From cool Scandinavia to the Mediterranean coast, European gin distilleries are popping up all over the place. Clinton Cawood joins a panel of juniper-loving bartenders as they embark on a grand tour of the new arrivals
There’s a lot of love for all things juniper in Europe – the thirst for gin in Spain, for example, is the stuff of legend. But it’s only in recent years that we’ve started to see gin production ramp up in the area.
There are a few European gin stalwarts in Germany and France, but we’ve started to see a lot more Spanish offerings reach our shores, as well as a growing number from countries further afield, such as Finland and Norway.
Unsurprisingly, these new gin distillers aren’t generally making traditional London dry styles; instead they are pushing the category’s boundaries in exciting new ways. But how do they differ? How far are these new distillers willing to stray from the classic juniper-forward flavour profiles of the past? And, more to the point, are they any good?
We called in a selection, from established European players to fresh-off-the-boat new entrants to the UK, and put them in front of a tasting panel of top bartenders.
Pierre-Marie Bisson, Milk & Honey; Clinton Cawood, Imbibe;
Tomasso Cicala, Plateau; Ben Clark, Nola; Robb Collins, London Cocktail Club Goodge St; Esther Medina-Cuesta, The World; Nick Unsworth, Graphic;
Fabio Innovilli, Samarkand; Davide Staffieri, Mr Fogg’s
80 Monkey 47, Germany: Top Scorer
Don’t be fooled by its diminutive bottle... This Black Forest gin was large and in charge at this tasting, with its 47 botanicals and 47% abv. Tasters saw past Monkey 47's price point to heap praise on this complex and balanced spirit, finding it worthy of first place.
Vibrant citrus notes kicked things off here, alongside some punchy peppery, coriander-seed notes, and a touch of lavender. The palate for this was soft at first, with a touch of liquorice sweetness, leading to green cardamom. More spice followed, along with a return of that citrus character, and more floral notes too.
There were lots of recommendations for how to make use of this refined gin. More than one taster specifically recommended it for G&Ts, while another thought this was well suited 'for the bold Martini drinker'. A Gimlet or Army & Navy were also mentioned in dispatches.
47% abv, £41.99/50cl, Pernod Ricard UK, 020 8538 4484
79 Audemus Pink Pepper Gin, France: Best Non-Traditional
An Australian, in Cognac, producing gin. It’s a crazy old world out there, but fortunately for us, this unlikely combination of elements results in some excellent spirits, as our panel confirmed.
Fresh and peppery from the outset, there was no doubt about the presence of the headline botanical in this gin, with one describing the nose as a spice market, and another envisioning a riverside scene in the summertime.
That abundant pink pepper took a back seat on the palate, with some sweeter notes coming to the fore – an oriental, sweet-and-spice character, as one taster put it – as well as some cocoa notes. ‘Almost like the Chanel No5 of gins,’ gushed one panellist.
With not a single G&T or Martini recommendation in sight, this non-traditional gin was a candidate for a twist on a Daisy, or in a Martinez or Last Word, according to our tasters.
44% abv, £40/70cl, Enotria&Coe, 020 8961 5161
78 Hernö, Sweden: Best for Martinis
Hernö founder Jon Hillgren has been producing his highly regarded range of gins in the High Coast area of Sweden since 2011. The flagship spirit incorporates eight botanicals, including Swedish lingonberries and meadowsweet from the UK.
This opened with some relatively traditional aromas, from distinct juniper to bright, peppery, citrus notes. One taster also picked up something they described as ‘funky Nordic bakery spice and toffee’. The palate, meanwhile, was described as fresh and precise, with a herbal lemon balm note, and some balanced sweetness, leading to a big hit of juniper on the finish. That juniper note, as well as its excellent balance of citrus and gentle sweetness, made this a strong candidate for a classic Martini.
40.5% abv, £35/50cl, YC Group, 07971 154 497
78 Rutte Celery, Netherlands
A contemporary gin from a long-established distillery, Rutte’s Celery Gin opened with vibrant, sweet lemon and some green spice, such as cardamom and lemongrass, not to mention some well-integrated juniper character.
The celery made its appearance on the palate, manifesting as an appealing savoury, saline note, contrasting well with a sweet, butterscotch element – a bit like salted caramel. This was all lifted by plenty of citrus and a good whack of juniper. ‘A 21st century gin – and good value for money,’ summarised one taster.
The presence of celery on the label might make you reach for the Bloody Mary mix, but our panel unanimously recommended this for a Martini.
