I came late to gin. Very late. In my early forties in fact.
For years and years (and years and years) I thought I didn’t like gin but it turns out I just don’t like tonic – or at least, not the big brand stuff that’s most prevalent. It wasn’t until I tried a Gin & Tonic made with one of the new generation of mixers that I had my revelation. I bloody love gin! And I like it even better neat – preferably chilled or served over ice.
I have a whopping twenty five ginless years to catch up on!
And catching up is exactly what I’ve been doing by going on a gin crusade to try as many brands of gin as I can. I’ve quickly come to favour many smaller brands – less focused on producing an appeal-to-the-masses product, they are more adventurous with the botanicals they use, their methods of production and even with their base spirit! In fact some of the bigger brands are now realising the appeal of more unusual flavours and producing some of their own small batch offerings.
Here, Pete and I share some of the great gins we’ve been tasting (and where you can find them). Please note that this post includes Amazon affiliate links.
Sacred Original, Christmas Pudding, Cardamom & Pink Grapefruit Gins
Sacred Gin are the very definition of a small batch craft gin brand. Made in their family home in Highgate (North London) by husband and wife team Ian and Hilary Whitney, Sacred is also our most local gin distillery! And I love the story behind the brand.
A keen gin enthusiast, Ian had long thought about creating his own London gin right in the heart of London and in 2008 he started experimenting. An interest in science lead him to turn traditional gin production on its head by using vacuum distillation rather than a traditional pot still. As vacuum distillation occurs at a much lower temperature (35-45°C) than pot distillation (85-95°C), the flavours from the distilled botanicals are much fresher and richer in flavour. Experimenting with different botanicals – some well known and others more obscure – Ian created recipe after recipe, which he shared with friends at a local pub. The enthusiasm for his 23rd experiment persuaded him that he’d found a winning recipe. Containing 12 botanicals including juniper, cardamom, nutmeg, it was the more unusual Boswellia Sacra (aka frankincense), that resulted in the distillery’s name. And it’s supplied by the Sultan of Oman, no less!
Ian continues to collect and experiment with unusual botanicals – such as buddleia, oak bark and lemon verbena – and has created a range of spirits including Spiced English Vermouth (made from English wine from Chapel Down in Kent plus 24 botanicals), Rosehip Cup (a fruity alternative to Campari) and Bottle-Aged Negroni.
However it’s the Sacred range of gins that interest us. As well as the original Sacred Gin (and an organic version), there are 7 additional gins focusing on a particular key botanical. So far we’ve tried the original Sacred Gin plus their, Cardamom Gin, Pink Grapefruit Gin and Orris Root Gin.
They also have a fantastic seasonal gin in the range that is absolutely perfect for Christmas – their Christmas Pudding Gin. This is not just a case of throwing in a few pudding ingredients, oh no! Ian makes a whopping 14 kilos of Christmas pudding (to his Great Aunt Nellie’s recipe) before macerated them with grain spirit and distilling them into a Christmas Pudding Gin. This is definitely the one to buy as an unusual Christmas gift for the gin lovers in your life.
Tasting Notes: Although we enjoyed all of the Sacred Gins we tasted, our favourite was definitely the Christmas Pudding Gin. From the moment you smell the enormously evocative Christmas pudding aroma, you know you are in for a treat. On the palate, Pete picked up sweet dried fruits and a touch of maltiness. For me it was a revelation to taste the pure flavours of Christmas pudding without any of the sweetness – I loved the brandy notes, dried fruits and nuts and a wonderful warm spiciness.
For cardamom lovers, the Cardamom gin offers a clean and very punchy hit of that most aromatic of spices. Pink Grapefruit provides a sweet and gentle citrus aroma and flavour, a mild juniper note and some peppery alcohol heat in the finish. Orris root is the choice for those who love their bitters – there’s an almost violet-like bitterness on the finish that works very well. The Original is also well worth trying – it has light citrus and lime on the nose and delicious fruitiness and juniper on the tongue. If you want to buy someone a gift set of gins from a single producer, this is a great choice though we wouldn’t say no to a bottle of their Christmas gin on its own!
