You may have noticed that we’re in the throes of a 21st-century Gin Craze. It’s not as serious as the one which began in the 1720s, when London was awash with the stuff, much of it adulterated with turpentine, alum and sulphuric acid, but it’s still an irritation with no signs of an imminent hangover.
The big difference between then and now is that sales and marketing ‘creatives’ have been let loose to talk up ‘boutique’ distilleries with fancy names, trendy bottles and romantic back stories about Uncle Jack dusting off his great-grandfather’s rusting stills down a remote back alley.
I found one gin, for example, with a tag line that says ‘intricately realised’. What on earth does that mean — apart from justifying a price of £35 a bottle if ordering direct or £42 when buying from the likes of Majestic?
There was another, called Conker Spirit Gin and produced by Dorset’s ‘first gin distillery, nestled in the back streets of Bournemouth’, according to its website. Look out for ‘Dorset notes of elderberries, samphire and hand-picked New Forest gorse flowers’. Yours for £35.95.
There’s even a Palmers (no relation) Dry Gin, produced by the Midlands-based Langley Distillery and launched only a couple of weeks ago. The blurb says it has a ‘wonderful grapefruit curl that leaves you wanting more’. It looks impressive on my drinks tray, but I’m not sure it’s any better than Tanqueray No. Ten.
The number of distilleries in Britain has doubled in the past seven years, with no fewer than 500 UK gins from which to choose — make that 6,000 worldwide. Sales in Britain of ‘Madam Geneva’ — as gin was once known — have exceeded £1 billion a year for the first time.
But let’s not get sozzled by this. Many of them are wretched, with all kinds of botanicals thrown in to make a concoction that, if used in a dry martini, would have 007 shaking with rage and stirred with sorrow.
I can do without the hype poured down my throat about how a gin is produced in such tiny batches and we’re so unbelievably lucky to be in a position to buy it. And spare me all that guff about members of a distiller’s family getting up at dawn to forage for weird herbs and barks that may or may not add flavour to Mother’s Ruin. The floodgates opened in 2009 when Sipsmith managed to get a licence to open London’s first copper distillery since 1820 — and began charging double what it costs for good old, but disastrously uncool, Gordon’s.
In Notting Hill, there’s a place called Portobello Road Gin, which has a restaurant, gin museum, two bars and three bedrooms for those who can’t quite face the stagger home. You can sign up for sessions at its ‘Ginstitute’ if really keen.
Dickens was impressed by London’s first gin palaces in the late 1820s, describing them as ‘perfectly dazzling’, but I suspect that he might find the modern-day equivalents a little wearisome.
Recently, I turned up for a gin masterclass at the Royal Horseguards Hotel, hosted by a polite 27-year-old lad from Fever-Tree (the tonic specialists) and a 26-year-old woman ‘gin ambassador’ from Pernod Ricard, the company which has, among others, Beefeater, Plymouth and Monkey 47 on its roster.
My goodness they knew their stuff. At their age I was just graduating from Newcastle Brown to Mateus Rosé. We tasted various London dry gins (by definition a London dry must have botanicals in the mix from the start) and then moved off in all sorts of hazy directions.
The one rule I learnt is that there are no rules. Just stick to what you like and know — and don’t be seduced by gin menus.
My wife and I called in for a drink at the Kensington Hotel the other day and she asked for a gin and tonic. ‘What kind of gin would you like?’ asked the barman, before reeling off a list of at least 15 brands, many of which we had never heard of.
The last one was Monkey 47, which I knew would appeal to Joanna because she loves a chimpanzee. ‘Make that two, please.’
I should have guessed the outcome. To be last on the list was the clue. With a splash of tonic, our two G&Ts cost £38 — enjoyed in a pleasant hotel, but not exactly the Hôtel du Cap. We didn’t stay for a second round.
‘Having 300 different gins in your bar is a gimmick and I don’t like it,’ says Alessandro Palazzi, the famous bartender at Dukes Hotel, off St James’s Street.
Me, neither. So exactly how many does
‘Well, we have 22, actually.’