Thrilling true-craft gins are being carefully distilled and exquisitely served across the South West. To celebrate the launch of our new Independent Gin Guide, Susy Atkins takes a look at the scene
We’re living in the middle of the ginnaissance. No, that’s not the first time this semi-pun has been used, but I can’t help using such a brilliant word to capture the South West’s premium gin scene.
A cultural phenomenon
Gin-naissance not only references the splendid spirit itself, it also implies a cultural phenomenon, which is exactly what we have now as the world of mixers, cocktails, garnishes, gin bars and merchants expands and influences our idea of fine drinking.
It’s hard to imagine, but only a few short years ago the gin scene was so different (and so boring). The generic G&T in a South West bar or hotel was usually the only big-brand option on optic, weakened with a warm saccharine mixer, and a limp slice of lemon plopped in. The late 20th century and Noughties were, no doubt, a dull time in gin’s history.
Highs and lows
Look further back, though, and our favourite spirit was always on a rollercoaster, from its initial rise in the 16th and 17th centuries (its origins in the Dutch herbal spirit jenever) to the low point of the Gin Craze in the early 18th century when poor quality and illicit gin created London’s underworld of wastrels and drunks.
By Victorian times, new laws and much better spirit saw an upturn and resulted in many of the original gin palaces springing up. Then the cocktail scene of the early 20th century added another loop the loop before the spirit fell out of fashion again.
So what’s brought about the current sea change? Firstly, don’t underestimate the general trend for retro drinks, especially those with an obvious provenance. Well made gin from a local distillery, using regional botanicals, is every bit as popular as the products from the craft brewer, cider maker or the local farmers’ market.
Then there’s the search for complex flavours – many fine-spirit lovers have moved on from plain vodka and into the multilayered nuances of gin. And let’s not overlook the beautifully designed modern gin bottles and labels which catch the eye of a collector.
In gin and tonic (originally, in the 19th century British colonies, tonic would have contained much more quinine to ward off malaria), we have the most favoured and easily prepped alcoholic mixed drink of them all. A good G&T is bliss, with only two key ingredients (save maybe a garnish or two) and ice.
Most of all, though, a long-fought change in the law in 2009 allowed the independent small-batch gin scene to flourish. Until then, HMRC didn’t grant licences to distillers making under 300 litres at a time. New London gin makers, Sipsmith, persuaded the government to change this, paving the way for many more small craft distilleries.
Welcome to the gin-volution
The result of this change has been astonishing, particularly in the South West, where we are lucky enough to enjoy an exceptional bubble of premium gin. I reckon the can-do attitude of many artisanal entrepreneurs living in this region is one reason why the gin scene here is so vibrant; another is the inspiration drawn from the glorious landscape that surrounds us.
This might be expressed in a South West coastal gin, perhaps imbued with subtle sea salt and seaweed flavours, or the herbal waft of the wild plants clinging to the cliffs above. Or it might be a moorland gin, where the botanicals could include gorse, heather honey or juicy foraged wild berries.
Botanicals? If you want to know gin, you do need to understand the wonderful ingredients that go into it. Gin is a spirit distilled or flavoured with fruits, leaves, seeds, bark, roots, spices and other natural ingredients. Juniper must be the dominant botanical and it’s this member of the pine family that gives that distinctive bold, clean, almost resinous aroma and flavour.
Other traditional botanicals used the world over include coriander seeds, orris root and angelica but, beyond that, each distiller invents his or her own recipe.
Serve, store and sip like a pro
1. Tasting gin
To sample a gin like a pro, pour just a small measure (15ml) into a clean wine glass and swirl to release the aroma. Then sip a little bit neat, sloshing it around your mouth to get the most of the complex flavours. Now add twice as much tonic to the gin – or water if you prefer – and try it again to see how the gin tastes when ‘cut’.
These can be many and varied, but be aware that very strong flavours in a garnish might overpower the subtle nuances of your top-quality gin.
Garnishes don’t have to be lemon or lime, either. Pink grapefruit is very much the garnish of the moment – either a wedge, slice or twist of zest – and a slice of apple is popular too.
More unusual garnishes include bay or sage leaves, sprigs of thyme, mint, basil or tarragon, all sorts of fresh berries, thin sticks of young rhubarb, rock salt (go steady, just add a little), fresh ginger slices and a tiny piece of chilli.
Twist citrus fruit to release the juice and oils and bruise the garnish, or rub it on the edge of the glass to make it stronger.
3. Carefully crafted mixers
You won’t want to match your artisan gin with just any old mixer, and happily a new breed of premium tonics are now available. To keep your drinks sensationally South West, Luscombe Drink’s range of tonics does the trick. Devon and Devon Light provide classic G&T pairings, or mix it up with one of their flavoured tonics such as cucumber, elderflower or grapefruit.
4. Serving gin
There’s nothing wrong with a gin and tonic in a tumbler but better is a copa glass. This wide-bowled glass (rather like a large wine glass), with its long stem is a favourite for gin as it holds a lot of ice. A contemporary version that’s become popular is the stemless copa.
5. Food matching
It’s a myth that gin doesn’t go with food. Just try sipping neat cold gin or a G&T with salty-savoury snacks like olives, spreads and dips such as tapenade, aioli and anchoiade. It’s also great with peppery salad leaves, and smoked, cured or ceviche fish and seafood.