Stockists: Buy from Sacred’s online shop. Also stocked by North Hill Food and Wine, Prohibition Wines in Fortis Green, and Gerry’s Wine and Spirits on Old Compton St in Soho.
Harrogate Tipple’s Harrogate Gin
Harrogate Tipple founder Steven Green launched his Harrogate Gin just last month, naming it for its use of Harrogate spring water, botanicals from RHS Harlow Carr in Harrogate and a wildflower honey also produced locally. The gin itself was developed by Tom Nichol (formerly the master distiller for Tanqueray, and the recipient of a lifetime award by The Gin Guild) and once all the permits come through, it will be made in an old smokehouse in the centre of Harrogate, lovingly restored by Steven and wife Sally, to create a home for their new distillery.
Donnie the otter, who declares the bottle to be ‘otterly delicious’ was chosen as the mascot for Harrogate Tipple because the Greens wanted to highlight the plight of this increasingly rare animal; they also donate 5 pence from the sale of every bottle to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, which encourages the growth of a healthy otter population by creating suitable habitats for them.
Tasting Notes: The inclusion of lavender and pink grapefruit in the botanicals gives Harrogate gin a lovely aroma which reminds Pete of breakfast grapefruit. It has a spiciness to the nose, and clear juniper aroma. On the palate I find it rich, sweet and herby and very smooth. We both note a lack of bitterness in the finish, making it an ideal gin for those who aren’t fond of bitter tipples.
Stockists: You can buy Harrogate Gin online here. For those living in or near Harrogate, you can also find the gin in Weetons.
Rocklands Colombo Seven
Like others below, Rockland’s Colombo Seven is a historical gin recipe revived, and I love the story behind it as much as the gin itself.
Back in the days of the British Raj, British Excise offers did not believe that a good quality London Gin could be produced outside of the UK. In Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), a young Asian distiller called Carl de Silva Wijeyeratne decided to prove them wrong. Having founded Rockland to produce arrak in 1924, he went ahead and developed a gin which was very well received. Indeed, new regulations were drafted to allow gin to be made in Ceylon for the first time, under the label of Ceylon Made Foreign Liquor.
During the second world war, it became difficult to obtain foreign-grown spices, so Carl created a new recipe focusing on ingredients that could be grown in Colombo’s Cinnamon Gardens with only juniper and angelica root brought in from overseas. However, once the war was over and trade routes reopened, this original recipe was abandoned for a return to a more traditional London dry gin.
Two years ago, Carl’s grandson Amal de Silva Wijeyeratne – the present day MD of Rockland – decided to revive that war time recipe as a new brand. Colombo Seven is that modern-day recreation of Carl’s uniquely Sri Lankan gin. The economy has made business in Sri Lanka very challenging in the last few decades, so this seems a lovely way to focus on past achievements and to celebrate his grandfather, mentor and greatest friend.
As the name suggests, Colombo Seven uses just seven botanicals; the primary four are juniper berries, coriander seed, angelica and liquorice root, with additional flavours from Sri Lankan cinnamon bark, curry leaves and ginger root. These last ingredients are what make the recipe uniquely Sri Lankan.
The label is decorated with a beautifully drawn gaja-singha – an ancient mythical beast with the head of an elephant to symbolise wisdom and the body of a lion to represent courage and strength. In the case of Colombo Seven, this echoes the wisdom of that original Ceylonese pioneer and his courage in using ingredients that were not the norm.
Tasting Notes: Both of us liked the wonderfully mellow and balanced aroma, nothing harsh, everything nicely melded together. On the palate Pete enjoyed lots of citrus and a pleasant fruitiness. For me I really liked the hint of cinnamon spice followed by a sweet and floral aftertaste. We both found this gin fabulously smooth making it a great choice for those who like their gin neat or on the rocks.
Stockists: You can buy Colombo Seven gin online from Amazon, Gin Box Shop, The Whisky Exchange, Master of Malt and others.
Masons Dry Yorkshire Gin
The first gin made in Yorkshire, Masons Dry Yorkshire Gin is a London Gin (distilled together with its botanicals). Like several in this gift guide, it has a lovely back story about how it came to be made.
