Saturday 11th June is World Gin Day! We’re celebrating with a look at how to spot a high-quality gin, what a difference small-batch makes, and how to drink yours…
“Gin should have four phases on the palate,” says master distiller John Walters, the expert we worked with to develop our cocoa gin. “There should be juniper freshness to start, a lovely perfume like coriander, then fresh and fragrant citrus notes that lead you towards a bitter finish. It’s that bitterness that makes you want another sip…”
The gin aficionado has just given us a guided tour of his distillery in the wilds of Great Yeldham, Essex, where we’ve seen our own cocoa gin being distilled the traditional way – in soaring 200-litre copper stills. We’re now round the rustic, farmyard-kitchen-style table with a few bottles, discussing what makes a truly premium interpretation of the spirit.
“Cheap gin – basically vodka and artificial flavours – feels thinner in the mouth, and it’s nowhere near as nice an experience as thicker gin,” John says. “You want a little thickness in the back of the drink, because viscosity in alcohol adds to the overall smooth feel of it.”
Most top-flight gins get that smooth, thick sensation from a nut – the oil, John says, “grabs better quality of flavour”. In our own cocoa gin, both the macadamia nut and cocoa contribute to this: “The cocoa gives a rounded smoothness from its oil content, and is the perfect bitter back-stop to conclude the drink,” enthuses John.
Small-batch versus big business
Think ‘small-batch’ and you think little, local and maybe even family-run – people who really care about what they produce – and you’d be right to. But besides feeling good about choosing to support local business, what do you get out of buying small-batch – what difference does it make to the quality of your evening tipple?
“Normally a big gin distiller buys in the alcohol, so they never see how the vodka that forms the base of the drink is made,” says John. “85% of all gin on the market is made that way. As a small-batch distiller, we have total oversight, from fermentation to bottling. We’re one of only three small distillers in the country to make our own vodka and re-distill it to make gin.”
That oversight means that, instead of focusing on efficiency for the distillery – combining vodka at various stages of distillation in the same still – our small-batch distillers can carefully monitor the distillation process, ensuring that only alcohol at its peak quality makes it into the bottle.
The science – and art – of perfect gin
There are three stages in the distillation of that vodka base for your gin: the heads, heart and tails. Both the heads and tails contain elements that will impair the flavour, so it’s important to eliminate as many of those as possible and collect as much of the heart as we can.
“In the heads there’s acetone, ethyl acetate and methanol,” explains John. “If they make it into the spirit it will be fiery in your mouth – not warm, fiery. What we do with our 5-litre beakers is begin to accurately remove the heads.”
Next comes the heart – the point at which the alcohol is at its best. But the heads aren’t always completely finished before the heart begins to appear. That overlap is dealt with by those 200-litre stills, in which the separation between head and heart is at the maximum of any type of still.
“You need to be trained to spot when the heads end and the heart starts with your palate,” says John. “It takes 5 years, tasting every day, to be able to spot that with your eyes shut and guarantee it’s right.”
As the still depletes alcohol, the tails come in at the end: unbelievably bitter, they can ruin an entire day of production. But a small-batch producer like John knows how to avoid that – and it’s part science, part art: “At first, the alcohol comes off the still in a perfect arc, like glass,” he says. “Then, about 15 minutes before the tails come in, you start to see very small ripples in the arc – it’s no longer smooth. Stop it at that point and you have a perfect vodka.”
Ever seen the word ‘filtered’ on a gin or vodka bottle? That’s not a selling point.
“Our vodka doesn’t need to be filtered through charcoal or anything because there’s no rubbish in it, whereas big commercial businesses have to filter,” says John. “You can tell filtered: it’s dry on the palate at the end. You feel it, almost like a cardboard note. Proper vodka is very smooth, wet all the way to the end and feels like it stays in the mouth forever.”
The finest ingredients
“You have to be careful with gin,” John warns. “Anything wrong with the starting material concentrates in the drink.”
That’s why he took extra care in sourcing the perfect ingredients for our cocoa gin – beginning with our Saint Lucian cocoa shells. Next, our British juniper was chosen for its perfect oil content – part-dried so it’s not too sappy, for a more intense flavour. Our coriander comes from India, where the warmer climate better suits it than at home – specifically we use seeds, not leaves, because we find leaves to be too soapy. The South African macadamia nuts John calls “the best on the planet”. He says they’re handled better and picked sooner than other macadamias – important because over time nut oils can butarise, turning the nut rancid.
“Our lemon zest and Minneola are both Spanish, grown just north of Barcelona by a small business that only has about 100 trees of each fruit,” John says. “The fruit is very good, very ripe. Just 24 hours after picking it’s on its way to us, and 24 hours later it’s here. For comparison, when you buy lemons from a supermarket their journey has probably lasted about three weeks.”
We’re told that fresh lemon, unbelievably, is actually as sweet as an orange when first picked – it’s when it’s waxed that the bitterness of the fruit comes through from the peel.
So what happens to these fine ingredients once they arrive in Great Yeldham? Like all other aspects of our small-batch process, they’re added with care, at precisely the right time.
“Most people wouldn’t use fresh citrus zest, they’d buy dry peel,” says John. “We want our gin to be fresh and lively, so we peel our zests 5 minutes before they go into the still.”
Our macadamias get a similar treatment: “We crush them minutes before they go in too – with a hammer!” John explains. “As soon as you split the nut the oils start to break down, which affects the flavour, so we do it right before adding them.”
The best way to enjoy gin
There’s no one way to enjoy gin – it’s all about personal taste – but John has a few bright ideas for how to make the most of our cocoa version.
“If you want to keep it simple, go for crushed ice and a bit of lime,” says John. “It’s gorgeous – the lime brings out the cocoa notes, while the ice really lifts them to the fore.”
Feeling a little more adventurous?
“Add a splash of cocoa bitters, top up with lemonade and garnish with cucumber,” says John. “It’s the perfect summer drink.”
More ways with gin
In the mood for a tipple? Try a bottle of Cocoa Gin, from £15.
How do you take your cocoa gin? Tweet us your ideas at @HotelChocolat – and don’t forget to snap a shot of you enjoying!