged samples, Olmeca Altos has far and away the strongest agave herbal character, big, pungent, caramelly, with a tart orange note and a hint of onion, banana, pencil lead and maybe fresh wood (odd, given that I don’t think it is rested in oak at all), and butterscotch on the palate. Excellia is similar but smokier and not as sharp or big. Tierra Noble is sweeter and softer, with a buttery and slightly floral nose and a distinct chocolate finish on the palate. Perhaps the latter was designed more for drinking neat, and we know that the Olmeca Altos is intended for cocktails, so I guess they wanted a big flavour to push through other cocktail ingredients. But none of these spirits is rough or fierce.

Nice bottle, shame about the price
I decide that I should bite the financial bullet (£25 for 35cl) and get some Patrón the highest-profile “ultra premium” tequila, and probably the one that invented the market. It is also made with a blend of tahona-crushed agave, fermented on the fibre, and milled juice. At this price I’m expecting intense agave flavour—but its aroma is subtle, mellow, rather undemonstrative, when put up next to the other white tequilas. The palate is less smooth than the Tierra Noble, but then it is bottled at 40%; so I add a splash of water and it develops a sweeter feel on the tongue, but still with a slight bitterness on the finish. There is agave flavour there, but I am frankly underwhelmed. The Olmeca Altos has far more 3D herbal punch, and the Tierra Noble has more sweet, smoky aroma and unctuous mouthfeel. The labelling brags about how each bottle is hand-blown (click on the picture on the left: you can see little bubbles in the glass), but it seems that that is where your money is going.

Moving on to the reposados, the Tierra Noble has a sweet, smoky nose with that herbal, petrolly “blue” note and a palate of smoky pears, tarragon herbs and a bit of chocolate and coffee. This time the Olmeca Altos has a milder aroma, buttery with orange citrus. The palate is honeyed and more herbal, reminiscent of that cooked agave, with hints of anise and wood smoke, and again that citrus. The Excellia is smoky but with a brighter nose, tart like gooseberries and white pepper on the finish. (The añejo Excellia, for the record, has a surprisingly quiet nose but lots of dark, varnished wood on the palate, yet still that discernable herbaceous agave character.)

The motley collection of samples (the jam jar contains the
Olmeca Altos reposado, as there were no full bottles available)
As a bonus, I have a bottle of Aqua Riva Reposado too. This is the brand that has famously been launched by Cleo Rocos, who as a teenager was the foil in Kenny Everett’s TV show. But I gather she hasn’t just casually leant her name to it—she’s a genuine tequila fan and the spirit is made to her specification.**** She makes blanco and reposado “barman” tequilas for cocktails, and a premium sipping resposado too. It is all 100% blue agave. I have the barman reposado (discounted in Sainsbury’s) and to me it seems fiercer than the others, with a sharper, steelier nose and a palate more dominated by high notes. This character persists in cocktails, and I’m not really a fan.

It’s hard to know where tequila is going at the moment, though Patrón seems to be leading the way for the high-end concept. The big news now is the opening up of the Chinese market, but the demand is only exacerbating an ongoing shortage of agave, leading to stories of unscrupulous tequileros buying up truckloads of immature agave from the mezcal-producing regions and illegally making tequila from it. This in turn is putting the squeeze on mezcal—along with the Mexican government’s attempts to pass legislation that would effectively outlaw most mezcal. Some are even predicting that the inability to meet sudden Chinese demand could be the end of tequila as we know it.

So perhaps the moral of all of this is to get out there and drink some decent tequila while you can.

* Agave, incidentally, is not a cactus; it was long considered part of the lily family, though it looks as if they’ve now decided it really belongs in the asparagus family.

