Everyone needs a hobby. Unlike some politicians I don't make model buses out of old wine box-thingies. I prefer gin. Drinking it with tonic, mixing it into martinis or visiting the distilleries where it is made and meeting fellow gin-enthusiasts. We are fortunate to be living through an unparalleled era of gin excellence. So good is British gin these days that the term Ginaissance has been coined.
Gin has had an chequered history. From being a cheap way to obliterate harsh reality in the eighteenth century, it became the go-to spirit for sundowners during the British Empire. At the beginning of the twentieth century it inspired the most sophisticated cocktail ever invented – the martini – but became a rather a staid tipple in the dull years after World War II. In those days G&T (gin and tonic) invariably meant Gordon's gin, Schweppes tonic water and a single ice cube. Gin and It (Italian Vermouth) was an alternative, a popular but sweeter version of the American martini. And the martini itself became literally diluted by the James Bond-inspired fashion for “shaken not stirred”, which just made the cocktail unpleasantly watery.
The time was increasingly ready for a gin renaissance. Thank goodness Bombay Sapphire came along in the 1980s to prove that it was worth making the flavour of gin a more complex affair.
Nowadays Bombay's 10 botanicals is quite a modest tally. Look at the London Dry Gins now made all round the world and not only hold their own against Bombay Sapphire, but have excelled for in complexity.
And my goodness do we, as a nation enjoy drinking our national spirit these days. In 2016 – known in the booze trade as The Year of Gin - 40 new distilleries opened in Britain. That year it was estimated that British drinkers alone had bought 40 million bottles. That's enough for every adult member of the British population to have made 28 gin and tonics, more than one a week per head of population. Comparable figures do not exist for 2019 but it's almost definite that gin consumption is still on the increase.
No wonder so many artisanal distillers have sprung up producing relatively small batches of high-quality gin in premises that are often enjoyable to visit. Here are ten that welcome visitors – though you may need to book in advance. Each has a very individual tale to tell. No two gins are the same; neither are the distilleries.
What a heavenly and always welcome taste! “Driven by juniper” the makers say but then all gins are by definition a celebration of juniper. This gin is sweet and aromatic with refreshing citrus overtones. The ten botanicals that revolutionised gin-drinking in Britain are etched on to its famous blue bottle.
It is possible that British gin would have become an important drink worldwide without the inspiration of Bombay Sapphire but this complex spirit led the way in 1987. IDV was the British company who decided to create a new gin that was flavoured with almond, lemon peel, liquorice, orris root, angelica - my goodness what else? - coriander, cassia, cubeb, grains of paradise and (of course) juniper berries.
Not only did their new gin have a much more exciting taste, but it was marketed in a flat-sided, pale-blue bottle bearing a picture of Queen Victoria. Bombay Sapphire both harkened back to the days of empire but also gave the impression – to a generation coming fresh to gin-drinking – that this tasty, intoxicating liquor was actually blue in colour.
In 2014 Bombay Sapphire opened a new visitor centre at Laverstoke Mill in Hampshire on the site of Portal's Paper Mill. Here Portal's had for many years – amongst other endeavours – manufactured the paper for Indian rupee notes. The site gifted Bombay Sapphire a visibly Victorian heritage that matched the queen's portrait on its bottle and gin production was transferred here soon after. The large spacious site frees up the visitor centre to indulge in design flourishes around the site, including two glasshouses growing representative plants that provide Bombay Sapphire's botanicals.
While there are many full-time distilleries in Britain that welcome guests, Bombay Sapphire remains the one you have to see. Once you've paid homage to greatness, you can go on to all the others. There are more idiosyncratic gins out there, there are better gins out there but if all racehorses can trace back their ancestry to one Arab stallion so all good British gins today can be said to owe a debt to Bombay Sapphire.
Laverstoke Mill, London Rd, Whitchurch RG28 7NR
01256 890090, Bombay Sapphire Distillery
TOURS & TASTINGS FROM £16
GARNISH GUIDE: Try this gin with orange peel
HANDY HOTEL: The splendid, eighteenth century Oakley Hall Hotel is five miles along the B3400 from Bombay Sapphire.
Just six botanicals including hibiscus flowers and orange peel make Adnams' Copper House a floral gin that is gentle enough to be drunk neat as well as slipping very nicely into a G&T.
