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SB meets… World Gin Day’s Emma Stokes

World Gin Day is so close you can almost taste it. SB pins down the event’s organiser, Emma Stokes, in collaboration with Halewood Wines & Spirits, to talk barrel ageing, business, and the “holy trinity” of botanicals.

I think international spirits events such as World Gin Day help to bring everyone together for a common reason and help consumers to engage with and understand the category. As these days grow bigger, larger brands and bars have to think outside of the box for their offerings. Especially this year where there already over 120 events listed on the site – you need to stand out from the crowd. I love that the map is filling up with pins though, it means that people are more likely to find an event in their area to attend.

I like traditional styles of gin – something juniper led with a good amount of citrus notes. These tend to be London Dry style gins, perfect for mixing in G&T’s and are versatile when it comes to cocktails. The Square Mile from City of London Distillery with an orange zest in a G&T is awesome – the higher ABV of 47.3% helps the gin to really shine and the juniper to come through.

Other than juniper, around 90% of gins include coriander seed and angelica root and I call the three the holy trinity of gin botanicals. You’ll often find some sort of citrus in there too to lift the gin, though you don’t have to. Tanqueray only uses four botanicals: juniper, coriander, angelica and liquorice root. No citrus. My favourite gins like Beefeater and City of London keep things simple, using 7 or 8 botanicals, though there are some like Monkey 47 which take on the task of marrying the flavours of 47 botanicals together to make their gin. The fact that any plant, spice, herb or flower can technically be used as a botanical in gin means that there is a huge variation in terms of flavour. This makes it an interesting category to explore, and as it doesn’t need to sit in barrels to age.

The fact that gins are relatively quick to make – you don’t need to age it in barrels – and you can do so in a fairly small space – most brands buy in their neutral spirit – has meant that brands have popped up all over the country. You’re therefore able to find gins that are pretty local to where you live, or you can often pick up a bottle from where you’ve visited on holiday. The locality of a gin can be further embedded in the gin with the choice of botanicals, which can be sourced from particular areas of the world, whether that’s Caorunn, which source their botanicals from around their Scottish distillery, or Whitley Neill Gin, with botanicals such as cape gooseberries which are inspired by Africa.

We are seeing huge innovation in the use of unique botanicals such as baobab and Cape gooseberries in Whitley Neill Gin; herbs like thyme, rosemary and basil in Gin Mare; lemon balm in Warner Edwards; and even Yorkshire tea in Masons. So long as they’re used carefully and with common sense, they can enhance a gin, working alongside the more traditional botanicals such as juniper and coriander to produce wonderfully complex gins for a brilliant, simple G&T or when mixed into a cocktail. Add a gin with herbal notes to a citrus cocktail, for example, and it will bring an entirely new dimension to the drink. The skill of bartenders when it comes to these gins is to be familiar enough to work with them to bring these new dimensions, rather than pairing flavours which will jar.

People have started sticking gin in barrels left, right and centre. Mostly it’s done with no thought of what kind of barrels are being used, the length of time the gin’s being left in there, and the resulting level of flavour this process will impart. With a few exceptions, they’re therefore far too oaky and the flavour from the wood not only overpowers but jars with the juniper flavours in the gin.

At the City of London Distillery, I deliver masterclasses on a freelance basis. There are two main classes I run at the distillery, their Distillery Tour and Tasting and the Gin Lab. Both include a history of gin, their production methods etcetera. The difference being during the tasting, we work our way through each of the five gins that the distillery produces, whereas during the lab, people choose their botanicals and we distil a gin together for them to take home. Their own unique recipe. It’s fantastic!

The fact that you can get up close and personal with the stills is a huge bonus for guests at the distillery. That they can see for themselves the way that the gin has been made as I’m explaining the process. Gin consumers are an open minded bunch, who love to learn about the different gins and how they’re made. Once they’ve made a connection with a place, like visiting the distillery, or meeting the owner, they’ll usually take a bottle home and will love to pass on the knowledge to friends and family. I love that I get to be a part of that, often at the start of their gin journey.

There are many different routes to building a successful brand as Johnny Neill from Whitley Neill and Jonathan Clark from City of London have proven. Both Jonathan and Johnny have a passion for the spirit and an enthusiasm that’s more than infectious when you meet them. They also have their heads screwed on, and they’re not in it for the money or trying to make their fortunes in gin. Gin can be a successful business for people but if you go into it thinking you’re going to make millions, you’ll make decisions for the wrong reasons and will often fail.

Gin is such a huge and varied category, there’s plenty of scope for an offering of the scale we have today. That being said, there are a fair few gin producers who I think have gotten into the gin game for the wrong reasons. So I think a few brands may disappear. It’ll be a shame if some of the smaller passionate producers go because of the lack of income though.

For me, it’s all about authenticity and a love for the spirit. If you love what you’re doing then this will show. It’ll also mean that you’ll do things properly rather than cutting corners for speed or cost reasons. Don’t try to be unique or different for the sake of it, it just doesn’t work.

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