A few years ago, Karl Mason sent his wife a message via Facebook asking her to have a G&T ready for him when he got home from work. In response to the post, other friends started sharing photos of themselves enjoying a G&T and thus a Facebook group was born – one which resonated with the wider public and had 10,000 followers within a year.
Before long, gin companies started to send Karl samples to promote to that audience. And he started to realise that many of the gins he was trying tasted the same. He wondered if he could create a new gin that tasted distinctly different from the rest. That question resulted in the development of Yorkshire’s first gin, launched on World Gin Day in 2013.
The Lavender Edition and the Tea Edition followed two years later, launched to coincide with Masons second birthday last June. For the first, Yorkshire-grown lavender is added to the classic Masons botanicals. For the second it’s Taylors of Harrogate’s finest loose leaf tea – I know at least one gin and tea lover for whom this would make the perfect gift!
Tasting Notes: All three Masons gins are bottled at 42% and a fiery kick of alcohol is evident in each one. The regular gin has a really wonderful complex aroma with citrus and juniper registering first, followed by warm sweet notes. On the palate we both pick up lots and lots of cardamom, sweet citrus, juniper and a peppery heat. In the tea gin, Pete finds it easier to pick out the aroma of a milky ‘builders tea’ than I do, and likewise on the palate, he detects the tannin of black tea. For both of us, the cardamom that’s front and forward in the regular gin comes through clearly in the tea version. The Lavender gin also has that cardamom aroma and flavour, joined by a lightly medicinal lavender that also brings some perfume aroma.
Stockists: Online you can buy 70cl bottles of all three Masons gins from Amazon, or both 70cl and 20cl from their website. They are also stocked by a range of stores, check their site for the full list.
55 Above Orange Gin
Alan Gilchrist launched 55 Above in 2014 with a range of small batch vodkas distilled in a copper pot but it wasn’t long before he branched out to make gin. The brand name is a reflection of Alan’s Scottish heritage and refers to Scotland’s latitude above 55° North.
When I tasted the Orange Gin, I was blown away by the zingy hit of citrus. Alan combines juniper and other classic botanicals with tangerine, Seville orange and lemon zests plus coriander, bay leaf, and macadamia nuts, to create this punchy gin. I like it on it’s own but it’s also a winner in a classic G&T and would work superbly in a range of cocktails.
Tasting Notes: Pete and I really pick out different smells for this one – for me it’s sugar and citrus whereas for him it’s pith and peel. On the palate, it’s a huge and enjoyable citrus hit – neither sweet nor bitter, it’s a clean smooth orange flavour. It’s lovely on its own but we think it’d be an absolute cracker for gin cocktails too.
Zymurgorium Manchester Gin
This one scores on taste, brand name and the story behind it – all three make me smile.
Several years ago, when founder Aaron Darke went to uni in Aberystwyth he decided to undertake that classic student hobby – homebrewing. Unlike most students, the first drink he made wasn’t a boring beer but a Gorse flower mead. The hobby quickly became an obsession and Arron experimented with cider, beer, wine, sake as well as more mead. Next came the art of distillation. At this point, his brother Callum and their father came onboard, helping to create a still made from a pressure cooker and some copper piping.
After graduating from university, Aaron continued to make spirits and established his brand name as Zymurgorium – a portmanteau of zymurgy (the scientific study of brewing and distilling) and emporium. In 2014, Aaron won a competition for new entrepeneurs run by the Carnegie UK trust, resulting in a grant of £10,000. This allowed the Darke brothers to take their business full time, since when they’ve created an ever-increasing portfolio of inventive and tasty drinks.
Their Original Manchester Gin is distilled from mead and takes additional flavour from over 20 botanicals including cardamom, ginger and bayleaf – earning it the nickname of the pilau rice gin! Indeed, it’s name reflects the concept of representing via the botanicals the wide culinary range of Manchester’s population. The bottle shape is based on a traditional genever bottle, glazed in black and adorned with a ‘retro-modern’ label.
