Gin brands move from ‘gimmicky’ botanicals to sophisticated distillation

17th April, 2018 by Melita Kiely

As the gin market matures, and as consumers become more discerning, some producers are turning to increasingly sophisticated methods of distilling to imbue their liquid with more intense flavour.

*This feature was originally published in the February 2018 issue of The Spirits Business

The massive popularity that has surrounded the gin category in recent years shows no signs abating any time soon. All around the globe, the juniper craze continues to roll on as new products bring greater variety to an already sizeable category.

Only last month, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) shared figures from Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC), praising the so­-called “ginaissance” as a “key driver” behind a surge in distillery openings in the UK during 2017. Commenting on the statistics, Miles Beale, chief executive of the WSTA, said: “New gin brands continue to pop up on our supermarket shelves on a regular basis, as Brits show no sign of tiring of the quintessentially British spirit. It wasn’t that many years ago when a pub would stock one gin brand, and now a gin menu, offering a range of gins and mixers, is commonplace in our pubs and bars.”

And as the category grows, producers are becoming ever­more inventive with their use of botanicals to create a greater point of difference for their brands. But with a vast sea of gins now on the market, are ‘unique’ or ‘unusual’ botanicals enough to sway the decisions of today’s discerning drinkers? Steven Kersley, head distiller at BrewDog’s Lone Wolf Distillery, believes gin distillers need to bring their brand focus back to substance, rather than style.

“I’m kind of bored with seeing botanicals being used just for the sake of it,” he laments. “There’s not really a direct quality impact or benefit for having it. It’s more of a headline grabber than something intrinsically valuable to the product.”

A NEW BREED EMERGES

There seems to be emerging a new breed of gin distillers, who look to alternative distillation techniques to create their products. Unsurprisingly, one such distiller is the experimental Lone Wolf Distillery. When parent company BrewDog revealed plans to build a craft distillery in Scotland in 2015, it stated its ambition to “redefine an entire industry and establish a new standard for spirits production”. It was hardly surprising, then, that when the distillery opened in 2016 it boasted what is said to be the world’s only triple-bubble still and the UK’s tallest rectification column, towering at 18m high and containing 60 plates.

Lone Wolf's gin production can take three weeks from start to finish

Lone Wolf’s gin production can take three weeks from start to finish

Kersley and his team distil the grain-­based gin from scratch on site, without the use of neutral grain spirit – the first craft distillery in Scotland to do so. The gin starts out as a 50/50 split of malted wheat and malted barley mash, which comes from the brewery. The liquid is then distilled through the triple­-bubble still, picking up flavours through the “massive” copper contact, resulting in a 91% abv high wine. It then moves to an eight­-plate column before making its way into the rectification column – ending up with a 96.4% abv vodka. “So once we’ve got the vodka, we de­methylate it in another 11m column, which removes the methanol,” adds Kersley. “The vodka we distil is unfiltered in the sense it’s not carbon­-filtered, like commercial vodka will be, just once through filtration – like a polish.”

The vodka is then diluted with de­ionised water to 40% abv and put into a tank for four to five days before the gin­-making process gets under way. Six of the 14 botanicals used – which include juniper, coriander seeds, pink peppercorn, Thai lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, mace, almond and fresh grapefruit peel – are macerated in the vodka the night before distillation. The rest don’t come into contact with the liquid until distillation is about to begin. Once ready, Kersley’s team transfers the gin to a tank that has been purged and filled with carbon dioxide to “preserve flavours” by minimising any possible oxidation. The temperature is kept low at ­2°C to keep any chemical reactions at bay. The process is one that does not value time or money. Kersley estimates Lone Wolf’s methodology costs around three or four times more than traditional distillation techniques, and takes as long as three weeks from start to finish. “I firmly believe being custodian of liquid creation at every point gives us autonomy and control to design something that is perfected through trial and error, and through hard work,” he says. “We’ve not cut any corners. We’ve been very meticulous in how our gin has been constructed.”

Of course, consumer interest in gin is rife – but is their understanding of flavour, of how gin is made, at such a level that makes the extra costs and time constraints worthwhile? “The people who’ve been drinking gin for a while now, their education and understanding of the process is very advanced,” says Kersley. “What they’re looking for is a reason to chose the next gin, and it’s very difficult to persuade people to choose your gin because of an interesting botanical. Gimmicks are wearing off with consumers. Now they want to get under the skin of what they’re drinking. What makes it different to my Tanqueray or Botanist? What’s gone into the process? Do you macerate or distil your botanicals? Thirst for knowledge is growing.”

Lone Wolf Distillery is not alone in its alternative distillation endeavours. The Moorland Spirit Company, creator of Hepple Gin, has also dabbled in extracting flavours using unusual methods. “Copper pot stills have made wonderful things for hundreds of years,” says Walter Riddell, Moorland managing director, “but to extract more flavour, and highlight more delicate flavours, we started thinking about what else is out there. Where’s the evolution?”

The process starts with distilling a mix of botanicals, including Macedonian and Italian juniper berries, in a copper pot still to create a “one shot” gin – but it’s after this when things start to become really interesting. Hepple’s creators were keen to make a classic, juniper-­forward gin expression. But they discovered that while it is possible to generate more juniper flavours by adding a larger number berries into the copper pot, this did little to increase the intensity or variety of juniper notes in the final spirit. In an effort to extract a wider spectrum of flavour from its botanicals, Hepple turned to two extra pieces of equipment: a rotary evaporator and a CO2 extractor. “Using something that’s not traditional allowed us to get something that we see as the ideal, classic version of gin,” Riddell explains.

