“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





19 April 2017


photo©Philip White 

Mother's ruin or botanical paradise?

You take an alcohol, right, ethanol, that you've made by fermentation. You could have made it from nearly anything sugary. Beet, wheat, potatoes, barley, lilac, plums ... you name it: somebody's made booze from it.

Bacchus only knows how many mistakes you made managing that fermentation: there's a whole writing and publishing industry grown up around a perceived need for experts to tell those who ferment grapes, just for example, whether they've done it well or not. This is after the fermenters have actually completed a university degree to guarantee their expertise in managing this process, which is as old as evolution or the Devil; whoever came first.

You then take a still, right, to concentrate that alcohol you made, however imperfectly. In fact, there are many makers who'll take much less care over their initial ethanol manufacture because they see the still as a purging or disguising tool that will sort any troubles out. 

This is where seriously good still wranglers begin to lose interest in the conversation: they know that the still, as a concentrator, will concentrate faults as much as make the good bits stronger. They also  know the finesse required to make an accurate cut of heads - the bad-tasting, poisonous distillate first to emerge from the condensing coil once you get your pot boiling - and the clean ethanol centre cut, which you can drink. The decision must be made again towards the end of the procedure, as the pure ethanol begins to run out and you get the poisonous, bad-tasting tails emergent. 

Borderline poisons can be made to taste good: Anyone who can remember the hangover left by the Quelltaler Clare Valley Wyatt Earp Vintage Port 1947 will attest to the poisoning power of taily spirit. 

That delicious bastard left a welt that stung for days. 

It took about six years of utter skullsplitters, but we drank it all. 

The gin-crazed girl commits suicide ... George Cruikshank 1792 -1878

Ethanol is a strong drug, right? Too much can kill you. Imperfect can kill you. It has long been the dealers' role to train you to drink as much as you can without getting too sick or dying. This sort of job has been known to draw the unscrupulous operative; the type who'll take as many short cuts as possible with their initial brew or ferment, and then do it again with their distilling: ensuring not a drop of bordlerline heads nor tails is wasted. All in the shareholders' interest. 

To get a proper strength of distillate, this whole process is repeated through the second distillation, where we start to see ethanols above the sixties emerge: often too strong to comfortably consume: the idea is smooth it out and aim at some consistency with the addition of some clean water before bottling. Odds are even this dilution won't cover the rough edges incurred in this rather drawn-out procedure, so the temptation is to cover such taints with additives and adjust the law of the land to permit this. 

Brandy-makers, for example, like whisky-makers, are permitted the addition of some caramel, which makes the clear bright spirit taste smoother and just happens to colour it so it appears to have spent longer in oak.

It's when we hit these trees that things get really tricky. Oak ageing of course changes the spirit's flavour in a big way as well as its colour, and in turn covers the addition of many more bits and pieces of flavourant, permitted or not. If it's clear fresh ethanol spirit you're selling, like vodka, with its implications of clarity bringing purity, the number of masking agents is limited: it's harder to find cordials and herbs that won't cloud the tincture or colour it.  

Clever people learned to include their additives, their masking-agents, inside the actual still chamber or its condensation column. This soon became recognised as the trickiest, most complex system, but generally rendered the most precise, elegant flavours. A perforated tray of finely-chopped Curaçao orange peel left in the full-strength vapor of the condensing column generally offers a much more valid, wholesome and flavoursome version of that material than a commercial cordial of it, or a fake made by somebody else in a refinery and added later. 

This technology opened the door for proper herbalists to have some input: adding herbs, rinds and spices that were actually efficacious for humans: stuff that's good for you rather than stuff that merely masks the flavours of the stuff that's very bad for you. Clever Dutchmen used juniper berries: jennifer; geneveive:genever: gin. Clever Frenchmen used wormwood: Artemisia absinthium: absinthe. The Germans put some spirit in barrels of wine and added their herbs at that point for steeping: Artemisia absinthium: wormwood: vermud: vermouth. 

After being walloped by drunk Dutchmen fighting on gin for William of Orange the British copied the Dutch. Dry tannic juniper grew wild on the heath from London down to Plymouth. London hit the piss for decades.

By 1751, when William Hogarth released his famous Gin Lane print, it had become hard to buy bread in London: all the grain, and indeed all the bread, seemed to go into bathtub gin. England drank 10 litres of taxed gin per head per annum in 1743. The consumption rate was higher in London. Above those official figures the extra volume of illicit gin not measured or taxed is an evil number to imagine

Just as the mindless industrialisation of wine, and its homogenisation led to the advent of the orange/natural/reactionary hippy wine movement of recent years, and a similar reaction to oceans of terrible beer led to the boom in craft brews, we now see a huge surge in the number of folks making what they call gin. 

This is a welcome thing, to be encouraged. 

If it's good.

When we examine the number of wineries who fail each year to win trophies, gold or silver awards with their efforts at fermenting simple grape juice, it should lead us to realise that adding a still to the manufacturing process makes all this much more complex and risky. 

Then adding the full encyclopaedia of possible herbs, spices, peels and tinctures really lifts the lid off, welcoming a whole cornucopia of possibilities, imbalances and faults. Like a person goes to university for a few years to learn how to ferment grapes safely and never really gets very good at it, like most of us never get a credit, much less distinction. 

Add to those biochemical possibilities the intricacies of distillation: single, double, sometimes triple. Then become an expert in, not just grapes or grain or potatoes or plums or whatever you used to make your spirit, add to that a new expertise in the dozen or so widely-accepted ingredients for gin: juniper, coriander, citrus, iris roots, rose petals, peppercorns, lavendar, fennel, cinnamon and whatnot. 

Professor David Mabberly's Plant-book is the essential guide to those exploring botanicals for gin or any other purpose ... readers in my neck of the woods can usually purchase a copy in the book shop behind the Museum of Economic Botany in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens
Then, if you're serious, like the team at Bruichladdich malt whisky distillery on Islay, you'll go foraging across the wee isle all year round, collecting another 22 herbs, flowers and grasses that grow on that place, and you'll put an admixture of all that raw vegetable flavouring or concentrates and steepings you've made of them in a very slow, cool, Lomond still and make The Botanist, which is about as good as gin gets, anywhere. 

In fact, this elegant, fragrant baby needs no further flavoring: no sweet tonic or murky mixer to knock it about; not even soda. Try your first glass with one neat block of ice. If you're like me, you'll stick with that. Which is not to say it's a sooky gin. This is no Issey  Miyake cucumber dream. This is stocky with a dimple. It holds its ground. Garnish? Jim McEwin and his expert team have picked all that. It's in the gin. Distilled. They made that thing of joy and beauty quite deliberately, you know. Just sit there breathing it, dreaming of Islay and the Hebrides ... if you get properly lost in such reverie spare a thought for the amateur gin maker in some shed in the suburbs or somewhere with a peerie pot still and mum's herb rack: what could go wrong? 

The vino-industrial complex has much to answer for.

Bruichladdich Malt Whisky Distillery on Lochindaal, Islay ... peace and quiet inside ... it's not always like that out on these waters, however ... even the seals need a cove to shelter and dream of gin ... photos from the distillery 

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