43% abv, £37/70cl, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367
76 Kimerud, Norway: Best for G&Ts
With its long list of 22 botanicals and high abv, Norwegian gin Kimerud was punchy, and praised for its fresh and spicy nose, with pepper, coriander and a touch of anise in evidence. This was lifted by a touch of lemon and lavender too.
The palate was distinguished by a straightforward, traditional citrus character, along with some more sweet floral notes, as well as a green element adding some complexity. Tasters also identified some liquorice and orange, blending well with some distinct juniper notes. The combination made for an excellent gin for G&Ts.
47% abv, £39.85/70cl, Green Island Rum, 020 8881 8686
75 Vidda Tørr, Norway
Vidda Tørr offers a taste of the Norwegian countryside, with an abundance of local botanicals, such as meadowsweet and heather flower. On the nose, this manifested as a generous medicinal and herbaceous aroma, with no shortage of juniper too.
A sweet nuttiness followed on the palate, joined by some interesting floral aromas, as well as an appealing savoury note, lifted by some sweet citrus flavours and rounded out with more distinct juniper. The consensus among our panel was that this would make for an interesting Martini.
43% abv, £39.95/70cl, Number One Drinks Company, 01603 327233
74 Kyrö Napue, Finland
Finland’s entrant inspired our panel to describe forest scenes, with herbal and botanical tasting notes in abundance. Lime and grapefruit aromas kept things light and fresh, along with some sweet mint notes too, and an even sweeter toffee and butterscotch note.
When it came to the palate, this was warming and well balanced, and quite traditional. A savoury element was present too, as well as a bracing juniper and coriander finish, inspiring more than one Martini recommendation, while one taster wanted to see this in a Martinez.
46.3% abv, £34.95/50cl, Number One Drinks Company, 01603 327233
72 Le Gin de Christian Drouin, France
Drouin might be known for calvados, but that distillation know-how has been applied to this gin with great effect. Cider from 30 different types of apple is distilled to produce the base spirit for Le Gin, which then contains a total of eight botanicals. There’s rose, almond, ginger and vanilla, for example, but it was the apple that our tasters identified first.
There was some additional spiciness on the nose, including a distinct anise note, which carried through to the palate. Also joined by some black pepper and more apple notes. Not traditional in any way – and likened by one taster to a rhum agricole – but this was a gin that more than one taster thought would make an interesting G&T.
42% abv, £36/70cl, New Generation McKinley, 020 7928 7300
69 Copperhead, Belgium
Tasters were impressed with the complex, expressive nose on this one, describing plenty of citrus notes, abundant pine and juniper, lemongrass and some floral notes too. There was a good hit of green tea and some liquorice too, which also came through on the palate. More spice became evident on the intense palate too, along with some grapefruit notes, leading to a warming, dry finish.
A candidate for a characterful G&T, although one panellist thought this would do good service in a Last Word too. This particular gin would have scored higher were it not for its price, according to our panel.
40% abv, £39/50cl, 10 Degrees C, 01442 863661
64 Gin Mare, Spain
Gin Mare lived up to its reputation and botanical mix, with its thyme, basil and olive components shining through clearly on the nose. Our panel described a complex mix of herbs and sweet spice, such as liquorice and cinnamon, as well as a salty element, leading one taster, appropriately, to think of the seaside.
On the palate, this was ‘a game changer’, according to one taster, who described an abundance of spice, citrus and juniper, as well as some mustard seed. The savoury character from the nose was dialled back, replaced by a richer mix of flavours, lifted by some piney juniper notes. Perfect for a G&T.
42.7% abv, £39.50/70cl, Cask Liquid Marketing, 07944 835 356
64 Sharish, Portugal
Portugal’s representative was full of interesting aromas, from fennel seed to complex citrus fruit, and ultimately quite light and elegant. The creamy, gentle palate proved to be more fruity, with mandarin and passion fruit joining some liquorice notes, black pepper on the finish, along with a gentian-like bitterness too. That abundant citrus made this a good choice for a Collins-style drink, according to one panellist.
40% abv, £37.49/50cl, Hammonds of Knutsford, 01565 872872
63 Santamania, Spain
There was plenty going on in this Madrid-based gin, with tasters describing green, peppery notes, as well as abundant earthy spice, plus a good hit of juniper and pine.
Its detractors thought it didn’t quite distinguish itself enough in this company, while its proponents gushed about its versatility, rich mouthfeel, and overall interesting personality. Some thought this was a Negroni gin, while others saw its potential for Martinis.
