Saturday night at the London Gin Club

Last weekend I went out twice in town, on a Friday night to The Lord Wargrave – a pub just off the Edgware Road – I was pleased to find they had a good variety of gins on offer, but then found the only choice of mixer was Britvic tonic, and as hard as I tried to enjoy my Gin Mare and Britvic, it really just ruined it.

The following night at The Chapel Bar in Islington, another decent selection of at least six premium gins to choose from beyond the standard Gordon’s, but this time the tonic was dispensed from a tap, to the brim. The barmaid also wanted to add lime to the Tanqueray No10 and cucumber to the London No1, “so I could tell them apart”, but thankfully I managed to stop that, but the damage was done. Needless to say, on both nights, only one round of gin was taken, then we moved on to something that they couldn’t ruin. Both establishments are otherwise very nice places, but this lack of understanding of how to serve gin, to the point where they are actually managing to ruin an excellent gin like Gin Mare worries me, it is doing nothing for the brands or the industry as a whole. No one will ever shift from Gordon’s if they are totally unable to appreciate the difference, and if decent pubs in the West End of London can’t get it right, then who will?

At the other end of the scale, in the shadow of Crossrail building works in Soho, sits a traditional looking pub called The Star, which is the home of the London Gin Club, and, within these walls, they know how to do gin. We booked in advance, essential for peak times if you want a table, and I can tell you now, if you like gin, then you really do want a table!London Gin Club Shelves

Greeted by shelf upon shelf of fine gins, I caught glimpses of several favourites that you simply never see in other bars – Cotswolds, Crossbill, Daffys, Rock Rose. Then others that I have tried but never owned – Pickerings, Haymans, Blackwater – but the idea of the night, as much as these favourites are tempting, was to try and have something I had not had before, which these days is becoming harder and harder to do without going to see a specialist.

We started with a tasting menu, four shots of carefully selected gins with their respective garnishes and as much Fever-Tree Indian tonic water as you need. Copa Balon glasses and large lumps of cracked ice are also replaceable on request. I thought I might have a look at their web site to see if they had any more information about the menus, but follow the ‘tasting menus’ link and it has been 3 years since they added a new post on that page, so I was glad we have good memories, even after a night of gin drinking. Our tasting menu contained Broken Heart, Isfjord, Garden Tiger and Bertha’s Revenge, in that order. We were instructed, and, not wanting to seem rude, we nodded along, as if new to the business of gin-drinking. The Broken Heart was nice, the Isfjord stunning – smooth and rich, made from Iceberg water and a smooth balance of botanicals including lemon-grass, cardamom and orange peel. Isfjord was going to be a hard act to follow, and I knew fourth-up Bertha’s Revenge was going to be wonderful as I am lucky enough to own a bottle. So Garden Tiger was in a tricky spot, but in practice it was so wonderful I could have sipped it neat all night. At 47%, Garden Tiger is not mucking about, it is indeed a gin with claws – and the garden part of the name is easy to place too, with citrusy floral notes that make for a tasty, complex and smooth gin. We did not have any other of their Tasting Boards, but I can certainly recommend this one, four fantastic gins. (edit: Look at ‘recent posts’ on their page for updated taking menu information, it seems they do update it, they just don’t manage the links within the site very well)

Tasting Menu

We had a couple of cocktails next, along with a Charcuterie Board and some bread. I had a traditional Bees Knees and Charlotte (who was bank-rolling the evening for my Birthday) had a very ginny Ginger & Pomegranate cocktail of their own design, both food and drink were delicious.

We returned to some straightforward gin & tonic drinking: One after the other we had Dà Mhìle Seaweed Gin, of which I had heard great things, and Thompson’s Gin, a product that includes Caviar among its botanicals, and of which I had previously lived in ignorance of. Both were really lovely, with the Thompson’s perhaps getting the nod, but only just. Again, these gins were different, adding a whole new set of flavours to the ever expanding gin universe, and more worryingly, my ever expanding gin wishlist, something I have concluded that I will never reach the end of.

Finally, and feeling rather tipsy by this point, we decided to try two final gins before heading for home. I had Hernö Old Tom gin from Sweden, something I had tried once before and loved; Charlotte selected the wonderfully named Death’s Door Gin, again, both were sublime, with the Death’s Door being particularly spicy and smooth – would undoubtedly make a great Martini.

