You’ll find gin in every bar and stacked on the shelves of supermarkets and drinks shops across the country. It’s not uncommon for even the smallest shops to offer a wide range of bottles. From big brands to local and regional bottles, and even imported gins from around the world. Many of those labels will proudly display the words ‘craft gin’. But what does that term actually mean? And what is a craft gin? To understand, we need to take a trip back in time…
A short history
Gin arrived in England in the mid-17th century. Though it’s often thought of as a typically British drink, it actually originates from Holland, where Dutch distillers had been making a medicinal spirit called genever, which was flavoured with juniper.
During the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) British soldiers stationed in Holland saw Dutch troops drinking genever to boost morale before heading into battle – hence the term ‘Dutch Courage’. Those soldiers brought genever back to England with them.
At the time, the country had a newly crowned Dutch king – William III or William of Orange – so his native spirit became an instant hit with English drinkers. The fact that genever was also easy to distil increased the popularity of the spirit – which became known simply as gin.
A combination of heavy tax duties imposed on imported spirits such as French brandy and the passing of the Distilling Act in 1690 led to a huge increase in gin drinking. The Distilling Act allowed unlicensed production of gin; as a result thousands of gin shops sprang up across London.
The Gin Craze
By 1730, there were an estimated 7,000 gin shops in the capital. Cheap and easily available, gin was consumed by the working classes in huge quantities, offering relief from the poverty and drudgery of their everyday lives. The period up to the 1750s became known as the Gin Craze.
Gin was blamed for all manner of social ills. In one notorious case in 1734, a woman named Judith Dufour strangled her two-year-old and sold his clothes to buy gin. No wonder that gin earned the nickname ‘Mother’s Ruin’. Parliament was called on to intervene and quench the huge thirst for gin.
Several Acts of Parliament were passed to regulate gin production and sales. The 1751 Gin Act prohibited distillers from selling to unlicensed merchants. It also increased the fees for small merchants, meaning that gin was no longer sold in small gin shops.
Subsequent acts further limited the production of gin in small pot stills, making the gin trade more regulated and easier to control. Production was now in the hands of large, licensed distillers.
What is craft gin?
Fast-forward to 2007, when friends Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall, and Master Distiller Jared Brown decided to make their own gin. Thanks to those historic licensing laws, the trio faced an unexpected obstacle. An excise act from 1823 made it impossible for distillers to obtain a licence for a still that held less than 1,800 litres of spirit. Their pot still was only 300 litres.
They petitioned for a change in the law – and in 2008 production of small batches of gin in small pot stills was allowed again in England. Their gin, Sipsmith, was launched in 2009, kick-starting a trend for craft gins. The term was used to describe an artisanal gin made by small independent distillers and produced in small batches.
Distilleries such as Sipsmith and Sacred (see below) inspired a host of other new gin producers to set up business. The craft gin boom had begun and quickly increased as hundreds of new small gin brands were launched.
Craft or not?
But the proliferation of ‘craft gins’ has given some producers cause for concern. Jake Burger and Ged Feltham launched their Portobello Road Gin in 2011 (see below). ‘We were certainly fortuitous in terms of timing,’ says Burger, ‘I think we’d spotted the potential for gin’s growth as a category relatively early – but perhaps we hadn’t expected it to rise quite as meteorically as it did.’
Burger prefers not t
o describe Portobello Road as a craft gin. ‘Craft is a word I try not to use these days as it has become so ubiquitous, and has been so misappropriated in the drinks world, as to be relatively meaningless,’ he explains.
Master Distiller William Lowe, who is also a Master of Wine, agrees. He founded the Cambridge Distillery with his wife Lucy in 2012. ‘I tend to stay away from the term “craft” as it means everything and nothing,’ he says.
For both Lowe and Burger, what’s inside the bottle is more important than what words are used on the label. Quality is key.
‘The first element I look for in any spirit sounds very simple: being free from faults. Thereafter, the important elements are: balance of the aromatics, structure to create great mouthfeel and a level of complexity which can allow the gin to develop in the glass. That’s what keeps you coming back for another sip,’ says Lowe.
‘If by craft we mean making things at small scale, using 60 litre stills instead of 3,000 litre stills, well that does appeal to some people,’ adds Burger. But does smaller mean better? ‘It’s not a view I subscribe to. It’s just as possible to make an excellent gin in a gigantic still as it is in a little one; and by the same margin it’s perfectly possible to make a lousy gin in a small still too if you don’t know what you’re doing!’