Sacred Gin's old distillery; the firm has moved to a bigger site

Sacred Gin’s old distillery; the firm has moved to a bigger site

And so the team introduced a third style of juniper into the liquid, unripe green berries from the Hepple estate, through a method of cold distillation under vacuum through the rotary evaporator. The comparatively low temperature – around 45°C – means the fresh green notes of the juniper are not lost, and woody characteristics of sandalwood and cedar are also brought into the mix. “It’s essentially a freshness machine,” explains Valentine Warner, cook, food writer, broadcaster and co­creator of Hepple Gin.

Meanwhile, the ripe Macedonian juniper berries are put into the CO2 extraction machine, where they are subjected to extremely high pressures of CO2 – “near the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean kind of pressure” – a technique called ‘supercritical extraction’. The juniper transforms into a state whereby it is both a gas and a liquid. This extraction process allows the team to obtain “that range of classic juniper flavour in an extremely pure form”, referred to as the “absolute of juniper”. “This gives the rich mouthfeel, resonance and depth of flavour,” Warner explains. “You get that very deep, long, profound juniper taste, a really unique depth of flavour. Our aim was to up the intensity of the juniper without distorting it; this was the classic way.”

TIME-CONSUMING PROCESS

Like Lone Wolf’s method, it’s a time-consuming process. From foraging ingredients to the end product, Riddell estimates production takes seven times longer than traditional distilling methods: the copper pot still part of the process requires a 24­hour maceration time, followed by a six- or seven-­hour distillation; the CO2 extraction run lasts for approximately four hours and has to be carried out multiple times per batch of gin; then there’s the time spent harvesting the juniper and the Douglas fir, and preparing the fresh Amalfi lemon peel.

“It cost about three times more to set everything up in terms of start­-up costs,” says Riddell. “The cost of labour and running the distillery are significantly higher than if you made a traditional London Dry gin. Plus, we want to make sure that every time we harvest the wild environment it is in a better state than when we started. It’s über-expensive.” Expensive, yes, but in the quest for flavour, it’s all worth the extra expenditure, Riddell assures me.

While some sceptics dismiss new craft gin distillers and their botanical combinations as “gimmicky”, it is evident from speaking to Kersley, Riddell and Warner that challenging traditional distillation processes is anything but a marketing ploy. It’s flavour­-led from start to finish, and far too costly to gamble time, resources and precious pounds on creating an elusive ‘point of difference’.

VACUUM DISTILLATION

It’s the same reason why Ian Hart of Sacred Spirits, creator of Sacred Gin, opted to use vacuum distillation rather than a traditional pot still. Each botanical is distilled separately to ensure that oils from a neighbouring ingredient, or other factors, don’t interfere with the flavours. Hart distils at around 25°C-30°C to avoid “boiling” the botanicals at the high temperatures used in copper pot still distillation. “Distilling at a lower temperature using vacuum distillation means the chemical composition of each botanical’s flavour is not altered,” Hart says. “This way, the flavours of each botanical really come through to create a lusher, fruitier style of gin.”

Hepple's copper pot still and rotary evaporator

Hepple’s copper pot still and rotary evaporator

And it’s not just British distillers trying their hand at alternative procedures – Japan is also pushing boundaries with its white spirits innovation. Japanese whisky producer Nikka has been secretly putting its famous Coffey still to the test over the past three years, fine-tuning the recipe for its Nikka Coffey Gin, which launched in 2017. The expression is created with 11 botanicals, including yuzu, sansho pepper and amanatsu, kabosu and shequasar citrus fruits from Japan, alongside juniper, angelica, coriander, lemon peel, orange peel and apple juice.

“The way we make Coffey Gin is something like making blended whisky,” says Emiko Kaji, international business development manager for Nikka Whisky. “We first distil corn and malted barley separately in the Coffey stills. Both corn-­base spirits and malt­-base spirits are not from a single batch, but consist of several batches with a slight difference in abv and taste profile.” Then, using only corn distillate, Nikka steeps and re­-distils its 11 botanicals in three types of pot stills. The five resulting components – corn spirit, malt spirit, Coffey gin spirit, Japanese citrus spirit and sansho spirit – are then blended together, like whisky, to give a 47% abv Nikka Coffey Gin. “More important for us is providing something tasty and well finished for connoisseurs rather than just standing out with production method,” insists Kaji. “Techniques and assets will help us to do so.”

And while many anticipate that gin will follow flavoured vodka’s fallout, others have faith that the category has caught onto something with the potential for longevity – which is no easy feat in this fickle industry. “People always talk about the bottom dropping out of gin, but I don’t think it’s going to go away,” says Warner with confidence. “It’s going to grow for some time. Something has really dug in here, and I see gin lasting in the same way whisky has.”

It seems inevitable that the number of gin brands will continue to rise as the year progresses. But how many of them will be looking to shake things up with newfound approaches to distillation? “The category is very hot and becoming more and more exciting – but challenging,” cautions Kaji. However, perhaps alternative – and costly – methods will be at the forefront of their plans. She concludes: “Various producers, including traditional gin houses, global giants, distillers of other categories and even start­ups, will struggle to differentiate themselves from others without more experimental techniques.”

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