Other tonics were available, but we only had Fever-Tree Indian Tonic all evening and I do wish pubs and bars would take note of this simple fact. We were also given the bottle, so could add as much or as little as we liked, and only in the Hernö did either of us ever use more than half a bottle.

Gin!

The average price of a Gin & Tonic was a little under £9, but you could pay a fair amount more for some of the more expensive brands. I would certainly recommend any of the gins we had, without exception, but if you want something exceptional, then the Isfjord; Bertha’s Revenge, Death’s Door and most notable of all Garden Tiger, are all stand out, five star gins – but frankly you should just go to The London Gin Club and experience a night with them for yourself, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

 

 

 

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Little Bird Gin Masterclass

Ascend the stairs at The Clock House pub on the edge of Peckham Rye and you’ll find a great little space called Blake’s, and it was here that my business partner Zoe, and I, booked in for a Masterclass with Little Bird Gin, a London Dry based up the road in Peckham itself.

Our host was Laura, owner of the Little Bird brand. Laura waxed lyrical about the strict conditions under which your gin could be defined as ‘London Dry’ and how she and her partners had designed a recipe for their perfect gin, before taking it to a master-distiller in Clapham, to turn into the gin they have today – a gin that is increasingly popular and spreading in fame and fortune. Laura’s business plans include a new still, currently in production in the south east of England by traditional still craftsmen, and for this to be based in the heart of Peckham, in an old re-developed Railway Arch. little bird

We sipped the gin neat as the place filled up with a range of enthusiasts, mostly Hendricks, Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray drinkers, and one or two with more exotic tastes. We discussed distillation techniques and botanicals – some of which had been brought along to be sniffed and inspected. Laura mixed the Little Bird ‘signature gin and tonic’ – a 35ml shot of Little Bird over plenty of ice, a thick slice of pink grapefruit and about 2/3rds of a bottle of Fever-Tree Mediterranean tonic water. It was very welcome in the heat of a muggy June day, and disappeared all too quickly.

Laura went on to talk more about gin and tonics, cocktails and other brands – never bad-mouthing them, in fact if anything she was singing the praises of the likes of Gin Mare and Sipsmith; no gin wars to be found at this masterclass.

By this time we’d already had our £10 entry price worth, but there was more to come – Laura made us all Negronis, using a 3rd each measure of Little Bird, Campari and Dubonnet, with a little of the grapefruit peel squeezed around the rim, before being stirred in the glass with the ice. On first sip I have to confess to being more impressed with it than with any of those I had made myself a couple of weeks earlier, and by the time we’d consumed half the glass, both Zoe and I were actually becoming converts.

Little_bird_masterclass1

This was an informative, interesting and fun evening, complete with a couple of great drinks. Laura and her Little Bird gin are both captivating and excellent value – if you get the chance to try a Little Bird, or to meet Laura at one of their masterclasses, then take it, you won’t be disappointed.

 

Junipalooza 2016

Yesterday was World Gin Day and the appropriately chosen opening day for the Gin Foundry’s Junipalooza event at Tobacco Dock in Wapping, London. This was my first visit to a celebration of all things gin that is now in its third year. On my arm, Miss Rose, with whom I share a home, children and, most importantly, gin.

I have been going to trade exhibitions of one sort or another since my father used to have a stand at the annual ‘Statindex’ show for the stationery trade back in the 1980’s. Junipalooza is not a trade show as such, as it is open to the ticket-buying public – but the feel of the thing is very similar and it is a show that invites you to ‘meet the maker’ with forty makers displaying almost 100 different gins for you to try. The problem with having so many gins to try is that you really need a ticket for both days in order to manage to sample even half – or resign yourself to getting very sozzled indeed.

Arrivals checking the Junipalooza map
Arrivals checking the Junipalooza map

But we had a plan – to avoid what we knew already, and to make sure we took a break to listen to some of the talks and masterclasses. The plan didn’t last five minutes, we entered Tobacco Dock and headed away from where all the crowds were gathering and into one of the rooms well-away from the entrance, where we found Makar Gin doing a Gin & Tonic garnished with Jalapeño and we couldn’t resist.