41% abv, £33/70cl, Gin Foundry, email@example.com
60 Nordés, Spain
This unusual Galician offering divided our panel, with some tasters entirely perplexed by some fruity confectionary notes, like boiled sweets, strawberry candy and cherry lollipops, which were joined by some lifted citrus notes.
The palate saw the addition of some blackcurrant and menthol. For many, this was too sweet and fruity to comfortably sit within the gin category, but others praised a complex spirit that bridged the gap between London dry and old tom. Maybe not a replacement for the traditional gin in your bar, but an interesting additional offering for customers who are looking for something different to try.
40% abv, £39/70cl, 10 Degrees C, 01442 863661
58 Malfy, Italy
Unsurprisingly for a gin made in Turin, and with lemons from both Sicily and the Amalfi coast, there was ‘an explosion of citrus’ here. After that bright and fresh nose, the palate moved into candied-lemon territory, along with gooseberry and meringue. An interesting spirit, likened by one taster to unsweetened limoncello, but perhaps marked down by our panel for lacking in juniper character. That said, some thought this would do good service in a Martinez.
41% abv, £28/70cl, Drinksology, 02890 339955
Also tasted: Berliner, Germany
Many thanks to the team at Mr Fogg’s Gin Parlour for hosting the tasting and for all of their help on the day.
This line-up was proof, if any were needed, that there’s little that’s traditional going on in gin outside of the category’s heartland in the UK. Further afield, distillers are testing the very definitions of gin, sometimes to great effect.
Gin has the benefit of having a broad range of established cocktails associated with it, so there’s a lot to work with when coming up with appropriate serves for these spirits. While many would work in classic Martinis and G&Ts, others were more suited to other classic gin cocktails.
Our tasters, on the whole, preferred those gins coming from Nordic countries, with Sweden, Norway and Finland all scoring highly. But it was Germany that took top spot, and with a relatively established product too.
The Nordic gins in particular seemed to have their own style, with local botanicals giving the gins a generally herbal, pine-forest style.
Higher-strength generally meant higher scores, although these often came with higher prices too. In many instances, though, our tasters were willing to accept a price premium for the best gins here.
Pierre-Marie Bisson, Milk & Honey
‘Overall, there was less focus on juniper here, but that allows distillers to focus on other flavour profiles. This works for me at Milk & Honey, where I want to respect what went before, but also make something different. Price-wise, I think £40 for 50cl is probably the upper limit.’
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘You weren’t going to find a replacement for your house pour here, given the premium price-points and non-traditional styles on offer. But there was plenty to offer the increasingly gin-curious consumer out there, with the majority offering a distinct flavour profile and some interesting opportunities when it comes to mixing.’
Tomasso Cicala, Plateau
‘There was a wide range in this tasting, covering all of the faces of the gin category – and some outstanding products too! The average for the selection was high, although there were some that were overpriced. On the whole, though, I felt there was a move towards more versatility. Having flavours like fennel seed and caraway gives you different things to play around with.’
Ben Clark, NOLA
‘What a mixed bag. An interesting bag! My preference might be for more juniper-heavy styles than we saw here, but I can see a place for these, because of how cocktail-led our industry is. That variety makes these really suitable for mixing. Where some people might draw a blank with some traditional gins, they might find pink peppercorn in one of these, for example.
Robb Collins, London Cocktail Club Goodge St
‘There were some very unusual gins here. They’re trying to create their own profile, but sometimes trying too hard! In some cases, these would need to be used in a specific drink, rather than classics like a Martini or G&T. It’s nice to have some options beyond traditional styles, but I also can’t imagine having an extensive range of these.’
Esther Medina-Cuesta, The World
‘There was real variety, and great innovation, with a great range of flavour. There’s definitely a trend away from the traditional style. It makes this an exciting category. That said, some of these might have forgotten what gin is about. As for price, I thought there was good value for money here, overall.’
Nick Unsworth, Graphic
‘Country of origin doesn’t really come into play when selling these to customers. A couple of years ago it might’ve been a big selling point. “Wow, a gin from Germany!” Now it’s not that big a deal. Stylistically, we’re going away from the traditional here, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It keeps things interesting.’
Fabio Innovilli, Samarkand
‘This was a very interesting journey of flavour, with some old- and some new-style gins. From a London dry point of view, you want something classic and well balanced, and some here might have
gone too far away from that. Others were good though, and you’d want to keep to simple cocktails to allow the gin to express itself.’
Davide Staffieri, Mr Fogg’s
‘There’s a definite move from classic to flavoured gins, and a lot of guests are asking for that. They’ll try a classic, then move to something with raspberry, or an aged gin. This is never a bad
thing – we have to progress and do something special.’