“Doesn’t sound too hard to grow juniper berries then does it, Mum?” Only half an hour into the gin-making class and my interest is piqued. This is Gin Jamboree, a gin school held in the auspicious setting of Old School House in Tittensor. The first hour or so feels like being back at school, if this class was actually chemistry and instead of measuring the rate of evaporation we would be making a bottle of our own carefully crafted gin to take home.
One pagers are handed out to teach us how gin went from being brewed medicinally by the Dutch as ‘genever’ to becoming so popular with the British that their drunken mispronunciation birthed the name ‘gin’. To being the tipple of choice for William of Orange and instigating a trade war with the French to the Gin Craze when it became cheaper than beer and the poor literally went mad. The cocktail as we now know and love it started to come back into fashion when the British Royal Navy took cases of gin as a potential cure for various illnesses. Again, gin became medicinal and only the addition of Schweppes’ Indian tonic water made it drinkable then limes were added as an anti-scurvy measure.
Gin is now a £1.9bn industry in the UK and its popularity as a fashionable beverage began in 1999 with the launch of Hendrick’s Gin. Behind me are shelves heaving with bright and beautiful gin bottles, none of which would have existed unless Sipsmith’s successfully lobbied HMRC in 2009 to grant the first gin distillers license since 1820. There are now over 350 distilleries in the UK and the sheer variety means there should be a gin for everyone. Now it is my turn to work out what my own twist should be.
For the entire, condensed history lesson there are five glasses sat temptingly in front of me. Finally a sheet is handed to us that fails to include any landmark dates and my tastebuds are primed. For a novice like me, for whom asking for a G&T is usually just a question of which brand behind the bar I have actually heard of, the fact that there are actually five different types pretty much blows my tiny mind. London Dry is the obvious one, I kinda knew about Plymouth Dry yet Old Tom, Genever and Gin Liquer are all new to me.
Few spirits are quite as versatile which encourages subtle tweeks to each cocktail. We learn of the importance of ice to open the gin up, encouraged to branch out to lemonade and ginger ale as mixers, how Schweppes dropped a clanger by bringing in sweeteners to their tonic and how the right garnish isn’t just for decoration. The ceiling may be high enough but school was never this fun.
Just as the rush of drinking gin samples before midday hits me we are led into our classroom which eerily does look like what I remember of a school chemistry lesson. Shelves of labelled jars, some decorated with toxic signs and others featuring ingredients you might have at home. A blackboard, measuring jugs, weighing scales, plastic tubes, ballpoint pens and huge wooden work benches. Unlike school, I am keen to get started.
After a short tutorial of practical science into the art of distillation the creative side of my brain is fully engaged. Since learning of the class I have done a bit of homework. While the gin market is bursting with ideas, one of my favourite flavours is noted for its absence. Ever since a child I have adored liquorice, to the extent of buying a bag of allsorts safe in the knowledge that I can graciously offer the bag to friends and know that most won’t partake, meaning even more for me. As we go through the potential recipes I learn that liquorice root is readily available, then my Mum divulges that she’s making her own liquorice variety. Sigh.
This could be the start of a taste-off as we battle it out for who can best fill that liquorice shaped gap in the market. There could be millions at stake, and I graciously opt out. As I gaze at the shelves I wonder what other taste combinations are available. Liquorice now looks fairly obvious so I decide to go a bit rogue, aim for a little niche and make it my own. The base of every gin flavour board is obviously juniper berries yet second up is coriander seeds, after that it is a blank page. Key to my masterplan of cornering the gin market is subtlety; if liquorice offers division I want to open my flavour up to the world.
Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds’ Big Mac Sauce, Coca Cola and now… Citrus and Spice and All Things Nice Vol. 1. The combination seems straightforward, as if lightning has struck my brain, charged with inspiration. Orange twoways as a frozen segment then dried cut peel, slices of ginger peel, dried camomile flowers and orris root. The mix is precisely weighed and divided between jugs then left to macerate. Production has improved since those dark days in the 1700s when gin could be made with turpentine and sulphuric acid. Instead, my mix is poured into jugs of pure alcohol, itself a cruel but necessary measure for my beautiful flavour combination. Meanwhile, lunch.
After an hour we are introduced to our apparatus; beautifully handmade copper Alembic stills. Almost Arabian in appearance yet we are making something stronger than tea. My mix is poured into the still, I tighten the valve, cover the coils in ice, turn up the heat and wait. And wait. While 80c is reached by the rest of the class in what feels like the time it takes to boil a kettle mine is still taking its sweet time. Good things come to those who wait and all that but my scheduled train looks in jeopardy at this rate. The accompanying drips sound like water torture and I continue to wait. Eventually I note that the still is angling off the heat with a gap of 2mm periodically robbing me of my sweet, sweet booze. Finally the mix begins to separate, water seeps out of one tube and after ten more minutes I raise my arms and celebrate the first drop of actual gin.
These first drips are pretty much pure ethanol yet like any chef I cannot help myself and dip a paper straw into my new fangled masterpiece. Remarkably, after the alcohol burn has left my mouth I can still identify the ginger, and the orange and, incredibly, the camomile too. Even when I bake a simple cake I struggle to identify two flavours, let alone three. As the drips turn into hundreds of millilitres the alcohol concentration dissipates but not my enthusiasm. I continue to dip my straw in and can still pick out each flavour. The rest of the class are busy bottling up while I patiently add ice to the coil and let the vapour do the rest.
As with any lesson, there is a test. My revision is years of home mixing and I soon realise that in order to win I need to go big. The mixer is a big risk and to complement the ginger peel I stick to my conviction that ginger ale is awaiting a return to the drinks market. Predictably, I add an orange segment to the garnish and four hours of intense classwork is being examined by a gin expert. Mine is the glass marked 3. My challengers are… My mother (2) and another middle-aged lady (1) who have both gone for liquorice and the experimental boysenberry based efforts of the teacher (4). I try the competition and without blowing my own trumpet too much announce to the rest of the class that, “if I was a betting man I’d know which one was the favourite”. Mine might be the only one that actually tastes like a gin you could buy in a fashionable bar, therein lies its appeal. Such is the appeal of gin that it is fascinating that these four distinctive concoctions all follow the same basic recipe.
The judge comes over, tries each once, goes back to mine and 1 then puts down the straw. Number 3 she says, with an air of inevitability. The greater compliment is that she’d actually buy my gin. That’s right, I now have a certificate that pretty much states I know my gin plus I have the bottle to prove it and a renowned gin seller who wouldn’t mind stealing my recipe for herself.