Great packaging on Skin Gin, but not my thing.
Great packaging on Skin Gin, but not my thing.

Conker Gin was a brand that I had at the top of my ‘must see’ list and came away with the word ‘Buy’ next to my notes, and certainly will be doing so. It was excellent just as a sipping gin alone, incredibly smooth. Smooth sipping gins became somewhat of a theme of the day; I am a gin and tonic man, but after tasting the likes of Conker, Shortcross, Herno Old Tom, Hope on Hopkins Salt River and Rock Rose, I am convinced that some straight gins are mighty fine indeed.

One of the most amazing products of the day came courtesy of Nginious – an oddly named but very well presented set of four gins from Switzerland of which we tried two – The Smoked & Salted gin, which is sublime and totally different to any gin I had ever tasted before; then there was the gin that they age in a vermouth cask – so you’re practically drinking a martini. Neither product is easy on the wallet, at £50 and £75 a bottle respectively – but truly fantastic.

Nginious - stopped me in my tracks
Nginious – stopped me in my tracks

Another real highlight was the Hope on Hopkins stand where we spoke to Fraser for quite some time, talking about their South African distilled gins, and again we tried two – the Salt River, with its almost tequila like taste, and the Mediterranean – a wonderfully fresh gin that made for a superb gin and tonic – perhaps my favourite of the day.

At the other end of the scale we also tried an excellent fruity gin with the Blackwater Strawberry Navy Strength that had been specifically made for the festival. This was so far removed from the Salt River Hope or Smoked & Salted Nginious gins and just goes to show that anyone who says they don’t like gin may as well be saying they don’t like fruit just because they don’t like apples. Try a peach, try an banana, try a strawberry infused gin!

The Conker Gin Stand - great stand, even greater gin
The Conker Gin Stand – great stand, even greater gin

Moving around the spectrum towards the floral gins, we both really enjoyed the Pothecary Gin with its Lavender notes – something that to my ears sounded horrible, but tasted lovely, especially with the Fever-Tree Mediterranean Tonic Water. The Pothecary people were lovely too, and happy to let you have a nose in their botanicals – I particularly liked the black mulberries, that reminded me of a less harsh liquorice and something I could then really appreciate in the gin.

Copper everything
Copper everything

I wasn’t keen on everything I tried – I was curious about Skin Gin, but when I tried the Skin Gin Blanc, it turned out to most certainly not be for me, and the Pinkster was similarly not to my tastes. We also wanted to see Elephant Gin, but found them to be on far more of a sales pitch than anyone else, and this was somewhat off-putting. The colour-changing Sharish gin was drawing the crowds, but the Portuguese distiller’s standard gin was a far better product, especially once you added a little tonic and a slice of apple – delicious. The Rock Rose stand was our final destination and mixed with both Elderflower and Mediterranean Fever-Trees, one of which worked for me, and other of which worked for my now-quite-tipsy Miss Rose. We decided to end on that high note, and headed for the Gin Foundry stand to make purchases.

Hope on Hopkins - lovely people passionate about their gin, and rightly so
Hope on Hopkins – lovely people passionate about their gin, and rightly so

I have certainly not mentioned all of the stands we visited, some of which, like Bertha’s Revenge – the Cork based Milk Gin – was so smooth it was one of those we purchased on exit. And you’ll also note that I have not mentioned any of the wonderful master-classes we enjoyed – and that is because we didn’t. Unfortunately there was not enough room in the odd place these talks were given – and if you could get close enough, the acoustics were such that it was hard to understand. I’m guessing if you were in the front rows then you’d have been fine, but it was not quite clear enough what time things were happening. Maps and timetables would have been cheap to produce and very welcome. The little cards that were produced with notes for each gin were great, we took two of each so we could play gin snap when we got home.

Generally speaking the event was well run and very enjoyable – more seats would have been nice, more bins would have been handy – some garnishes were easy to swallow with the end of the gin, but who wants to down a sprig of mint, thyme or orange rind? Also, there was a cocktail bar apparently – Miss Rose noticed it, I did not – which could possibly be me being blinkered, but I would have liked to have a longer drink at some point, so it was a shame I hadn’t picked up on that – again a carry-around map would have helped with that.