Adnams in Southwold was founded as a brewery – not a distillery - in 1872 by two Suffolk brothers, but the craft of brewing had been taking place on this coastal site since 1396 when one Johanna de Corby was recorded as making beer nearby.
As a major UK brewer Adnams produced regular cask ales, seasonal ales, bottled beers and ciders, but in 2010 the company successfully challenged an old law that prevented brewers from having a distillery on the same premises. So the firm's new Copper House Distillery was created to make gin, whisky and vodka from the same locally-sourced ingredients – barley, rye, wheat and oats – that go into Adnams beers. Moreover clever modern technology also meant that the company's new, towering energy-efficient still could generate enough hot water and steam to service the brewery.
Adnams runs daily tours that explain how spirits are distilled. These cost £20 and last one and a half hours. When they take you to the top of the building you get to see some of the best views in Southwold, right across its red rooftops to the Lighthouse and North Sea beyond. Best of all though is the opportunity to make your own gin, selecting botanicals to add to the essential juniper, which you then infuse into Adnams own vodka via a small basic still. And hey presto! A handy chart is available to help you decide if you want your gin to be floral, spicy, herbal, sweet, bitter or fruity. For a total cost of £95 you even get to design your own label and take the bottle away with you for drinking.
Apart from its Copper House Gin Adnams also produces First Rate Gin, Rising Sun Gin, Fishers Gin and several flavoured gins. Take time to visit them all in the Adnams shop in Draymans Square.This sells a lot more than beers and spirits and has become one of the major attractions of Southwold.
Adnams Tours & Experiences Centre, Market Place, Southwold IP18 6EG 01502 725612, cellarandkitchen.adnams.co.uk
TOURS & TASTINGS FROM £20
GARNISH GUIDE: Try the Copper House Gin with orange peel
HANDY HOTEL: Set in gracious grounds, Kesgrave Hall is located 30 miles inland from Adnams.
Cotswolds(Shipston on Stour)
Definite notes of coriander and angelica at the first sip of this light and floral gin followed - of course- the omnipresent juniper, the god of gin.
The Cotswolds Distillery was set up in 2014 by Dan Szor, a New Yorker who had made a small fortune in the City of London and wanted to create whisky from all those barley fields surrounding his Cotswold home. This lovely gin with its hints of lavender could be considered an afterthought on Dan's part except that - as with so many new whisky distilleries- the production of gin was a very early part of the planning. Gin provides a quick turn-around on investment because – unlike whisky -it can be released on to the market almost immediately.
The Cotswolds Distillery is located in amongst rolling fields, 16 miles south of Stratford upon Avon. It's in a new building created out of the local golden stone and richly seasoned wood, and looks like a beautifully-designed barn conversion. There is a shop and café, and a lovely tasting room with sofas that inculcate the feel of the country cottage of a very wealthy friend whom you're visiting for the weekend. No expense has been spared. Upstairs are two rooms, one for whisky and one for gin where visitors can blend their own gin or whisky at a cost of £100pp.
Visitors can also visit where the gin is produced in an adjoining building. Here they can watch Cotswold's 500-litre hybrid pot and column still at work. This beauty was made by Arnold Holstein GmbH of Markdorf, Germany. It's a name that recurs often if you visit distilleries. Every good gin distillery has its own bespoke still that they have usually designed them themselves. More often than not they've been built – at huge expense - by Arnold Holstein.
The Cotswolds Distillery receives 15,000 visitors a year and in 2016 won Best Distillery Tour in the Distillery Experience Awards. Their London Dry Gin itself has won a number of awards, including World's Best London at the 2016 World Gin Awards and gold medals at both the Berlin and San Francisco World Spirits Competitions.
Cotswolds Single Malt Whisky is now available in three forms including Lord Mayor's Single Reserve which was blended for the 691st Lord Mayor of London, Peter Estlin who has been a keen supporter of the Cotswolds Distillery.
Phillip's Field, Whichford, Shipston-on-Stour CV36 5HG, 01608 238533, cotswoldsdistillery.com
TOURS & TASTINGS FROM £15
GARNISH GUIDE: Try this gin with pink grapefruit and bayleaf
HANDY HOTEL: The George in Shipston on Stour is a former coaching inn four miles north of Cotswolds Distillery.
