Irish Gin: Great Expectations for a Growing Number of Producers
Irish gin has become remarkably fashionable recently and seems to be on everyone’s lips. Using our nearest neighbour for a glimpse into the future, last year over forty new craft distilleries opened, while Ireland has half that amount in the process of being developed.
Although whiskey is the long-term aim for production, good whiskey takes years of aging to be at its most mellow and interesting. In the interim, producing Irish gin and vodka are popular spirits to support cash flow as a commercial reality. In Britain, last year’s sales of gin in the on-trade’s pubs, bars and restaurants surpassed £1 billion for the very first time.
Gin, a Social Spirit who Likes to Mix
My own interest in gin was piqued over a casual breakfast conversation with Desmond Payne, Master Distiller of Beefeater Gin when we met at Ballymaloe House during LitFest 2015. Desmond is related to the Allens and is no stranger to Ireland.
I was curious to know what a distiller looked for when choosing botanicals to create aromatic gin. Desmond explained that first he seeks to identify the top note flavours after the juniper which is an essential botanical ingredient for all gins. “Are they citrus-led with bitter orange peel and marmalade; herbal-led with rosemary and thyme or are the flavours more floral or spicy?” Desmond steeps nine botanicals, what he calls his “family of flavours” in a neutral spirit for twenty-four hours. This allows the flavours to marry together before fixing in by distilling in the traditional copper pot still.
“But more important than the number of ingredients is the balance of flavours when combined. Gin should create interest and excitement. What I make is not what people taste. People don’t drink gin neat; it is mixed in cocktails and with tonic water. Versatility is the challenge – to work successfully with a wide variety of drinks because not all gins work well with all cocktails.”
“However, because gin is made for mixing with tonic and cocktails, internationally the cocktail revival is linked directly with the gin renaissance. While top-end premium gin is growing, the mid-range is not. For instance, in Spain there are 300 brands of gin and 50 different tonics. It must be very challenging for the barman and begs the question, how can they all survive? Quality lasts.”
The Bar is Set High for Irish Gin
Internationally acclaimed and award winning Irish whiskies have primed the spirits world to expect premium quality Irish gin also. I had several opportunities last summer to explore the many Irish gin offerings and to meet their distillers, sometimes in unlikely places – exhibited at Bloom in Dublin’s Phoenix Park and Taste of Dublin in Iveagh Gardens and at the more obvious autumn Irish Gin Festival.
The first Irish distillery owner I met was the late and great visionary, Oliver Hughes, founder of the Porterhouse craft beer pubs in Dublin, London and New York and in 2012, the Dingle Distillery in Co. Kerry. When Oliver introduced me to his Dingle Gin, he explained that it was produced initially as a Christmas item for sale locally while his whiskies were maturing. But the demand grew so unexpectedly and dramatically that gin was now in full production followed by Dingle Vodka.
The enamel miniature on the bottle is a replica of a painting that hangs in his bar in New York. Oliver had commissioned a young artist from Dingle some years earlier to create a painting that was an expression of Dingle, a much loved holiday retreat for Oliver and his family. The artist called her painting “The Spirit of Dingle” and it played a key part years later in Oliver’s choice of Dingle as the location for his new distillery. The Dingle Distillery is one of several Irish distilleries who produce additional seasonal gins using local botanicals.
At Bloom I met Peter Mulryan, Director at Blackwater Distillery which opened in 2015 in Waterford. Peter introduced me to his range of gins, including a Strawberry infused pink gin specially created for the summer. Peter explained that: “Blackwater is not just a brand. We are a distillery. Nothing is automated. We judge things by hand, eye, touch and taste. And we’re very, very pernickety.” This personal touch even applies to the traditional copper pot still, her name is Sally. Peter produces a range of award winning gins including the yellow tinted Juniper Cask Gin, reviewed below.
Ireland’s first distillery to open in Connaught in a hundred years was in Drumshambo, Co Leitrim. Their Gunpowder Gin was launched in late 2015. Its creator is P.J. Rigney, the highly experienced man behind successfully exported Irish drinks brands Sheridan’s Irish Cream Liqueur and Boru Vodka. The addition of oriental spices and green tea gives Drumshambo Gunpowder Irish gin a character as distinct as its bottle.
Another eyebrow raiser gin is Bertha’s Revenge, named after a Kerry cow, Big Bertha made famous by the Guinness Book of Records for living to almost 49 years and giving birth to 39 calves. Justin Green and Antony Jackson formally established the Ballyvolane House Spirits Company in May 2015 “having scratched heads, studied tea-leaves and consulted with wives for almost a year.”
Ballyvolane House’s fertile farm in Co Cork has an established reputation for its food and a field-to-fork philosophy. That is reflected in their grass-to-glass approach for their gin. Ballyvolane literally translates from Gaelic as ‘the place of the leaping heifers’. Produced from the local dairy farmers’ whey, this milk derived gin adds to Ireland’s diverse offerings.