Choices choices, from Herno
Choices choices, from Herno

Would I go again or recommend it? Without doubt, yes I would, and hopefully by next year they’ll have had similar feedback and it will be a little better organised, very simple things would have made the whole day so much better. But, it was well priced, a great opportunity to meet some wonderful distillers and learn more about the drink I love.

I could recommend at least half a dozen wonderful gins that I had not tried before going to Junipalooza, and that was exactly what I was hoping for. Hope on Hopkins, Nginious, Conker and Pothecary would be top of my list, with Bertha’s Revenge and Blackwater not far behind. I just wish I’d also had the time, and drinking ability, to also visit old favourites like Adnams, Caorunn and Silent Pool as well; next year I might just buy tickets for both days.

Pothecary - because lavender tastes better than it sounds.
Pothecary – because lavender tastes better than it sounds.

Ginvestigation – Blackheath

Last night I took to the streets of Blackheath in south-east London with the excuse of investigating the gin content of each of the public houses. I enlisted my friend Jason, a long time gin-drinker and appreciator of the finer things in life – football, beer, short skirts, fine wines and good music. We lamented the loss of Prince and Victoria Wood, of bad days at Charlton Athletic and working hard for little reward.

We talked a great deal about gin – about production, bottles, brands and prices. Jason had recently purchased a bottle of Beefeater Crown Jewels special edition gin as a gift for a family member, and had received, again as a gift, a bottle of Monkey 47 and a crate of 1724 tonic. I decided that I need to get myself closer into his family circle.

Our plan was, within sight of the start of the London Marathon, to make our way, Marathon style, from The Crown, to The Hare and Billet, then across to the Princess of Wales, down to The Railway, then perhaps a couple of the wine bars. But, best laid plans of mice and men etc, we were hampered by rain, and by the heath itself being divided up by metal partitions for herding Marathon runners – we were doing this two days before the great race.

At our starting point in The Crown, the gin list was uninspiring – Gordon’s, Sipsmith and Bombay Sapphire – so we had a pint instead then headed up to The Hare & Billet. In recent years the Hare & Billet, a famous old pub on the outskirts of The Village, has come under new ownership and they do a fantastic range of beers. I wasn’t sure that they would have much in the way of gin at all, but I was pleased to discover they had a total of eleven different gins to choose from including Whitley Neil, Hoxton, No.3, Tanqueray, Haymans, Martin Millers, Gin Mare and Boodles. The only tonic they had was Schweppes, which was a great shame considering the extent of the Gin range, but this is essentially just a good boozer, so I wasn’t about to complain!

I’d recently had a No.3 and was keen for Jason to see if he liked it as much as I had, and he went for the Boodles. The No.3 was as excellent as I remembered and Jason concurred; the Boodles was, on the other hand, disappointing. Jason wanted to try one of their guest bitters, so he had that while I had my first Gin Mare – and it certainly won’t be my last as I very much enjoyed it. I’m not keen on reviewing anything I’ve only had one glass of, among several other drinks, without a good tonic, so that is all I will say on the subject for now.

The rain came down as we left the Hare & Billet and so we took an unplanned turn into O’Neals – an Irish-theme-chain that was for a while, 18 years ago, our pub of choice in Blackheath. Now, a sorry shadow of its former self, we stayed for one lager then left. For the sake of this blog piece I will tell you that they had Gordon’s, three different types of Gordon’s at that, and Bombay Sapphire. Still raining, we headed down to The Railway Tavern, which was packed. They had a four-gin choice of Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Sipsmith and Opihr, but at least they had Fever Tree to mix it with.

After introducing Jason to Opihr we decided to abandon the Marathon and take ourselves back to our respective homes, slightly tipsy to say the least. So, it was not a great success, we had a great time and laughed a lot, I found a new gin to buy in Gin Mare, and reinforced my view that No.3 should also be added to my collection; but we missed several pubs & bars and were largely unimpressed with what we did find – please publicans take note: there is nothing wrong with Bombay Sapphire or Gordon’s, but a bit of choice would be lovely – and ‘choice’ does not mean that you buy a couple of bottles of Sipsmith!