Keep your opened gin bottles out of bright light and in a cool place. Even unopened bottles should be kept away from direct sources of heat.
7. Choose your gin
The South West is home to an outstanding collection of true-craft gins which provide a taste of the terroir. Here are a few to make a beeline for …
The original Trevethan gin was crafted by Norman Trevethan in 1929 in a simple copper pot still on the Port Eliot estate in Cornwall. The gin was relaunched in 2014 and remains true to the original recipe – especially its use of Cornish ingredients such as elderflower and gorse flower.
Barney Wilczak, who founded Cirencester’s Capreolus Distillery in 2015, has a passion for eaux de vie. And in Garden Swift (named after the beautiful gold swift moth) he’s captured the complexity and finesse of the best eaux de vie – but in a gin.
Conker was created in spring 2014 by Rupert Holloway whose inspiration was the fresh and herbaceous Dorset countryside. He’s created a classic London dry that uses local botanicals such as hand-picked gorse flowers, elderberries and marsh samphire to deliver appealing layers of flavour.
Newton House Gin
After ten years restoring Newton House in Somerset, and inspired by the plants in its walled garden, Robin and Jane Cannon created a gin which is as fresh and inviting as a fine South West summer’s day.
The estate covers 60 acres and the natural spring water that flows through it is also used in the creation of this spirit. Botanicals include mint, bergamot, grapefruit, peaches and blueberries and the gin is distilled in copper stills in the former carpenter’s workshop. The result is a distinctively fragrant and crisp gin, delicate and with a lingering finish.
There’s a clean, zesty air to this gin, with its subtle dab of fresh mint and clear citrus notes. Lightly peachy on the mid palate, it lingers elegantly on the finish.
Wicked Wolf Exmoor Gin
Pat Patel and Julie Heap launched Wicked Wolf in 2015 after two years of experimenting with gin.
The pair eventually settled on 11 key botanicals, each one individually distilled before being blended. Using a copper alembic still at their distillery in Brendon, Exmoor, the gin is crafted in 100 litre batches. It’s also filtered at each stage for smoothness.
This contemporary spirit reflects Pat’s favoured bold flavours and also reveals Asian influences. Kaffir lime leaves, cardamom, lemongrass and hibiscus all feature in a gin of subtlety and elegance. It’s perfect paired with spiced dishes.
Top notes of fresh citrus and a distinct scent of kaffi r lime leaf is interwoven with more traditional juniper and coriander. Fresh and slightly peppery on the finish.
Start Point Lighthouse symbolises the voyages of Salcombe’s historic fruit schooners to collect the exotic goods which inspired this premium gin.
Salcombe Gin co-founders Angus Lugsdin and Howard Davies met in their teens as sailing instructors. They went on to create a state-of-the-art distillery; one of the only distilleries in the world directly accessible by boat. At its heart is the handsome 450 litre copper still named Provident.
Naturally soft water from Dartmoor is used along with 13 botanicals which include Macedonian juniper, English coriander seed, and fresh red grapefruit, lemon and lime.
A classic, super smooth London dry gin with scented juniper, herbal notes and an emphasis on citrus (particularly red grapefruit) for a whistle-clean finish.
Wrecking Coast Clotted Cream Gin
The founders of this Cornish distillery love gin, but before the gin revolution, their chosen tipple was fine whisky.
Avian Sandercock, Craig Penn and Steve Wharton’s passion was to create a gin that would shine in a G&T, be bold as a cocktail base and, most importantly, stand on its own as that rarest of drinks – a sipping gin.
To retain the delicate flavours and textures of clotted cream, Rodda’s Cornish clotted cream is vacuum distilled separately.
Twelve robust botanicals with juniper and coriander at the lead are precision-distilled in high-tech apparatus to create a spicy base which envelopes the cream and delivers a gin loaded with flavours and complex textures.
A very smooth and rounded gin, almost creamy in texture, though not remotely sweet. Juniper shines through while other botanicals add freshness and complexity.
There are some fabulous places to imbibe exceptional local gins across the region
The Distillery Bar, Salcombe Gin
Sip Salcombe’s award winning gins at their smart waterside bar with striking copper still. www.salcombegin.com
Even the most schooled connoisseur will discover something new among the 360 gins on offer.
Make Exeter’s only dedicated gin bar your next choice for chilled after-work drinks or a Saturday night aperitivo.
Barbican Botanics Gin Room
Plymouth’s new gin store and bar in the historic harbour.
The Bell Inn
Swing by the dining pub’s gin tasting room before dinner.
Dolly’s Tea Room
Over 300 gins are served (some in teapots) at the gloriously eccentric bar (pictured). www.dollysbar.co.uk
Beautifully crafted cocktails include Rick Stein’s Ceylon Negroni.
Check out the new micro distillery at this pioneer of the South West’s gin and cocktail scene.
No.13 Gin & Cocktail Bar
Sip a selection of fine gins at this chic bar, then stock up on tipples at its sister shop, two doors down.
Discover the full collection of South West gins, bars, schools and retailers in the new South West Independent Gin Guide, out November 5. Preorder your copy of the gin guide here.