A few months ago, on a night out with friends in London, I came across Seagrams Extra Dry Gin. We found a bar with half a dozen gins and the Seagrams was one of them; after a couple of distinctly lack-lustre G&Ts we tried it and were blown away.
I try not to judge a gin after a night out on the town, so I had to get hold of a bottle to try in the comfort of my own home.
Seagrams is the top selling gin in the USA and while this gives it some credence, Gordon’s is the top-seller in the UK and this left me a little underwhelmed.
Seagrams gin is distilled using a ‘unique’ low temperature vacuum distillation process; details of this are scant and the word ‘unique’ is likely a matter of perspective (Oxley and Sacred spring readily to mind). It is also aged, or rested, for three months in charred oak barrels, which gives it its faint straw-yellow colour and mellows the flavours somewhat.
The botanicals listed on the Seagrams site we are…
- Angelica Root
The bottle is rather unique in that it is covered in little lumps and bobbles and the sides are indented, giving it a good grip in the hand. The cap is a metal screw-cap, but for the price, you can’t have it all.
At around £15 per bottle, this is a reasonably-priced gin and I understand it is cheaper still in the US.
Opening the bottle and giving it a sniff reveals all the right smells, but it lacks character; there is juniper at the fore, but only just.
Sampled neat, and with a dash of water, Seagrams is fairly smooth but it lacks spice. There are plenty of sweet, earthy elements from the angelica root and a faint tingle of citrus to back the juniper, but to my mind, it needs more spice. There is a sweet-creaminess to this gin that almost borders on coconut. The juniper is to the fore, but not really dominant.
In a G&T, Seagrams is a little lost; it is pleasant enough, but considering that Brecon Gin is only £2 more and makes a much better G&T, I am not sure it is worth it. With a dash of orange and cardamom bitters, it livens the G&T up a lot, but I am looking for something to stand well on its own.
As far as fairly neutral, generic gins are concerned, it is pretty good and will make a good versatile addition to the drinks cupboard; you should be able to mix it with most things and it generate some safe but unexciting results.
This experience is a far cry from how I remember it that night out in London, and this is why I like to quaff and review in the comfort of home. It could be that Seagrams works very well with Schweppes tonic water, which the pub had and I didn’t, it could just be that we were approaching a level of inebriation that makes anything seem rather appealing.
As for why it is the best-selling gin in the US, it is cheap and isn’t bad. I would be happy to see this as a house gin in the UK rather than Gordon’s. Beefeater probably has the edge though.
Having started experimenting with martinis, I thought I should invest in a proper martini glass.
Now, a martini needs to be cold, and it needs to stay cold, but I am a fairly slow drinker. So, having a look around I found what looked to be the ideal solution; the Libbey Martini Chiller.
With no stem, making it harder to break, and an ice bowl for the glass to sit in, this seemed like the ideal choice. It also goes in the dishwasher, which is an “absolute must” in our house.
At first, I was a little worried that this is more gimmick than useful glassware, but having quaffed a few martinis in this glass now, I am a convert. I have found that putting a combination of ice and water in the bowl keeps the drink cooler. I should imagine crushed ice would work well too, but I haven’t got around to trying this.
After a good long session on various martinis, drinks toward the end of the evening were taking up to an hour to go down, and the last sip was as cool as the first. Very nice. Drinking from the glass is a pleasing blend of drinking from a martini glass and a bowl (I like drinking bowls) and, while it could be my ego filling in the gaps, it felt somewhat sophisticated. Okay, okay, it is just a glass, let’s not go over the top.
The only real downside is that the bowl attracts a great deal of condensation and you need an absorbent pad for it to sit on. I ruined a cheap coaster by leaving the bowl on it overnight with ice and water in. The condensation pooled on the coaster (and under it), soaking in to it and causing it to swell.
Still, quirky drawbacks aside, I am pretty pleased with this.
On Friday the 5th August, I had the pleasure and privilge of attending the Gin in Camden event hosted by Ian Hart, co-founder of Sacred Spirits. It being near my Mother’s birthday, I dragged her along too, as she is also a great appreciator of gin.
On arrival we were greeted with the site of Ian chilling martini glasses with liqud nitrogen. Shortly after, we were presented with a dry martini comprising of Sacred Gin and home-made vermouth (not yet on sale). I tried some of the neat Sacred Gin as well, but my palette was already swimming with martini, so other than it being very obviously smooth and warming, I wasn’t best placed to think about it in any depth.
A short amount of mingling and some rather tasty nibbles later, we were seated at tables and the fun began.
Ian obviously has an incredible passion for creating gin and this comes across in the slightly nervous, yet terribly enthusiastic presentation of each botanical. Individual botanicals in Sacred gin are distilled separately and these distilates are then blended to create Sacred Gin; the theory being that certain elements of the chemical makeup of each flavour can inhibit, or absorb, elements of other flavours. By distilling the botanicals separately, there is no interference between them and the whole flavour of each can shine through unadultered.
