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During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), so the story goes, English troops fighting alongside the army of the Netherlands were given “Dutch Courage” to help them face battle. The “courage” in question came in the form of jenever, a distilled malt wine liquor that, in its raw state, had a taste that could be described as “acquired”. In order to improve its palatability, juniper berries (jeneverbes in Dutch) were added to mask the base flavour of the crudely distilled alcohol. The tart, sharp berries infused the alcohol with a complex range of flavour compounds from citrus to wood, pine to spice.
Returning soldiers brought jenever back to England, and as small-scale local distilling began to take place the name jenever was corrupted and shortened to “gin”. Things really took off with the accession of King William III in 1689. To stimulate the distilling industry the new Dutch-born king relaxed regulations to make it possible for anyone to set up a still. Gin became so popular among the working class that they were paid with it in lieu of cash wages. Its popularity rocketed, as did its notoriety.
It’s fair to say that gin has attained a more genteel image in recent years. In 2017, UK gin sales hit 51m bottles, a 9.5m increase over 2016 and outperforming whisky and vodka. Total UK sales were worth £1.4bn, with British distillers exporting to 139 countries. It’s a far cry from the 1950s, when gin began to fall out of fashion. “Gin had been usurped by the marketing nous of brands like Smirnoff Vodka,” says Jamie Baxter, master distiller with Burleighs Gin, based in Leicestershire. “They sold their product in the US by promoting the idea that you could drink three vodka martinis at lunch and your boss wouldn’t be able to detect the smell.”
Baxter has been at the forefront of the growth in small-scale artisan distilling, and the burgeoning use of a kaleidoscopic array of “botanicals”, the plant extracts used for flavouring. His experience at setting up stills is much sought after, and he has helped many new gin producers build their distillery operations.
“Before 2006 there was hardly any small-scale production, but then new HMRC regulations were introduced that lowered the minimum level of production required to obtain the necessary licences, which enabled low-volume production.” Large-scale gin distillation requires big quantities of reliable raw materials, including the botanicals. Juniper berries are the key ingredient, the one that characterises the taste of gin and provides its legal definition, which states that the juniper flavour must be the dominant one.
The relaxation of regulations has allowed small-scale distillers to take a far more experimental approach to the other botanical ingredients in a bottle of gin. Gin makers can now be found foraging in the countryside, harvesting in kitchen gardens or emailing botanical brokers for exotic ingredients. Modern gin needs these botanicals in order to taste of anything. Unlike early jenever, where the herbal element masked the rank taste of the alcohol, the distilled alcohol base of gin has no flavour at all. And as with many other aspects of the food and drink industry, local provenance of those botanicals has become an integral part of the artisan scene.
Slingsby Gin in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, sources some of its botanicals from the kitchen garden at nearby Rudding Park Hotel and Spa (disclaimer — I designed the kitchen garden). Its artisan gin, which features 24 different botanicals, includes three different thymes, such as the deliciously lemony Thymus citriodorus, Origanum compactum and O. vulgaris. Slingsby has also included less commonly used botanicals such as hyssop leaves (Hyssopus officinalis), which have a floral, minty and slightly bitter taste, and the subtly flavoured flowers of the common primrose (Primula vulgaris).
“We grow several different varieties of rhubarb,” kitchen gardener Adrian Reeve explains, “and Slingsby developed a rhubarb gin that is flavoured with them.” Three varieties were selected for inclusion; Rheum “Raspberry Red”, “Royal Albert” and the wonderfully named (and delicious tasting) “Brandycask Scarlet”. Unsurprisingly both gins have a prominent position among the 50 or so brands behind the hotel bar.
According to Baxter, these flavoured gins have helped to introduce the spirit to a “non-gin” audience. Shortcross Gin, produced at the Rademon Estate Distillery in County Down, Northern Ireland, by husband-and-wife team David and Fiona Boyd-Armstrong, is heavy on foraged botanicals. Shortcross is unusual in featuring wild clover, which, according to the Boyd-Armstrongs, imbues “the grassy notes of the surrounding meadows, and a pepperiness that intertwines with the juniper and coriander seeds”. Elderflowers are harvested from around the 500-acre estate and provide floral notes, while the elderberries that follow are “oily by nature, dark and almost leathery, with a hint of liquorice”.
While the relaxation of HMRC regulations encouraged a wave of small-scale spirit making, one start-up distiller is unaffected by the laws. Out for dinner with his fiancé, Ben Branson ordered a “mocktail” and was served “a disgusting pink thing”. Branson, from a family of Lincolnshire farmers, had horticulture in the blood. A 10-year career in design had restricted his horticulture activities to his home garden, where he grew herbs like mint, sage and rosemary. At the same time he was immersing himself in old cookbooks and the ancient herbals by Culpeper and Gerard.
“I’d heard about The Art of Distillation by John French , and managed to get hold of one of only two original copies”; the other, earlier copy from 1651 was later acquired for the library of King George III. “I began to join the dots,” says Branson, realising that a market existed for an alcohol-free spirit with the same high levels of quality control as the artisan gin makers. In November 2015 he began distilling on a limited, experimental scale in his kitchen under the brand name Seedlip. Two and a half years on, Seedlip now employs a global team of 65 and has a presence in 15 cities in seven countries, with planned launches into new markets.
Along with spearmint, hops and hay, peas form a key ingredient of Seedlip’s “Garden 108” spirit, and Branson is almost evangelical in his enthusiasm for the noble pod. Helpfully, the family farm grows some 600 acres of English garden peas, of which Seedlip used a modest five acres in 2017. Branson expects to double that figure this year. He says the business has an interest in protecting the soil: “If there’s no decent soil you can’t grow anything.” The company is investing in an experimental plant laboratory at the farm and more R&D around pea varieties. “The absence of alcohol in our spirits gives us more freedom than gin distillers,” Branson concludes.
King William III’s relaxed approach to gin licensing and the rapid growth in popularity that followed led to the alcohol-soaked decline of the populace, later portrayed in William Hogarth’s “Gin Lane”. By the 1730s, around 11m gallons of gin were being distilled in London each year — around 14 gallons per male inhabitant. Attempts in 1736 to rein in the depravity through huge tax hikes on gin sales resulted in what became known as the “gin riots”. It’s a far cry from the gentle art of modern botanical growing and gathering that epitomise contemporary gin making. Although the absence of one’s favourite low-volume gin on the shelves of the local store might cause an equally unseemly kerfuffle.
Matthew Wilson is a garden and landscape designer and horticultural consultant
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