Thin Gin, rather than a promise of any slimming properties is a name inspired by an amorous New Yorker in the decadent 1920s, Isaac Thin. Mr Thin was liberal in his love for married ladies and fled to Waterford to escape several husbands. Made in Knockanore, Co. Waterford by Blackwater Irish Spirits, it was Awarded Best Irish Gin at the Irish Whiskey Awards 2015.
One of Ireland’s newest gins, Bonac 24 Gin is made by a father and son and named after a place in New York where young Gavin Clifford worked. The 24 refers to the 24th sample that was to be the formula for the gin today. The eleven botanicals – angelica root, cassia, coriander, star anise, cardamom, cucumber, spearmint, pear, lemon, bergamot and curacao are distilled into the neutral spirit in a still from one of the oldest still manufacturers in the world.
Because gin requires no aging to improve it is perfect for the impatient. Here are some samples of exceptional Irish gins. Sláinte.
Dingle Original Pot Still Gin
Dingle Distillery – 42.5% ABV
€34.99-€36.30 70cl widely available including Celtic Whiskey Shop, Dawson Street and nationwide at O’Brien’s, SuperValu and Dunnes Stores
Awarded the “Best London Dry Gin” category of gins at the World Gin Awards 2016 in London. This gin captures the essence of local botanicals fuchsia, heather and bog myrtle with an Earl Grey tea, orange and coriander seeds top note.
No. 5 Small Batch Irish Gin
Blackwater Distillery – Cappoquin 41.5% ABV
€30-€34 50cl at O’Brien’s Wine. Celtic Whiskey Shop, Drinkstore, Donnybrook Fair. Bradley’s, The Number 21 Group, Next Door Clonakilty. Eldon’s Clonmel, Shannon Knights and Corcoran’s New Ross
Voted Ireland’s Best Spirit, winning the ultimate Platinum Award at the Irish Quality Food and Drink Awards 2016. Fragrant with orange and juniper scents with intense spicy and earthy flavours finishing smooth and mellow.
Bertha’s Revenge Irish Milk Gin, Small Batch No. 26
Ballyvolane House Spirits, Castlelyons – 42% ABV
€49.99 70cl at Dunnes Stores nationwide; Eldon, Clonmel; Matson’s, Bandon and Grange; Number 21, Listowel; The Wine Centre, Kilkenny; Worldwide Wines, Waterford. In Dublin: Blackrock Cellar and Redmond’s
The milk gives a tasty melted butter character from the whey and is contrasted by a friendly attack of citrus fruit flavours.
Thin Gin, Irish Dry Gin
Blackwater Irish Spirits, Knockanore (Anchor Spirits Ireland) – 40% ABV
€36 70cl widely available including Celtic Whiskey Shop; selected SuperValus and O’Donovan’s, Cork citywide
Assertive scents of lemon and quinine fragrance.
The citrus theme continues on the taste buds and finishes with a lemon zesty aftertaste.
Drumshambo Gunpowder Irish Gin
The Shed Distillery, Co Leitrim – 43% ABV
€38 50 cl at O’Connor’s Salthill Liquor Store, Seven ‘til Late, Shannon Knights and No. 21 Off-licences Group – €49 for 70 cl at O’Brien’s Wine
The first distillery to open in Connaught in a hundred years. Very distinct, with the unusual smokiness due to the smoky gunpowder tea which is just one of twelve botanicals including some oriental spices cardamom, star anise and caraway seeds. The smokiness plays a supportive role to the juniper and orange note of the coriander seed.
Juniper Cask Gin
Blackwater Distillery, Cappoquin – 46% ABV
€45 at O’Brien’s Wines nationwide. In Dublin: Baggot Street Wines and Gibney’s Malahide. In Cork: 1601 Kinsale, O’Donovan’s Group and Matson’s Bandon & Grange. The Wine Centre Kilkenny, Spar Dungarvan, Greenacres Wexford, and Ardkeen World Wide Wines
Recently winner of Gold at the Global Gin Masters in London. Pale yellow in colour with a peppery and a spicy vanilla character from the oak casks complemented by clove warmth on the finish. A whiskey drinker’s gin.
Bonac 24 Gin
Newtownmountkennedy, Co. Wicklow – 42% ABV
€45-€47 at O’Brien’s nationwide, and Celtic Whiskey Shop in store and on-line, Dawson Street. Full list of stockists on bonac24.com
Smooth with the juniper signature note supported by a citrus, spice and minty refreshing finish.
Poacher’s Premium Irish Tonic Water, Orange and Rosemary
€1.15-€1.75 200ml O’Brien’s nationwide. In Cork: Bradley’s, 1601 and O’Donovan’s Little Island. Next Door Wicklow and Clonakilty; Number 21 Group; McCambridge’s, Galway; Daly’s, Boyle and Next Door, Myles Creek. In Dublin: McCabe’s, Martin’s, Searson’s, Donnybrook Fair, Baggot Street Wines and The Drinkstore
One of our own and with classic quinine aromas with highlights of orange zest on the entry and a savoury herbal finish.
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.