Also, Sacred Gin is distilled under partial vaccum and only heated to 35-40OC; this prevents the botanicals from cooking and preserves the flavours as we would expect from raw ingredients. The is epsecially true of citrus flavours which can develop a “marmalady” flavour though heating.
Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself. Below is a list of the individual distilates sampled and my notes on each.
The very foundation of gin and the flavour that everyone recognises as gin. Or do they? Apparently, much of what people assume to be juniper is a combination of flavours from other botanicals. It turns out I am no different.
Juniper on its own was pine-fresh and slightly soapy in taste. Very nice, but a far cry from what I assumed it to be. It was very recognisable as the core of gin, but it really bought home how important the other botanicals are.
I expected this to taste, well, like citrus I suppose. Again I was wrong; it was nothing like I expected. There were hints of what you might expect when sniffing and orange or a lemon, but the overall taste was a warm and slightly spicy flavour with quite sweet overtones. I quickly realised that this is one of those components I had assumed was all part of the juniper.
This was a very subtle distilate with sweet, slightly earthy qualities. There was a vague hint of crystalised angelica but a stronger hint of something akin to sasparilla.
According to Ian, this is one othe stand-out flavours of Gordon’s gin. Drinking this was like inhaling from a freshly opened bag of coriander seed; it captures the essesnce of the whole spice perfectly. Spicy and refreshing with strong hints or orange and a vague aftertaste of liquorice or aniseed.
Green Cardmom Pods
With my experimentations into cardamom bitters recently, I was looking forward to this and it didn’t disapoint. Like coriander, the cardamom distilate prefectly captured the essence of the whole spice – a truly divine drink that I would consider drinking neat.
Apparently used extensively in Old Tom gins, this botanical adds sweetness the the overall gin, and like all roots, provides and earthy fixative quality. Ian mentioned that some people find this licorice sweet and others don’t; well, I fell into the “don’t camp”. Tasting it was like the very first whiff of licorice after biting on a licorice root, before your saliva has got into it and worked out the bulk of the flavour. It has a faint reminicence of Baileys about it – not what I was expecting.
I love pink grapefruit and this distilate didn’t deliver to my expectations (which isn’t to say my expectations weren’t utterly wrong).
The distillate had a faint scent of grapefruit about it but the taste was very neutral. It left my tongue tingling, just like eating grapefruit, but the flavour was very, very mild and had a harsh quality to it.
Another root, I was expecting “earthy”, but beyond this, had little expectation. Ian said that it reminds him of Parma Violets, but I could detect nothing along those lines. Its aroma reminded me a little of methylated spirit and the flavour was slippery and indistinct – it was a definite and recognisable component of gin, but I can’t really describe it in words.
Star anise is a great flavour, but a very powerful one. We were warned, that if we were going to use this in our final blended gin, that only a drop of two were needed otherwise it runs the risk of completely overpowering the other flavours.
This distilate just sits in the mouth screaming “STAR ANISE” at top volume and the echoes of it still reverberate long after swallowing. I would consider buying this as a stand-alone drink.
Another spice, I was expecting this to be more like the coriander and cardamom – i.e., a pure rendition of the whole spice. I was surprised by its subtlty and delicacy. It had a slightly vegetative flavour and was surprisingly sweet.
Like nutmeg, this was another whole spice that didn’t taste as expected.It was nothing like the cassia bark I use in cookery, but was a very mild, sweet and creamy flavour with a slight peppery quality. Ian was surprised by this as his perception of this distillate is that it is exactly like the whole spice; now, maybe my tastebuds had been deadened to the specifics of this distillate by the barrage of flavours leading to this point, but there was something amiss.
One of the things that became obvious during this whole distillate tasting experience was the wildly differing taste perceptions of everyone around the room. Each distillate bought out a barrage of differing, and often conflicting, opinion from the attendees.
Now that we had tasted the individual distillates, it was time to start mixing them to produce our own concoctions.
I like gins with a hefty load of juniper, so the starting point was a big pile of Juniper distillate. Then citrus; I went with the mixed citrus rather than the pink grapefruit.
This made what was obviously the foundation of gin. It was simple and fresh but lacked the complexity and smoothed roundness that one expects from a gin.
Adding Orris & Angelica grounded the gin with a greater depth of earthy flavours and rounded the gin out a bit.
Adding a little dash of Cardamom freshened the gin, lifting the flavours with bright notes.
Next came Cassia, which added a warm, spicy note and calmed the gin down a little.
A little dash of Licorice sweetened the gin and smoothed it some more. This was a surprise as I didn’t find the licorice to be sweet on its own.
The neat gin was getting quite sweet and earthy at this point; still very nice but it needed a little pick-up, so I dropped a little more citrus into the mix, which lifted the fresher elements, particularly the cardamom.
I was very happy with the end-result of this mixing experiment and drinking this neat was a pleasure. But it was now time to add some Fever-Tree tonic water.
We were supplied with Fever-Tree Naturally Light tonic water, which has a subtler flavour then the normal variety, and has less inherent sweetness. This should allow more of the gin to shine through in the finished G&T, but the result was that the gin was a bit lost in the final drink.