Also worth trying are the range of gin liqueurs which are perfect for cocktails. The violet one is a must for lovers of Parma Violet sweets! For each one, a unique gin is distilled with its own blend of botanicals to balance with the headline flavour.
Tasting Notes: When we tasted this gin, neither of us had yet seen the reference to pilau rice, so it was quite a shock to given that my notes on the aroma of Manchester gin read ‘very punchy aromas, lots of spices, a hint of medicinal, kind of like pilau rice’! On the palate, that still holds true – the cardamom comes through clearly but the other spices are clearly present too – it’s a wonderfully rounded spice-heavy gin. For Pete, that cardamom makes it a less appealing choice, though he likes the almost menthol-like cooling effect on the tongue. Although the obvious suggestion is to pair this gin with Indian food, I suspect that would hide the amazing flavours. Try it neat over ice to appreciate the unusual flavour profile.
Gin Lane 1751 London Dry Gin
Another relative newcomer to the market, Gin Lane 1751 launched last summer – a collaboration between Charles Maxwell of Thames Distillers, and The Bloomsbury Club – a group of gin lovers and industry professionals. The brand is named to mark the Gin Act of 1751, which was somewhat motivated by reaction to artist William Hogarth’s depiction of Gin Lane, which painted gin as an addictive liquor drunk to excess by the working class. The act banned the sale of gin in prisons, workhouses and any shops selling everyday staples and thus gin became much harder to distribute and purchase. Ironically, this resulted in an increase in both price and quality, and by the Victorian era, gin was considered a respectable and desirable spirit.
Gin Lane 1751 offers four products, their classic London Dry (40% ABV), a London Dry Royal Strength (47% ABV), a rather pretty Victoria Pink Gin (40% ABV) and an Old Tom Gin (40% ABV).
The eight core botanicals are juniper, orris root, Seville orange, angelica, Sicilian lemon, star anise, cassia bark and coriander. The pink gin is infused with spiced bitters and the Old Tom with star anise and natural sugars.
Tasting Notes: The London Dry has far more aroma than many classic gins of the type. On the nose we both pick up a green leaf freshness, plus citrus (orange for me, lemon for Pete). The pine resin-like juniper comes through clearly too. The flavours are sweet and peppery to start with a lingering bitterness at the end. Pete picks up fleeting hints of satsuma and brown sugar sweetness at the start, replaced by a bitterness that comes through to the aftertaste. If you’re looking for a gin that has plenty of flavour, this is a good choice.
Brockmans Premium Gin
I love the Brockmans black glass bottle – yes I’m a sucker for packaging design. But of course, this gin delivers on taste too.
Brockmans combines many of the most commonly used botanicals with citrus and wild berries to give a fruitier flavour. They pride themselves on the quality of their ingredients, sourcing angelica from Belgium and Germany, bitter almonds from Spain, blueberries and blackberries from Northern Europe, cassia bark from Indo-China, citrus peels from Murcia and Valencia, coriander seed from Bulgaria, juniper from Italy, liquorice from China and orris root from Italy.
Tasting Notes: This is an unusual gin in both aroma and flavour. The nose talks to me of sunshine – sweet citrus fruits and the intense aroma of dried mango. For Pete, it’s all about blackcurrant Chewits (does everyone else remember those too?) and lots of sweet fruitiness. Both of us think immediately of blackcurrants when we taste it, almost cassis like but without any of the sugar or thickness of the blackcurrant liqueur. I particularly appreciate the lack of bitterness in this one. Pete admires how well balanced the flavour is. This one is a great all rounder – neat, with tonic or in cocktails.
Stockists: Online, you can find Brockmans on Amazon amongst other online retailers. They are also stocked by M&S, Harvey Nichols, Oddbins, Wine Rack and others.
Gin Nautilus via Portuguese Story
I was introduced to Gin Nautilus by Portuguese Story, a business that represents and distributes Portuguese drinks in the UK. Their mission is to change peoples’ perceptions about Portuguese produce by showcasing locally made, unique and high quality products. Gin Nautilus is produced in Evora, a historical town in the southern region of Alentejo, in an artisan distillery called Officina de Espiritos. Joao Malhero and his team make their gin using a sugar cane alcohol, mixing in thirteen botanicals before the third distillation – these include coriander seed, citrus peel, root of angelica, and juniper. But the one that stands out is sea lettuce, an edible algae that is high in protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals.