** The majority of tequila I encounter actually seems to be 38%, lower than most premium spirits.

*** Which reminds me of the myth of the mezcal worm, one of the stumbling blocks that Matthias doubtless has to deal with. Many people probably think that the difference between tequila and mezcal is that the latter has a worm in it, which bold souls will dare to eat, believing that it contain mescaline, or some such. In fact the “worm” is the larva of a moth that preys on agave and the presence of one in a bottle suggests a severe lack of quality control; the idea of deliberately including one was a gimmick dreamed up in the 1940s. The real distinction between tequila and mezcal, Matthias tells me, is more like the difference between Cognac and Armagnac—they are both made from the same raw material but in different regions (giving an influence from the terroir) and using different distillation methods. Modern tequila is run along more industrial lines, whereas mezcal tends to be more rustic, in some cases being distilled in ways that haven’t changed for 200 years. Mezcal production is centred around the Oaxaca region and there is a wider range of permitted types of agave that can go into mezcal, though the bulk of it is Agave americana, whereas tequila can only be made from the Agave tequilana blue agave.

**** Another odd marketing ploy is her theory that if you drink nothing but 100% agave tequila and cocktails containing this plus agave syrup (but not sugary liqueurs like Cointreau) then you won’t get a hangover. This is probably based on the fact that agave nectar is pure fructose and has a very low GI, making it suitable for diabetics. But whether any of that makes it through fermentation (in which the sugar is consumed by yeast) and distillation, I am sceptical. 

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Two Birds, Dodd's, Sacred—gins that show their craft

All looks orderly as DBS hands out pens and scoring sheets at the beginning of the session…

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to join a panel for a blind tasting of British “craft” gins, organized by DBS in association with the Craft Distillers Alliance. OK, so the obvious first question is: what is a “craft” gin? The name suggests something homespun and artisanal, and that is essentially what it is—and it’s apparently on the rise. It’s been going on for some time in the US, where there are more than 500 craft distillers, and now it’s happening here too. We tasted 18 gins, which were reckoned to be fully 90% of all the UK craft gins in existence (i.e. two declined to take apart), so we’re a little way behind the Yanks; but DBS points out that a year ago we couldn’t even have organised a tasting like this at all. Anyway, for the purposes of the tasting a “craft distiller” was someone who used their own still (as opposed to getting their gin made for them by a big distiller like Thames or Greenalls), but was not one of the major players.
The tasting took place at the “Ginstitute” upstairs room at the Portobello Star on Portobello Road in London, with the support of Fever-Tree mixers. Each gin was blind-tasted neat and we were asked to rate its nose, palate and balance, as well as giving it an overall score out of 100. Then we rated them all over again with tonic water. The resulting scores of all nine judges were aggregated to produce an overall winner.

Straight away it became clear that the concept of the craft gin was more useful than you might imagine: perhaps freed from the “regression towards the mean” understandable in a vast commercial enterprise, these gins went in some strange directions. In fact it was only the seventh sample we tried that we agreed seemed to be especially juniper-led.

Ultimately the laurels went to Two Birds, a gin produced in Market Harborough and only launched earlier this year. It is made in a still designed and hand-built by the gin’s creator Mark Gamble, in batches of just 100 bottles at a time. It contains five botanicals, of which only juniper is admitted to. (I notice that on their About page there is a photo showing juniper and elderflower, so I wonder if the latter is in the mix—they do emphasise that their gin is all about celebrating the English countryside—although I don’t think I can taste it.) The style of this one is actually quite classic (suggesting that, for all the experimentation going on with gin profiles these days, the judges essentially liked a gin that tastes of gin); this was the one that prompted me to write “Juniper at last!” in my notes. It also struck me as sappy and spicy with an orange note. On the palate neat it was smooth and approachable but well balanced in a classic way. Tasting it now against Tanqueray as a control, it has a bit more of an emphasis on cardamom and sweet/roundness, where Tanqueray is drier, more upright and with more coriander.

Tasted neat, the joint highest scorers were actually Sacred Coriander (see below) and Dodd’s gin, made in Battersea by the London Distillery Company (and named after Ralph Dodd, the idealist who founded a company of the same name in 1807, but never actually got to make any gin). The bulk of the botanicals (which include juniper, angelica, fresh lime peel, bay laurel, cardamom, red raspberry leaf and London honey) are distilled in a 140-litre copper alembic, but “the more delicate botanicals” are separately processed in a cold vacuum still, in the same way that Sacred gin is. The two distillates are then blended.