Time to remedy this – I added another slug of juniper; this brought the gin into the fore of the drink and lifted it, making it sweeter (another surprise) and fresher.
We then, on Ian’s recommendation, floated a little Cardamom on the surface of the G&T. This filled the nose with cardamom on approach and gave an initial cardamom-heavy blast, much like adding some Cardamom and Saffron bitters to a G&T, but it only lasted for a few sips. This gave the drink layers (like an onion, or parfait – everybody love parfait) and an interesting depth.
All-in-all, this was a fantastic experience. I learned a lot about the various botanical flavours and how they combine in the finished product. To recreate this kind of experience at home would cost a small fortune though, as we tried each of the eleven botanicals that make up Sacred’s Open Sauce ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ gin making kits. At £87.50 per kit though, this would set you back a whopping £175. Many of the individual distillates would last an age, but the juniper would probably need replacing several times before you finish any other bottle.
I wanted to buy a bottle of Sacred Gin on the night, to take home to sample at my leisure, but there weren’t any; a missed opportunity in my opinion, but there may have been licensing issues that prevented this.
If this sort of experience gets repeated, either at Made in Camden or elsewhere, I would heartily recommend it. It was very educational and gave me a very different perspective on gin. A great night.
I have been resisting buying a bottle of creme de violette for quite a while. As I noted in my write-up of arsenic and old lace, I didn’t want to splash out on a bottle of liqueur that I might not like.
The answer? Make a close approximation, on the cheap, in my own kitchen.
There is little on the internet about making creme de violette in the home, so I decided to make it up. There seems to be nobody selling freeze-dried violet petals in the UK (not that Google knows about anyway), so I had to improvise. The traditional ingredients of a liqueur are alcohol, sugar and your flavouring of choice; these latter two can be combined using either crystallised violet petals (typically used for cake and confectionary decoration) or parma violets. The success of either will rely heavily on how much sugar there is to flavour, but who will know until I try?
So, I ordered both from ebay, with a view of chucking them straight into vodka to make my very own, quick-and-dirty, creme de violette.
The first to arrive was the crystallised violet petals; armed with these and a 20cl bottle of vodka, I started making things up. I bought 100g of the crystallised petals, but thought I had better take it easy – better too little than too much, you can always add more. I added 25g of the crystallised violets to the vodka and shook.
Within seconds, I had something that looked like meths (methylated spirits). Within 30 minutes, all of the sugar had dissolved and there were naked petals floating around in an intensely purple liquid. I thought the sugar would have taken up much of the flavour, so I poured the mix through a coffee filter and sampled.
What can I say? I am glad I stopped at 25g. The flavour is distinctly violet and while sweet, isn’t as cloying as I thought it might be. Given that I haven’t watered this down, this is pretty much a 40% ABV liqueur – more like sweet violet vodka. This is going to add a punch to cocktails. I have never tried proper creme de violette neat, so I have no idea how this compares.
So, in less than an hour (including popping out to the shops for the vodka) I had some creme de violette; it was obviously time to mix up a few drinks and kick back for the evening.
First up was the Blue Moon
2 ounces gin
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz crème de violette
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker over ice. Shake (I stirred) and strain into a cocktail glass.
This is an incredible dark-blue colour – the sort of colour the sky goes during the early stages of pre-dawn when the night has only just begun to lighten. The lemon and violet balance very well and, while floral, the drink has a deep and sincere bite. Very drinkable.
Second was the…
1 3/4 oz Gin
1/2 oz St Germain Elderflower Liqueur
1/2 oz Creme de Violette
Soda (fill glass)
The method was lacking from this one, but it looked like a “chuck it all in a glass over ice” type of drink.
This maintained the rich blue colour but it was very washed out; an intriguing looking drink at least. In hindsight I would have added less soda and more gin, but nevertheless it was a clear, refreshing drink that had the barest hint of alcohol. The elderflower and violet were gentle, delicate accents to the soda water. Pleasing, but don’t waste your best gin on it.
I am not sure about the label “belmont”. There seems to be many sources that list the belmont as gin, raspberry syrup and cream (sounds interesting too). Others use creme de yvette rather than creme de violette.
Third was the…
1 1/2 oz Gin
1 oz St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
1/2 oz Lemon juice
2 dash Crème de Violette
Twist of lemon peel to garnish
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker over ice. Stir and strain into a cocktail glass.
This was a delightful sea-blue colour with hints of green about it. It was a rather sweet and intense drink and may not appeal to many, but it has a rather surprising after-bite that leaves me wanting more. Not one for the seeker of delicate drinks.
2 oz gin
1 oz Lillet Blanc
1 teaspoon crème de violette
2 dashes orange bitters
lemon twist as garnish
Stir over ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Add the garnish.
Now this hit the spot. A beautiful pale sea-green, the addition of Lillet Blanc and orange bitters really made this drink come alive. Delicate and complex with a cracking mix of citrus and floral with neither dominating. It is basically a vermouth-heavy martini with a splash of violet.
So, there we have it. For relatively little investment, I had an evening on the creme de violette cocktails. When the homemade hooch runs dry, I might even invest in a production bottle.