The algae gives this gin a uniquely marine aroma and flavour, one that is an absolutely perfect match to enjoy with fresh oysters.
Tasting Notes: This gin is divisive! Pete hates the ‘slimy pond weed’ aroma and taste. But I adore the refreshing sea brine smell, it makes me think of rock pools and sea breezes and fresh oysters eaten right by the docks. Interestingly, I find that salty seaweed aroma much more subtle on the palate, where the key flavours that come through are citrus and juniper. I would absolutely serve this with an iced seafood platter, and I can imagine it working well in cocktails too.
Gin Nao via Portuguese Story
Also distributed in the UK by Portuguese Story (see Gin Nautilus) is the unusual Nao Gin. A London Dry Gin distilled in a London distillery, the gin then spends 4 months ageing in old Porto wine barrels in Porto during which time it takes on a distinctive flavour and tinge of colour. The name comes from 15th century multi-masted sailing ships known in Portuguese as nau; these ships travelled around the globe in that grand era of trade and discovery.
Tasting Notes: This is the gin that is not like a gin! For me it smells like brandy. Pete picks out citrus peel and a faint woodiness. When it comes to the taste, I’m put in mind of yet another spirit – whisky this time – and richly oaked too. Pete – a big whisky fan – agrees. He likes the combination of an underlying fruitiness with the unusual woody finish. If you want to buy a surprising and unusual gift for a whisky or brandy lover, this would be a perfect choice.
It’s no secret how much the French love their wine, and by extension, the vines themselves. Made in the Cognac-producing region of South West France, Maison Villevert’s wonderfully unconventional G’Vine gins are made from grape spirit (rather than grain). The spirit is distilled from the Ugni Blanc grape – known best as the base for Cognac. To this ten botanicals are added including juniper berries, green cardamom, nutmeg, cassia, root ginger and the exclusive vine flower. This is quite a feat as the flower blossoms just once a year in mid-June, for just a few days before it begins to form into a grape berry. G’Vine pick the flowers as soon as they bloom to capture the evocative fragrance and flavour.
G’Vine Gin comes in two expressions – Floraison (flowering) and Nouaison (setting). The first captures the splendour of spring, the second is an altogether more intense and spicy spirit capturing the metamorphosis from flower to berry.
Tasting Notes: The smell of Floraison put us both in mind of a sweet shop. For Pete it was lemon sherbert, for me bubblegum! On the palate, that candy aspect came through, balanced by just a hint of bitterness and some alcohol heat. The Nouaison was completely different, a much more classic gin aroma of lemon and juniper and much the same in taste, with a gentle fruitiness also present. These two gins are a fascinating experiment, the first I’ve tried based on grape spirit and the Floraison in particular is a really unusual result. For those who want to move on from the classic and try something a little different.
Boxer Gin, created in 2013 by Mark Hill, is a classic London Dry Gin with a really punchy flavour. Wheat grain spirit is distilled in a 108 year old copper pot still with ten botanicals to create the core of the gin. This is then blended with distilled extract of Himalayan juniper berries (at source, to retain freshness of flavour), and cold-pressed citrus oil extracted from bergamot peel, to dial up the flavour.
The branding pays homage to 19th century boxer, Thomas King, also known as ‘The Fighting Sailor’. Thomas King was a sporting celebrity in gin’s golden era in the late 18th century, following the repeal of the Gin Act.
Tasting Notes: Although it’s only 40% this gin tastes stronger. The nose is classic lemon citrus, rather a lovely perfumey citrus. In the mouth, the citrus really explodes and the bergamot comes through clearly – and that hint of earl grey is just wonderful! It works beautifully against the other botanicals creating a very refreshing and punchy gin. We like this one neat but its also superb in a G&T.
Stockists: Available online from Amazon, the Whisky Exchange, Drinkshop and Master of Malt, and in stores including Selfridges.