I myself actually seem to have ranked Dodd’s 10th in the neat round (I put Two Birds top, with Chase Williams, Sacred Coriander and Dà Mhìle all in joint second place), describing its nose as “wood resin and varnish [from juniper, I assume], with a hint of grapefruit and a smidgeon of curry” and adding that the palate has an “interesting balance between powerful high notes and earthy warmth”. Tasting it again now I would say its balance is heavily towards sweet, floral flavours of angelica and cardamom.

Sacred should come in for a special mention. Ian Hart makes the stuff in a vacuum still in his house, distilling each botanical separately then blending them at the end. This gives him the freedom to make different blends, and he sells packs containing the basic gin plus a selection of single-botanical distillates so you can experiment with tweaking the flavour this way or that. He now also makes gins that are heavily weighted towards one botanical—5% normal Sacred Gin mixed with 95% distillate of just one botanical. He had entered no fewer than seven samples into our tasting: his normal Sacred Gin, plus his Juniper Gin, Coriander Gin, Cardamom Gin, Orris Gin, Pink Grapefruit Gin and Liquorice Gin.

And it was certainly worth his while. Although he didn’t take the overall victor ludorum, in the aggregated scoring his standard Sacred Gin came second, his Coriander Gin (i.e. 95% coriander distillate with just 5% Sacred Gin mixed in) came third and this Cardamom Gin came fourth. As mentioned, tasted neat his Coriander Gin was joint first. And in the scoring for tasted-with-tonic-water, Sacred Gin came first, followed by Sacred Coriander.

In my own notes, with tonic I put Sacred Cardamom top, followed by Sipsmith VJOP (a special juniper-heavy blend made for the Japanese market), then Sacred Gin and Sacred Coriander in joint third place.

Not only does this suggest that Sacred is a Good Thing, but it also shows that we don’t necessarily need a huge number of botanicals to make a satisfying gin,* particularly when it is to be consumed with tonic water. Certainly this tasting reveals that one gin can be excellent on its own but not rated at all with tonic, and vice versa.

For me, a logical conclusion would be to look more closely at Sacred Coriander. It seems to be something of a jack-of-all-trades, coming joint first neat, second with tonic and third overall. And when I aggregate my own scores I find that Sacred Coriander comes first. On his website Ian sells the Pink Grapefruit, Cardamom and Juniper gins, as well as the standard Sacred Gin, but not the Coriander. “We will indeed be selling Coriander Gin shortly on our website,” he explains. “It’s just that the USA has bought nearly all our stock! I have been distilling coriander for the last few days, and we will be bottling 3,000 more bottles shortly.” I suggest that he must be a bit sick of coriander right now, but he replies, “Coriander is fascinating—so many different flavours come out at different points of the distillation!” Clearly a man who loves his work.

By the end of the session, things are a bit more
chaotic and voluble…
Tasting some of these samples now, side by side and knowing what they are, I’m struck by just how powerful the Sacred Coriander and Cardamom gins are—which perhaps gives them the ability to stand out in a mass tasting, particularly diluted with tonic water when tongues are getting tired. As soon as you, for example, blend these two together the overall punch seems to reduce exponentially. Sacred Gin itself contains 12 botanicals and is indeed quite subtle, particularly with tonic. I would describe it as elegant, refined and with an emphasis on rich, smooth, exotic elements. (Its name comes from the fact that one of the botanicals is frankincense; I’m not sure I can exactly pick it out, but you can believe there is a heady resinous note, like hot solder.)

The single-botanical gins are actually a great way to appreciate the flavours of particular spices: the coriander is pungent with a combination of lemony high notes and a liquorice-like sweet rooty layer; the cardamom has an immediate confectionary appeal, a powdery sweetness with elements of lemon, lime and mango, but with a bitterness on the finish. But would either by my desert island gin? No, I don’t think so. All of which actually shines quite a light on the tricky business of gin blending, and on the achievement of Two Birds, and also Dodd’s and Sacred, in producing recipes that pleased all nine judges on the day!

* Mind you, it didn’t always work. The Sacred Liquorice Gin rated as not really smelling or tasting of much at all, and ranked second from bottom in my overall scores; clearly this is one botanical that plays its part in a blend but does not work on its own.