It’s happened. It’s finally happened. Those maniacs…
I’ve been to tasting events for nearly every liquor under the sun, including some that weren’t strictly alcohol….one was a type of comb cleaner, I think….but what has been missing from my life – from the The Demon Gin herself – was a gin tasting.
If only there was some sort of massive gin tasting extravaganza, I mused, that I could lend my blogging skills to. Ha, wouldn’t it be grand to have some sort of event in a warehouse where various distillers hand out tasters of juniper goodness? Oh wouldn’t it be spiffing to wile away the hours, discussing the finer points of all manner okay you can see where I’m going with this.
And lo, God created Junipalooza.
Junipalooza was born from the minds of The Gin Foundry, an exemplary online compendium of all there is to know, and love about, gin. After years of being pestered to devise the ultimate drinks show, the team set about constructing Junipalooza as the UK’s biggest ever event dedicated to gin.
The aim was to get away from the bland, loveless drinks shows with trestle tables manned by people with, as they put it, ‘the joy and passion of a recently neutered cat’. In their own words: “Junipalooza has been designed to celebrate the continued rise of the gin category and the diversity now on offer.
“We are now in a position to produce an event that really stands out. Not the ‘it’s a one-of-a-kind show’ only to find those bloody trestle tables again – no. This will be an all-out event that takes drinks shows to somewhere they have never been before.”
That somewhere was Factory 7 in Shoreditch for one weekend in June.
Nothing quite divides people like gin. Except war. War divides people.
Most other spirits people can take or leave without fuss, but gin provokes an almost religious reaction in the drinker and non-drinker alike. I have offered many a friend a G&T, only for them to fix me with a wide-eyed fearful stare. “Oh no,” they whisper. “DON’T give me gin. You must NEVER give me gin.” I have other friends who, when a G&T is suggested, will salivate and screech “Gin! Yes oh yes oh yes, we must have ALL the gin!” …Mostly these friends are me.
Gin is in a botanical garden of its own. Juniper, coriander, angelica, pepper – it’s pungent in the nose and spicy on the tongue. It cannot be disguised with mixers like vodka or rum can; it is unashamedly strong stuff with flavours that will smash through any cloaking device. Yet a well crafted G&T is miracle of mixology. Two angry, overpowering flavours collide and become a holy haze of floral calm. A decent G&T is like the eye of a storm.
Given its potency, this is a spirit with ‘spirit’ and a little goes a long way to getting you drunk pretty damn fast. Luckily, gin and I have an understanding. That understanding is that I am Irish, and am therefore entitled to infinite ‘get out of gin free’ cards from birth. I can knock back G&Ts all night, and wake up hangover free. If I tried that with wine, I would literally sing you to death.
With such credentials to my name, there was no way I was missing a day dedicated to the drink of my forefathers.
I arrived in Shoreditch on a golden afternoon and located Factory 7, a warehouse down an oddly deserted alleyway*. I entered to see a stretching oasis of gin stalls, with merry folk weaving in and out of crates brimming with lavender and other botanicals as they sip, sample and savour.
It’s real, I breathe. It’s really real. A doorman asks me to get up and stop kissing the ground.
The premise was simple. Stretching over Saturday and Sunday from 12noon to 6pm, a total of 16 producers had more than 40 gins on display, with Fever Tree tonic water providing the mixers and two cocktail bars selling longer drinks for those in need. Masterclasses were also held at different points across the weekend for the gin geeks.
My ticket would allow me five free samples of gin from the stalls of my choice, and would be stamped to show how many freebies I’d gathered. Nearly all the distillers were small, independent businesses, which made for a truly excellent selection and some top notch banter.
Prime and pumped, I was quickly caught up in a crowd and found myself in front of Warner Edwards gin (WE), who proved to be one of the most impressive artisan producers of the day.
This number is the baby of best friends Tom Warner and Sion Edwards, who met at agricultural college and dreamed of setting up their own business from their family farms. Tom was on the stand that day, talking at breakneck speed, doling out gin and talking up his brand’s blend, pausing only to mop his brow and crack open more tonic.
It is a grand story of two best friends and true artisan spirit, well worth reading in depth on their website. Their distillery was set up three years ago in an old barn on Tom’s family farm in Harrington, Northamptonshire. Every bottle contains 56% natural spring water from the farm, and a recipe of botanicals created after many, many tasting sessions. Even the bottle’s design is a story in itself, painstakingly designed with nods to their English and Welsh heritage and the distillation process, and encompassing their motto is ‘United in Spirit’.
The end product is bold with three key ingredients being juniper, coriander and cardamom, but with plenty of orange and pepper in there too. Alone it is pretty powerful, but it is delicious in a G&T, knocking the supermarket staples I usually resign myself to clean out of the water.
I wandered on, noting how the setting and decor invoked the juxtaposition of the industrial nature of liquor production and the delicate botanicals that make gin the symphony that it is**.
The Boxer Gin stand was beautifully decadent and I felt obliged to call by as they had so kindly given me a ticket to the event. It was all tumbling velvet, bowls of lemons and grand pictures of old-fashioned boxing matches. Their rep explained that their particular mix of botanicals makes for a quite masculine gin, hence the Boxer moniker.
The gin itself is set apart, they claim, by their unique method of steam distilling the wild juniper berries (at source in the Himalaya) to extract their oils to capture its delicate flavour. The end mix includes bergamont, and it packs a punchy, bold taste in a G&T.
The most colourful stand of all belonged to Adnams (they had the sign proclaiming to serve the world’s best gin). Yes, Adnams, the makers of the beer. Now I love a nice pint of Ghost Ship as much as the next ale drinker, but to branch out into gin? Has the world gone MAD?!