This piney, resinous gin has an immediately recognisable taste. It's led by lots of juniper and citrus and eschews some of the more exotic botanicals you get in young British gins at the moment. The makers like to feel it represents the fields around Oxford so there are hints of meadowsweet and angelica seed too.
TOAD is a big Oxford success story in a city that has quite a few successes to its name. Based in an old farm at the top of Headington Hill, The Oxford Artisanal Distillery overlooks the city and will soon have a beautiful new visitor centre that will make it a major attraction in its own right (providing visitors can make it up that hill).
TOAD is also self-consciously eccentric. Its two stills, named Nautilus and Nemo, were designed by the master distiller himself to have a steampunk aesthetic like something out of Jules Verne, as well as to produce excellent gin and vodka. They were welded together by an English firm that usually builds steam-powered railway engines (no Arnold Holstein GmbH of Markdorf for Mr Toad).
Toad himself, as if drawn by Ernest Shephard, appears on the Oxford Dry Gin and Oxford Rye Vodka labels in a boater and college blazer, cocktail glass in hand. Most eccentric of all - even by British artisanal standards – TOAD produces its own neat alcohol for the stills by using grains sourced by an archaeo-botanist who has recreated medieval crops in fields within Oxfordshire. It's not the most cost-effective way of producing gin, but TOAD is proud of doing things differently.
As well as the Oxford Dry Gin the company also produces Physic Gin in a squat eighteenth-century bottle, the flavour inspired by Oxford's Botanic Garden– the oldest in Britain – and an Ashmolean Gin – made for the world-famous museum – that is sold in a tall Art Deco-style bottle.
The Old Depot, Cheney Lane, Oxford OX3 7QJ, 01865 767918 www.spiritoftoad.com
TOURS & TASTINGS FROM £20
GARNISH GUIDE: TOAD likes to think its gin goes well with any garnish and any tonic.
HANDY HOTEL: The exquisite Vanbrugh Town House is four miles downhill from TOAD in the centre of Oxford.
“Very distinctive. Hints of Mediterranean pine forests with the inclusion of hibiscus, Italian oranges and lemons, and there's French rosemary in there amongst the eleven botanicals”.
This new distillery in the charming Yorkshire town of Malton is based in an old stable block of the Talbot Hotel that is now known as Talbot Yard Food Court. Matt Edwards, a local fireman set up his Chinese-manufactured still here in 2017 with wife Elizabeth. Together they experimented with 29 different distillations before finding the one gin they wanted to market. Then they went through five different bottle designs before settling on No 6, a distinctive dark blue sugarloaf shape– echoing Spain's Gin Mare bottle – which has helped quickly establish this fine northern gin.
The still itself is named Florence (after the city where this Med-loving couple have often vacationed). Florence can turn out 300 litres (350 bottles) per batch. Matt's believes that people want to experience something “unique and artisanal” at a distillery so there is a sense of theatre when he is on site. There is also a ‘Gin School' upstairs in the stableblock. Here eight visitors at a time can select their botanicals to create their own 70cl bottle of gin.
Matt was inspired to create his own distillery after visiting City of London Gin off Fleet Street in London (see below). He likened that inspirational distillery tour to a visit to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.
‘Mediterranean inspired - but Yorkshire at heart' is his motto.
The Stable Block, Talbot Yard, Malton YO17 7FT, 01653 609288, www. rarebirddistillery.co.uk
TOURS & TASTINGS: ADMISSION £85 for the Gin School. Tuition includes making your own gin using a miniature copper still, your own bespoke 70cl bottle to take home and complimentary Gin & Tonics throughout.
GARNISH GUIDE: Lemon, Pink Grapefruit or Blood Orange will help the Rare Bird go down nicely.
VERY HANDY HOTEL: One of Malton's finest hotels, The Talbot is directly opposite Rare Bird Distillery.
“Smooth and citrussy with a tiny hint of spice. Later on hints of cardamom come through”.
In 2014 the first gin distilled in Edinburgh for 150 years launched its London Dry Gin. This distillation was based on an old Indian recipe that was written down in Bombay in 1947 and given to Marcus Pickering's father. Today its details are on display in the distillery. The gin has nine botanicals; juniper, coriander, cardamom, fennel, anise, angelica, lemon peel, lime peel and cloves.