The gins above are relatively recent launches, made by smaller producers, or producers that are not yet widely known.
Below are a few choices from some of the big guys, but which we think are worth seeking out. They are also more widely available in shops across the UK.
Whitley Neill, JJ Whitley London Dry Gin & Liverpool Gin
All three of the following gins are part of Halewood International’s portfolio, one of the UK’s leading drinks manufacturers and distributors.
Whitley Neill Gin is a unique recipe created by Johnny Neill, an eight generation descendant of Thomas Greenall, founder of Greenall’s Distillery back in 1762. Gin has always been part of his life, even before he was old enough to drink it! Keen to create his own gin, Johnny turned to his South African wife’s homeland for inspiration. There he experimented with over 25 uniquely African botanicals including the Protea flower, the hoodia cactus and various fynbos plants, but none of them gave the flavour profile he was looking for. He eventually found the perfect flavours in the cape gooseberry (also known as physalis) and the fruit of the baobob tree. Both, when distilled, create unique citrusy flavours that work beautifully in gin. The recipe was quickly perfected, and is now distilled in one of the UK’s oldest copper still pots, over a century in age.
J.J.Whitley London Dry Gin, on the other hand, is inspired by the British countryside and features eight classic botanicals including juniper, liquorice, coriander and sweet citrus peel.
Liverpool Gin is an organic gin blended with hand picked organic botanicals, a classic selection including juniper berries, corianders, angelica root and citrus fruit.
Tasting Notes: Whitley Neill first. This one has lots of citrus aroma and the juniper comes through too. The flavour is wonderfully rich, lots of fruit, a very nicely balanced sweetness and bitterness. I find it quite spicy too, though very smooth. For those who like gins with lots of flavour.
J.J.Whitley is a light and refreshing fin, a rather simple grapefruit and lemon aroma which comes through lightly on the palate but is overtaken by a strong juniper hit and bitterness in the finish.
Liverpool Gin is another gin that reminds us both of a sweet shop – sherbert, parma violets and lemon drops. I pick up cardamom too. That sweetness comes through in the mouth along with cardamom and other woody spices, citrus fruit zing and some unexpected floweriness. Definitely not your run of the mill gin, this has a lot of flavour and is a great all rounder.
Thomas Dakin Gin & Opihr Oriental Spiced Gin
Thomas Dakin is an absolutely classic London Dry named for ‘the forefather of English gin’, who created his first gin in 1761. It is distilled in small batches in a traditional copper pot still, a revival of a recipe handed down through generations of Dakins. The selection of botanicals and creation of the gin are overseen by Joanne Moore, the master distiller at G&J Greenall Distillers. The recipe’s eleven botanicals include English coriander, horse radish (known as red cole in Thomas Dakin’s time), orange peel, and a properly punchy hit of juniper.
G&J Greenall’s Opihr Oriental Spiced Gin is a London Dry Gin inspired by the ancient Spice Route along which merchants travelled long and slow, trading exotic spices and herbs from East to West. Botanicals include spicy cubeb berries from Indonesia, black pepper from India and coriander from Morocco. The name comes from a legendary region famed for its wealth and riches during the reign of King Solomon – its location is unknown but believed to be along the Spice Route.
Tasting Notes: The Thomas Dakin has a fabulous aroma! Lemon peel, a whack of punchy pine-resin juniper and some pleasing fruitiness, the smell positively races up out of the glass and floods your senses. It’s equally strong on the palate, with a medicinal savouriness that no doubt comes from the horse radish.
As its name implies, Opihr is one for the spice lovers amongst you. I really like the cardamom-heavy blend of spices that come through on both nose and palate but for Pete the cardamom is overwhelming. Like some of the other cardamom-heavy choices in our guide, this one would work beautifully in cocktails as the cardamom should still come through, along with black pepper and citrus.
Kavey Eats received product samples of some of the gins included in the guide, after initially discovering most of them at specialist food and drinks events. Not all gins sent for tasting made it into the guide, as they did not meet our criteria or taste preferences. Amazon links are affiliate links; please see my sidebar for more information.