Apparently not, because those bar stewards know how to make a damn good tipple. Their Copper House Distilled Gin is infused with 13 botanicals to make one of the smoothest drinks I tried that day. With notes of sweet orange peel, vanilla, liquorice root, thyme and cardamom, among others, it qualifies as a sipping gin. On it’s own, and with tonic, it was a winner. I can see it converting non-gin drinkers easily.
Several samples in and in need of a longer drink, I skipped to one of the cocktail bars.
Enter first charming barman.
On learning I was a blogger, the daringly dapper Dan insisted I join him behind the bar and mix up a couple of cocktails with him. Dan was as tipsy as I was at that stage as he talked at length about the intricacies of mixology, occasionally snapping his braces and insisting he didn’t dress like a c*** every day (his words). He actually forgot to tell me what he was doing during our chat, but I gathered lemon juice, gin, sugar syrup and soda happened.
Banter done and cocktail purchased, I crossed the floor and rested beside of the second cocktail bar to check my photos so far.
Enter second charming bar man.
Harry, from Greece, beckoned me over and slipped a cocktail across the bar. “I made this by mistake, you can have it – it has ale in it”. The man knew me so well.
Two cocktails now in hand, a lady appeared at my side and asked Harry if he could add a dash more pineappple juice to her cocktail as it was too strong for her and she was fighting a hangover. Then she turned to me and insisted I taste it to check she wasn’t going mad.
People literally wouldn’t stop giving me booze. This was the greatest day of my life.
Back to the tasting floor…
Good gin is an art form but there’s only so many ways you can sell, as I found at the next stall. The Langley’s server was entertaining but when he started extolling the virtues of using of good English copper stills instead of other brands’ German copper, everyone at the stall began to wet themselves over this apparent D-Day spirit. It’s good BRITISH gin, not that stuff of foreign devils!!! He quickly gave up and got back to topping up our glasses with a killer smile. Nice blend as well.
Among the more intriguing concoctions I tried was the Ferdinand’s Saar Dry Gin, which is infused with Riesling. I spent much of the experience with an eyebrow arched, muttering ‘ooooooookay, we’ll go along with this’, but it wasn’t half bad. Not quite…gin, in my opinion. But something pretty interesting nonetheless.
My journey almost complete, I stopped at the stall that had been calling to me since I arrived: Sipsmith Dry Gin. I’ve caught glimpses of this little number in numerous bars, but had never tried it. Always in the corner of my eye, it is, hidden on Waitrose shelves, tucked behind bars, its swan neck label shy and coy, willing me to stroke it.
Handcrafted in small batches, this distiller uses the ‘one shot’ method and takes great pride in its carefully considered process. I asked for a neat sip before adding my tonic.
Oh my. OH MY. This was my kind of gin.
The end result of their painstaking process is an incredibly smooth, floral taste that I adored. It was delicate when served neat, with no overpowering aroma, and gave way to a fresh citrus aftertaste. I snapped a bottle up there and then, planning the many martinis and G&Ts I’d make that evening.***
My last port of call was Dodd’s Gin, and this was a delight – they won the prize for the prettiest bottle (forgive my pictures, I’d had a LOT of gin at this stage). The stall was manned not by one of their staff, but by their first shareholder and biggest fan who was there purely to share his passion for the strong stuff. A lovely chap, he knew more about gin than possibly anyone else I’d spoken to that day, and was having a great time teaching us.
The gin was light but spicy, and absolutely spot on in a G&T. I will be visiting their distillery in Battersea in the future. Ohhhh don’t think I won’t, because I will. I may end up living there.
All too soon, it was time for me to depart. And by that stage, everyone at the Junipalooza was drunk. Seriously, we’d be drinking neat gin for two hours and a few splashes of tonic weren’t going to save us. In all, I must have tried about eight gins and two cocktails (it got to the stage where even the suppliers were getting so tipsy themselves that they just kept topping up my glass saying “ah who cares, you need to try this one”).
But it was happy drunk. Merry, in the finest sense of the word. No sitting on the stairs and crying here – everyone was chatting and swapping stories, laughing and sharing tasting notes. Luckily every gin I samples was worth the money – Sipsmith, WE, Dodd’s, Boxer and Adnams are worth finding and treasuring.
As I wandered home in the afternoon sunshine, swerving intermittently into traffic, I pondered what makes gin so splendid to those who love it. Is it the flavour? That unmistakable tang on your tongue, that juniper burst in your nose?
Nah. The thing about gin is that, when done right (not quaffed in pints while listening to Carole King at 3am wondering why the bastard didn’t notice your hair), it makes everyone so happy, and everything else so, so great.
Junipalooza was everything a proper drinks show should be, and all credit to Gin Foundry for bringing it into our lives.
Tickets were £20 pre ordered (with a limited early bird discount) or £30 on the door. I was extremely lucky to have won a Twitter competition the night before the launch, run by Boxer Gin, and scored a free ticket to the event. I will gladly pay to return the event next year.
*I found it after about five minutes of wandering worriedly around boarded up industrial buildings, suspecting I’d been led on a merry dance. When you actually hear yourself asking a stranger “do you know where the gin festival is? The internet said it would be here”, you realize how ludicrous your expedition sounds and resign yourself to the fact that you’re about to be bundled into a truck and sold into slavery.
**Three years of film & literature studies, right there.
***I didn’t make anything when I got home because after the festival, I called into Lady Dinah’s Cat Café (more on this in a later blog), and promptly left my gin there. Cats hypnotised me, okay?!