Pickering's Gin was the brainchild of Marcus Pickering and his business partner Matthew Gammell. The two sank a lot of their own money into creating their perfect gin. “If you are not satisfied with something and can't get something you want on the shelves, you should make it yourself,” says Pickering. “We've been working together now for 12 years and gin was another one of these things we want to just make ourselves”.
Pickering's gin is distilled multiple times, the whole process from neat spirit to saleable gin taking more than two weeks. But there is a touch of irreverence too. The visitor centre in Summerhall features a copper pipe running directly to the bar for quality gin allegedly “on tap”.
Summerhall Distillery, Edinburgh EH9 1PL
0131 290 2901, pickeringsgin.com
TOURS & TASTINGS FROM £10: Gin Jollies (Thursdays- Sundays) last an hour and include 15 minutes of gin tasting.
GARNISH GUIDE: Drink Pickering's Gin or Pickering's 1947 Gin with pink grapefruit
HANDY HOTEL: Nira Caledonia is a stylish boutique hotel 3 miles away in Edinburgh's neoclassical New Town.
“Definite hints of liquorice and lemon. There are hops and elderflower in there too. And Bramley apples?
This wonderful oddity with its blatant use of Union Jack imagery was launched in 2012 and uses Chase's own Vodka as its base.
Its creation was inspired in 2008 when William Chase, the owner and founder of Tyrrells crisps, founded a distillery at Rosemaund Farm, Herefordhsire to the farm's potato crop into vodka. And as everyone knows it's only a small distillation step from vodka to gin.
Chase Williams Gin is made from with 11 botanicals, including juniper, coriander seeds, liquorice, lemon and orange peels, hops, elderflower and bramley apples. The bottle is a splendid dark green in hue and like all Chase GB products there's always a Union Jack logo or bowtie in there somewhere.
Chase Distillery, Chase Farm, Preston Wynne, Hereford HR1 3PG,
01432 820455, chasedistillery.co.uk
TOURS & TASTINGS FROM £25 (includes a £10 redeemable voucher for the shop). No tours on Mondays.
GARNISH GUIDE: Drink Chase GB Gin with a slice of ginger.
HANDY HOTEL: The Castle Hotel, Hereford is a conversion of two Regency town houses 8 miles from Chase Distillery.
Fresh and dry and yet fruity with hints of lemon balm, City of London's Square Mile Gin works equally well in martinis and G&Ts.
In a basement by St Bride's Church, just off Fleet Street, lurks the only distillery producing London Dry Gin actually within the City of London. It's an anomaly of this business that nowadays “London Dry Gin” is manufactured all over the world, but hardly any of it is made in the city whose name it bears. This comes down to the fact that in the eighteenth century “London Dry Gin” became the designation given to a way of making gin that was both unsweetened and that did not add any flavouring after distillation.
In those days the old City of London was full of distilleries but nowadays even those gins that are distilled in London (like Beefeater, Sipsmith and Portobello) are not based anywhere near the square mile that is the original City of London. A few years ago a group of gin enthusiasts decided that this situation needed rectification. They rented a basement close to the journalists' church of St Bride's and brought in two German stills named Clarissa and Jennifer (after TV's Fat Ladies), before installing a third still called Elizabeth over three years ago. Today if you descend the long flight of stairs next to the coat of arms of the City of London, you'll enter what feels like a speakeasy with the two fat ladies working their magic behind a glass screen. In 2015, the company released their fourth and fifth gins, Old Tom and Christopher Wren, and have since realeased three more: Six Bells, Murican Orange, and Rhubarb and Rose. The company's eight gins in their distinctive bottles (modelled on the dome of St Paul's Cathedral) line the bar and can be bought over the counter.
22-24 Bride Lane, London EC4Y 8DT, 020 7936 3636, www.cityoflondondistillery.com
TOURS AND TASTINGS FROM £25 (The tour is followed by a 3-flight gin tasting. Ticket includes a voucher for £5-off any bottle purchased)
GARNISH GUIDE: Drink Square Mile Gin lemon wheel would be our garnish suggestion here, but a wedge of pink grapefruit also works well).
HANDY HOTEL: The East End's wonderful Old Ship Inn in Hackney is 4 miles to the east of City of London Distillery.