He admits that many gin drinkers are drawn to the idea of buying products that have a back story they can relate to. ‘If by craft we mean independently owned – that is, not owned by one of the giant drinks multinationals – then certainly those types of stories appeal to the modern consumer,’ Burger says.
‘The idea of entrepreneurial, ambitious young folk starting up their own companies, making products, often in fairly humble settings (garages, bedrooms, sheds) and pouring their energies and time into those brands – perhaps even taking on the big companies to a degree – well that’s a story as old as time and people certainly warm to that type of tale.’
Lowe adds: ‘Consumers now want to know what they are buying. They are much more discerning and rightly so. They are interested in where these products come from and how they are made. Origin and know-how are key and the craft gin movement is tapping into these themes and allowing consumers to interact with their drink of choice in a far more intimate way than before.’
Craft gins to try
Cambridge Dry Gin
William Lowe MW has the honour of being the world’s first Master Distiller and Master of Wine. His innovative vacuum-distilled gin is specially created for Martinis, using botanicals sourced locally and from his own garden in Cambridge, giving elegant floral aromatics. Pure silk on the palate; this makes an elegant and harmonious Dry Martini. Alcohol 42%
One of only a handful of gins made with British juniper, which is grown on the wild Northumbrian Hepple Estate. Using a complex triple-distillation technique, Hepple is a finely crafted gin with distinctive, fresh aromas of Douglas fir. These are followed by a luscious, silky palate with herbaceous notes, plenty of pine and citrus freshness, then a deliciously lingering finish. Makes a great Martini. Alc 45%
Height of Arrows
This beautifully rounded Martini gin is made by Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh and inspired by the simplicity of whisky production. Made in a pared-back style, juniper is the focus here. Isle of Skye sea salt is added after distillation to amplify the flavour, along with natural beeswax for texture. Very creamy and smooth, with distinctively bright juniper aromas and peppery spice, it makes a superlative Gibson Martini. Alc 43%
Portobello Road No 171
Launched in 2011, Portobello is a classic London Dry gin made in London’s Notting Hill. There’s plenty of juniper on the nose, along with white pepper, zesty lemon citrus and grassy aromas. Creamy texture with a focused, clean juniper character. An overlay of nicely judged spice leads right though the palate to a nutmeg-infused finish. Crisp and dry, this is a textbook London Dry that’s equally at home in Martinis and G&Ts. Alc 42%
Dukes Bar at Dukes Hotel in Mayfair, is THE quintessential London Martini bar and head bartender Alessandro Palazzi uses Sacred as his house pour. London distiller Ian Hart was a pioneer of the UK craft gin scene and has been making this small-batch vacuum-distilled craft gin since 2009. Made from a base of English wheat spirit, botanicals include exotic frankincense, or Boswellia sacra in Latin, giving the gin its name. Makes a balanced, smooth and truly memorable Dry Martini. Alc 40%
Salcombe Start Point
This bright, citrus-led gin hails from the reliably good Salcombe Distilling Co in Devon. It’s named after Start Point lighthouse, which marked the beginning of voyages for the 19th century fruit schooners, which sailed from Salcombe, trading exotic fruit and spices from the West Indies and Azores. Grapefruit, lemon and lime add refreshing citrus notes to the classic juniper palate, which also shows fiery spice. Perfect for a G&T. Alc 44%
Silent Pool Rare Citrus Gin
Surrey distiller Silent Pool produces an excellent range of gins, but Rare Citrus is my favourite. As the name suggests, botanicals include four rare citrus fruits sourced from around the globe: buddha’s hand, natsu dai dai, hirado buntan and green Seville orange. They create really lovely zingy aromatics: grapefruit, lemon, lime and mandarin orange. The palate is creamy and elegant, with clean and rounded citrus notes. With juicy orange notes and dry spices on the really crisp finish, this is a great all-rounder cocktail gin. Alc 43%
When the Sipsmith distillery opened in 2009, Prudence was the first copper pot still to be operated in London for 200 years. The botanical mix is inspired by a recipe found in an 18th century book called The Compleat Body of Distilling by drinks historian and Master Distiller Jared Brown. Distinctive aromas of warm toasty spices and orange sherbet, with fresh grassy notes. Juniper builds on the palate, leading to a crisp, snappy finish with freshly sliced lemon and plenty of spice. With its rounded creamy texture, baking spices, orange citrus and grassiness, Sipsmith makes a perfect G&T. Alc 41.6%