28th February 2015 is a date I will remember well, it was the first day I entered ‘the lab’. Now the lab has to remain anonymous as I technically wasn’t meant to be there. A friend of a friend, who I am now very close to, would sneak me in after hours – 6pm to 6am. 12 hours to create ten different recipes. My mission was simple, create the best tasting spirit I could, and the focus was gin!
Gin is enjoying a resurgence at the moment and back then the first ripples of the gin wave were being felt. It seemed to be the right spirit to work with – a lot more versatile and exciting than vodka and was a lot quicker to make than a whisky.
My first taste of a decent gin came in 56 North, a renowned gin bar in Edinburgh. My friend, the owner, James Sutherland, made me a gin martini using the premium Beefeater 24, it comes in a beautiful bottle and has Sevillan orange as a key botanical. It tasted great (check out our cocktail post to see how to make a Minus 33 Martini) and I was hooked – so gin it was!
I knew nothing about distilling a spirit and didn’t know where to start, luckily I met my perfect (distilling) match. A wacky professor type, I was introduced by a friend to Cory, and the first thing he did was take me into his lab and proceed to feed me different botanicals. Some sweet, some bitter, others dry and some downright weird. One of the more memorable was an ingredient from China, the name ecapes me but the best way to describe it was biting into a battery – a weird electrical feel, that initially was ‘shocking’ but was mildly addictive.
I had found the man, Cory went on to surprise me with his skills further (I’ll save that for a future blog) but on the surface of it someone who was willing to try anything, who was passionate about making great tasting products and thought outside the box. A partnership was formed. We spent the following year in the lab creating around 50 recipes for each nocturnal week.
At the end of each week I’d meet with my expert panellists (a mix of different groups who all shared in their love of great tasting alcohol) and I’d ask them how we could improve the recipe – each time I’d take their feedback back to the lab and work with Cory to improve the recipe.
The groups were really interesting, different ages and sexes had such different palates and so trying to find a recipe everyone could agree on was going to be challenging. But we got there in the end. What we discovered was that citrus and floral notes were more appealing that dry, spicy notes and a fuller, more rounded spirit would trump a spirit that had one or two predominant flavours. We even sampled non gin lovers to ensure the spirit was as open to everyone as possible and once again we found it was the dry notes that turned the vodka crowd off gin.
This was all very important data so as we kept trialling new recipes we’d work to zero in on the best taste possible. At the end of the whole year we had a spirit people told us they loved. We also found a design they loved, running different looks past them each session as well.
Now all that was left to do was scale up the size of the batch by taking it to a big still. There was however one issue, the favourite taste of spirit was 33% which left it outside the conventional rules of what can legally be defined as a gin. In the EU, core spirits such as gin, vodka, whisky, rum all need a minimum abv of 37.5% - these rules were created back when distilling methods were poorer as a way of ensuring a good quality spirit.
Technological advances have since allowed us to improve the way we distil spirits and so the argument is these rules are redundant. Interestingly enough, other continents and nations have rules that are a lot more forward thinking and allow for more innovation. Rather than follow the rules, we decided to break them in the name of taste. By shifting the goal posts we could be a lot more expressive and creative with our spirit and truly make a great tasting product that consumers loved.
What we found was that a lower abv opened up more of the flavours and performed better in taste tests. Alcohol carries spice very well and spice in turn helps exaggerate the alcohol, the outcome is an overpowering taste and heat that prevents other flavours from shining through. To overcome this unpleasant burn we were guided by our panels to remove many of the typical dry botanicals you find in gin and to also lower the abv.
33% was the most popular abv – at this level, the floral notes, lavender and elderflower shone through and the citrus notes (coriander, lemon and orange peels) also came to the fore. The result was a well rounded, great tasting product. Why stick to the rules when it tastes so much better to break them!?
The challenge we then faced was what to call it – we in theory had created a whole new category. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before, Captain Morgan for example is known as a ‘Spiced Rum’ but in theory, that category does not legally exist in the EU – if you look closely at the bottle it never alludes to rum at all and instead opts for the ‘jazzy’ title Premium Spirit Drink – not the most exciting. We wanted and needed a name that would explain what this new product was, but we also needed one that fitted in with the monster EU directives. So we settled on Juniper Distilled Spirit, gin lovers know Juniper is the main botanical in gin and so it allowed us to define what the product was without breaking the law!
So it was a long winded and challenging process creating Minus 33 – but hopefully you agree it was well worth it in order to create such a great tasting product.