Tamara is plump and round, sits on a pile of bricks and is hot. 78.1C hot to be precise. She is essentially a bulbous copper pot with a lid, otherwise known as a ‘still’ in the gin business. And there isn’t much it would seem, that Tarquin Leadbetter doesn’t know about craft gin.
Based just outside Padstow, the South Western Distillery produces not only gin, but pastis, much loved by bearded French men. It took 18 months of individually distilling ingredients to develop what Tarquin refers to as a “memory bank” from which he could develop his signature gin. He describes the process as “just like making perfume.”
Tarquin’s gin contains 12 different botanicals (herbs, fruits, spices) including violets from his own family garden in Devon and where traditional gin makers use dried citrus fruits, he insists on fresh to give a “brighter” flavour.
These are then macerated overnight in the ‘still’ in a wheat spirit which acts as a neutral base or what Tarquin describes as his “blank canvas.”. The still is heated using ‘direct fire’, a method usually only reserved for cognac.
The resulting vapour is then forced into a condenser – a series of pipes sitting in cold water – and drips out at about 79 – 80% proof. As the alcohol is vaporised, so are the essential oils from the ingredients which evaporate at different boiling points.
Subsequently the scent flavour changes throughout the ‘run’ and only 80% of the condensed alcohol is used. The ‘heads’ and the ‘tails’ are discarded and the middle 80% or the ‘heart’ of the ‘run’, with the best balance of citrus, spice and floral flavours, becomes gin.
The liquid settles in a steel drum mixed with 42% mineral water (from a farm just up the road) and rests in the drums for between 3- 7 days. Each batch makes about 220 bottles which are then hand-labelled and wax-dipped to create a strikingly unusual seal. And each bottle has hand-written character notes, as every batch is slightly different from the last.
The result is classy and smooth and like the best gins, can be drunk straight.
Tasting notes: bright juniper with hints of orange blossom infused with Devon violets.
What I didn’t know about commercially-made gin:
- There are about 3 multinational companies who produce between them about 50 different brands of gin from the well-known to the quirky eg pink gin.
- The BIG difference between what Tarquin produces and the big boys produce is that craft gin is all about the copper. Macerating, heating and distilling in copper means that sulphites are stripped out from the alcohol, giving a smoother texture.
- Shockingly – the big boys ‘water’ down their gin. Large commercial outfits will make a super strong concentrate (not unlike the concept of a tea bag) using large amounts of botanicals to which cheaper, unflavoured gin is then added. This means one ‘run’ can produce tens of thousands of bottles and also explains why a lot of gin tastes so ‘rough’.
- In America, the culture of craft or artisan spirits is widespread. Tarquin believes that we are about 10 years behind in the UK and that just as we have local ales and ciders, so we will begin to a growth in the market for locally-produced spirits – rums, gins and brandies.