How gin made the headlines

10 July, 2017

When I first arrived here I was the whisky man who was making gin as a sideline,” says Daniel Szor, founder and owner of the Cotswolds Distillery, which lies close to Banbury in the no-man’s land between the west, the south and the middle of England.

“Now I am the gin maker, who is also making whisky.”

Szor is at the epicentre of a craft distilling phenomenon that has swept across the world and, in the case of gin, has taken root across England in particular. Szor will bottle his first whisky in the autumn, when it reaches three years old. And in those three years gin has undergone a major transformation.

No longer is it made with vodka to keep the accountants at bay as a whisky distillery waits for its malt spirit to mature. It has had a total image makeover, and in England has caught the imagination of drinkers who somewhat dodgily claim it as their own, and are increasingly putting it on its own pedestal. They are rewriting history and overlooking the drink’s somewhat sordid past as ‘liquid heroin’ from the Victorian era.

The aim seems to be to give England a gin choice as exciting and varied as single malt whisky is in Scotland. Certainly there’s a buzz about gin. I was discussing doing a gin tasting with the licensee of a local pub recently, and by the end of our chat four women had asked to sign up.

There is now clear water between vodka and craft gin. Where once both were considered stop-gap spirits best consumed when heavily doused with another, more powerful ingredient, this is no longer the case with gin. I have spoken to some vodka bars about this, and the general non-scientific view is that if a customer asks for a vodka and cranberry, they will be offered one made with the cheapest, highest-margin vodka and they will be happy.

But if they ask for a gin and tonic, they will be asked what gin and, increasingly, what tonic. That’s a step up the quality ladder right there. It’s not all plain sailing for gin just yet. There are plenty of people who think the market is saturated. I’m not so sure – if you keep it small and local, there’s still sufficient interest to carve out a minor business. There are image issues to sort out, too. Some distillers push their drink in fancy bottles, while others stay plain and traditional.

Some keep the botanicals to a minimum and focus on juniper, others bury the juniper in a drink made up of 30 or more botanicals. Some look backwards and draw a link to gin recipes hundreds of years old, made in some of England’s oldest distilleries, others make a virtue of the fact that they are the first distillery ever to operate in their region.

There are aged gins, sweet Old Tom-style gins and flavoured gins. Some even make a naval comparison and bottle at Navy strength as some rums do. It’s a complex picture. So how long before a future Daniel Szor gives up the attempt to be a whisky man and settles for being a gin man instead? Only time, quite literally, will tell.

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