There are a lot of ’boutique’ drinks around. There are boutique vermouths and boutique ouzos, boutique bitters and boutique vodkas. The category, however, with the most ’boutique’ labels is gin. Ever since I started writing about drink for the Guardian – about a month – I’ve been deluged with information about gins: Cotswold Gin, gin made from Icelandic spring water, small batch pot-distilled gin and even Yorkshire gin (tagline Like Gin Used to Be.) This Saturday I decided to broach the gin surfeit that had been building up in our kitchen.
So very professionally I sat down at the dining table with a proper whisky tasting glass, a bowl to spit in, a pencil, some paper and a glass of cold filtered water. I won’t reprint all my tasting notes as that would be boring but here is a brief precis of what I thought of them all:
Cotswold Gin – very pretty, floral, the juniper is there but it doesn’t hit you over the head with it, not very Cotswold though not even a hint of red trousers.
Bombay Sapphire – doesn’t really taste of gin. This is a gin for people who prefer vodka.
Martin Millers Gin – clean, elegant a nice taste of gin but nothing to frighten the horses.
William Chase Elegant Gin – proper gin, really tastes of gin, one for those who really like gin. Lots of alcohol too, 48%.
Yorkshire Gin – lots going on here, liquorice, juniper, orange and pepper. Complex and unusual with a long finish.
Now obviously this is a stupid way of trying gins as nobody drinks gin neat so I started experimenting with cocktails and tonics and various things. I’d also given up spitting by this point. The tonic water – Fancy Fever Tree stuff – managed to completely overwhelm the Cotswold Gin and took the poor Bombay Sapphire to the cleaners. The William Chase worked best as, I think I may have mentioned before, it really tastes like gin.
The other boutique spirit I tried during my gruelling tasting session was called Stellacello Amaro London. Imagine it as a kind of artisan Campari and you’re almost there. Now I really really liked this. It smells a bit like Angostura bitter marmalade but the taste is of mellow oranges and grapefruit. It’s a taste that lingers pleasantly for quite some time. My wife has been making marmalade all week so it felt like my entire world was made from oranges. It’s great neat with ice. But then I remembered I had some boutique red vermouth made by Belsazar so I thought, boutique bloody negroni! As everyone knows the negroni is the easiest of all the cocktails to make.
I put a shot of Yorkshire gin, a shot of Belsazar red vermouth and a shot of Amaro London in a glass with lots of ice and some grapefruit rind. Rather than the deep red of a traditional negroni it went brown. Oh well I suppose before industrialisation and chemical dyes that’s how negronis used to look. I took a sip. It was horrible. Truly foul. Some sort of interaction between the bitterness of the Amaro and the liquorice in the gin had created a monster. I’m not sure what the red vermouth was doing* but it wasn’t providing the necessary fruit and sweetness to counteract all that bitterness and the overwhelming stench of liquorice. Oh and did I mention it was brown. After some of the ice melted it became vaguely palatable. Still it was the worst negroni I’ve ever had. I finished it with a grimace as I put our daughter to bed.
It was odd because individually all the parts were better than their more commercial equivalents but together they were vile. I’m not sure what the moral of the story is. Perhaps it’s that being a barmen isn’t as easy as it looks. Experiment with a classic at your peril.
* Expert drinker Richard Godwin, formerly of the Evening Standard, thinks the herbal quality in the Belsazar vermouth might have been to blame.
I cunningly combined tasting drinks with drawing scary monsters with my daughter. Funnily enough this monster looks a little like the negroni tasted ie. frightening.