An old housemate introduced me to the concept of gin o'clock, and it's stayed firmly on the schedule ever since. The rise of the micro distillery has been a wonderful thing to watch over the past few years, and Bristol a pretty splendid place to watch it from. My interest was particularly piqued when I discovered that a new distillery had popped up, mere metres from where I worked. Yes, under the Rummer hotel, there lies a still producing some really rather splendid spirits.
David, the head distiller, greets me at the door with probably the best words you could ever hope for; “Would you like a gin and tonic?” The drink is, as you’d expect from a distiller and barman, rather splendid. Luckily for me, an abundance of taste opportunities were shortly to follow. And then it all got a bit hazy…
He’s just put on a ‘run’ of their regular gin when I arrive in the basement of the Rummer, and the shiny silver still is heating up. He takes me on a tour of the various twists and turns of the machine, beginning with the tub where they place high strength alcohol and a little water to begin the process. “At between 73 and 76 degrees, alcohol will start evaporating,” he explains, pointing out the first signs of the water vapour appearing in the condensers above. “The bubble cap is a secondary distillation unit and purifies the alcohol a little bit more,” and from there the purified alcohol passes through a unit containing a basket of botanicals made up from their unique gin recipe. “It picks up the flavours, mostly from the oils, and comes out at about 75-80% alcohol,” he finishes, before going on to explain that they take the first 200ml from the top of the run to stop the gin clouding when you add ice or tonic; “It’s the juniper oils, which stick to the alcohol.”
Excitingly, the gin soon starts to flow and he puts a glass under the stream of liquid and passes it to me to taste, clinking his glass against mine before I take a sip. It’s a beautiful flavour, rich with the warm, almost burnt flavour from the allspice. It’s a surprise to be able to drink something of such a high percentage, but I head back for a second sip. “Right now I can taste juniper, allspice and lime leaf,” David points out, “But during the run different things will activate at different times.”
So what’s the starting point I ask? “The spirit we start with is a mixture of barley and wheat,” he tells me as we sit down and I turn my attention back to the gin and tonic in front of me. “Gin is basically flavoured vodka!” he continues, and I’m momentarily floored. What? “With gin, 80% of the flavour has to be based on juniper berries,” he explains, upping my gin education a notch. “Whisky and brandy also come out clear, and putting them in a barrel gives it flavour. So this is another way of flavouring a white spirit, using botanicals rather than a barrel!”
I ask how he first got into gin. “We all worked upstairs in The Rummer,” he explains. “Brett is the owner, Mike is the bar manager and I was a bartender.” He tells tales of some of the drink and culinary experiments they undertook - from cocktails containing pigs blood, smoked emu eggs and drinks where half the flavour was in a smoke pen. Drawn together by their love of experimenting, they decided to buy a still and try making their own gin. “We started with ‘chill and distill’,” he tells me with a smile, referring to their Monday evening experimentations and hangouts while the restaurant was closed. “We looked at the main ingredients that people were using and we took what we thought would be nice. Elderflower was always something we wanted to use, and lime leaves,” he explains as he pours me a taste of their 40% Bristol Dry. “The main flavours you'll get from this is fresh lemon, dried lime leaf and elderflower, and coriander. They add citrusy floral notes, and on the back you'll get allspice and cassia bark.” He follows this with a taste of their 55% for contrast. “By adding less water, a lot of the citrus flavours are cut out and a lot of the spices come forward. So you get a much more woody, juniper dark gin. I prefer that sort of gin; after a day at work I want a gin and tonic like that!" I’m amazed by the difference in flavour of the two, given that the only variant is the amount of water added.
Following that, he brings across what he calls their ‘experimental gin’. At 75% and containing 18 botanicals, their ‘Turbo Island’ is more than a little different. “We added a lot of fruit for sweetness; there’s figs in there! And a lot of other flavours like lemongrass, hibiscus, ginger, coffee and green tea. We tried loads of different things that weren’t so good,” he says laughing. “Blueberries didn't work. Almonds didn't work. Lavender didn't work!” I am thankful for their perseverance. The flavour of the fruit really comes through as he adds more tonic to my glass, backed up by a warm and rich after-notes. And as he points out, it’s a double measure in a single shot!
The tasting continues with a splash of vodka, which is run through the still with some liquorice. “It’s our mixing vodka,” he points out. “There’s no liquorice taste, but there’s definitely something!” And he’s right. For the first time in my life I discover that I don’t actually hate vodka; I’ve just been drinking the wrong stuff. “We started bottling and selling in January,” he explains. “We’ve had some great bars who've supported us from really early on like the Duke of York and To The Moon, and we’re now stocked in places like the Canteen.”
The latest addition to the range is intriguingly called Arh Ma’s Special Medicine. Aquavit, a Scandinavian drink based on caraway and dill, is made the same way as the gin, but with a different recipe in the botanical basket. “You get a lot of spearmint and anise from the caraway, then a little bit of a savoury flavour from the dill,” David points out as I sip away. “I’ve added coriander seeds and grains of paradise, which has a sweet peppery taste and is part of the ginger family. We put it through the still, water it down to 46% then I put it in a bottle for 24 hours with applewood chips, more caraway and dill and some sugar cubes.” Never having drunk aquavit before, I’m not sure what to expect, but it’s pretty darn drinkable as my empty glass declares. Which David promptly refills and tops up with some bitter lemon. “We've been trying to work out how to serve it; tonic doesn't work, lemonade tastes horrible, but we found that bitter lemon is nice. I think it balances out quite well.” Another empty glass from me.
So what does the future hold for the Bristol Dry Gin family? “We really want to keep on doing what we’re doing and get the processes running better,” he explains. They’re focusing on getting the gin into bars, but you can also buy it from the their website for £25 a bottle. “We wanted to make something that was not overly expensive to produce, high quality, but still affordable. It’s an everyday gin.”
Feeling slightly woozier than I did when I arrived, I pack up my camera and prepare to face my next meeting knowing that there’s a new gin in town, and I think we’re going to be really really good friends…
Find out more: http://www.bristoldrygin.com