Some of the world’s foremost gin experts assembled in the cavernous event space of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on March 24 for the Pernod Ricard Gin Symposium. Speakers included distillers from Plymouth and Beefeater, plus historians and notable bartenders from the States and U.K. This was a meeting of gin-soaked minds, and it provided a well-rounded base for the dozens of industry professionals who attended.
Saunders started by recounting her personal gin evolution. The historic spirit made her ill as a teenager and she swore it off until 1999, when she opened Blackbird with Dale DeGroff. DeGroff made her a Pegu Club and she “based my career on gin.” Simon Ford stressed gin’s range, adding, “Saying I don’t like gin is like saying I don’t like sauce.”
Gin historians Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller made a Power Point presentation on the history of gin. Here are some of the key dates and facts that they shared.
1650 – 6000 Dutch immigrants were producing their native Genever in London, which is actually closer to whiskey than gin.
1689 – William of Orange encouraged the British to use excess Korn (barley and wheat) for distillation, with juniper berries.
1720s – People were distilling cheap knockoff called “gin.” Instead of juniper, they used hazardous ingredients like turpentine. Every 1 of 4 buildings in London were making or selling “gin.”
1793 – Thomas Coates distilled the first dry gin at Black Friars
1820 – Taylor family establishes Chelsea distillery
1863 – James Burrough becomes distiller, purchases John Taylor & Son’s Distillery and founds Beefeater.
Beefeater master distiller Desmond Payne (pictured) next took the stage. He’s been making gin for over 40 years, including 25 at Plymouth and the last 16 at Beefeater. He said there are only two influences on gin: “the botanicals and how you make it.” Gin is made using neutral alcohol and either grain, grapes or molasses (sugar cane or beet). As Payne said, “Gin is made from whatever the hell you want as long as juniper is number one.” The minimum bottling strength is 37.5% ABV.
Payne explained the differences between the various types of gin, which can be made through cold compounding, racking and/or pot distillation.
Plymouth Gin master distiller Sean Harrison shared his thoughts on tasting gin. Each attendee had ten glasses of gin in front of them, five English gins and five worldly gins. The first thing that Harrison asked us to do was add equal parts water, dropping the gin from 40% to 20% ABV and bringing out the flavor.
Harrison and Payne then conducted a tasting of ENGLISH GINS, beginning with Plymouth, a gin that he says works “front to back.” That means you get citrus botanicals up front, juniper in the middle and root ingredients like angelica and orris at the end.
Payne presented Beefeater, which is “by definition and geography a London gin.” He said, “The art of making gin its to deliver something beyond juniper.” He spotlighted orris in particular, “the botanical that pulls everything together.” Beefeater is “citrus led, then that bite of bitterness. That’s the evidence of juniper. It’s big, bold, complex.”
Bombay Sapphire features similar botanicals, but is made in a carterhead still. Payne revealed that Beefeater and Bombay Sapphire are 40% ABV in most of the world versus 47% in the U.S. That’s primarily based on taxes. More alcohol by volume results in higher taxes.
With Beefeater 24, Payne’s first chance to make an original gin in 40 years, he added grapefruit, green Chinese and Japanese sencha. “The tea acts as a catalyst,” he said. “The reason I used green teas is because they tend to be less tannic.” He steeps the botanicals for 24 hours prior to distillation.
The final English gin appeared in an unlabeled brown bottle and turned out to be a summer-inspired variation on Beefeater dry. He utilized hibiscus flowers, elderflower and black currant leaf, which contribute “sweeter floral notes on the nose.” Payne suggested it for a punch or a cupp.
The next portion of the evening involved WORLDLY GINS, gins made in other places, often by other methods. None of them were around 15 years ago.
Payne and Harrison started with Junipero, a gin made by Anchor Distilling in San Francisco. “This is one of the few gins that is secretive about their botanicals,” said Harrison. However, he did know that it’s 49% ABV and pot distilled. The brand name leaves no doubt about the predominant flavor. “It’s about as honest a juniper gin as you can get,” said Harrison.
Tanqueray 10 is heavy on citrus, including grapefruit, orange and lime. “It’s a little lighter and more astringent on your nose because of the lime,” said Harrison. Since the pot distilled gin is so citrus-forward, “Tank 10,” as they called it, is hard to balance in a cocktail.
Bluecoat is a dry gin that hails from Philadelphia that’s also citrus-forward, but in this case, it’s driven by the orange.
209 is another gin from the Bay Area. It’s steeped overnight, then pot distilled, similar to Beefeater. What makes 209 special is that it contains bergamot, which is unusual for gin, but a key ingredient in Earl Grey tea.
Hendrick’s is a particularly floral gin. It’s part pot distilled, part racked in a carterhead, then finished with rose and cucumber.
Throughout the tasting, Harrison and Payne made some key general points about gin. Payne said that gin comes off the stills at about 80%, and then water is added to bring it to bottling strength. After all, “It’s easier to make it weaker than to make it stronger.”
Ford finished the first half of the symposium by sharing a fun gin fact. In the Royal Navy, officers used to store barrels of gin near the gunpowder, and every now and then, the gin would spill, soaking the gunpowder, rendering it useless. However, if they kept the gin above a certain ABV, the powder would still ignite, and the Navy would still be able to fire their cannons. As a result, Plymouth started producing a 57% “Navy strength” gin.
[Pardon the grainy photos, but the hall was extremely low lit.]