My gin journey started a mere two years ago, making me a bit of a late bloomer in gin terms. I’d always been envious of people who could enjoy a refreshing, long, elegant drink of gin and tonic on the rare UK hot summer days – I tried many, many times but just didn’t like it, face-twisted, near spitting it out. Close to giving up, my gin epiphany was in Ushuaia (an outdoor club in Ibiza, not the South American city!) when I was gifted a strange blue drink that tasted crisp and refreshing in the lazy evening heat (and looked quite cool to boot), not realising that it was a G&T that I was enjoying until afterwards. Thinking it might be the lighter tonics typical in Spain that made the difference (the blue was from Nordic Blue tonic), I resolutely persevered through the rest of the holiday, boldly trying a new gintonic (the lovely Spanish way to order a G&T) wherever I went, made easy by the lengthy, complex gin menus that were everywhere, served in huge goblets with tons of ice and the perfect-match, bright garnish. Now a firm gin fan, I still feel I have a lot of catching up to do, so, when I was asked to visit Whitmore & White, Chester’s new food and drink emporium, on an Around the world gin tasting experience, it sounded like the perfect Friday night and a chance to hone my novice gin skills.
The new deli/wine store is on Godstall Lane, one of the prettiest and quirkiest parts of Chester. It always feels a bit fairytale walking down here in the evening, with twinkling lights and old fashioned hanging signs and shop fronts, and tiny spaces transformed into great places. W&W fits in perfectly; high shelves packed with unusual foodstuffs, bottles of every size, shape and colour, fridges filled with locally produced pastries, cheeses and meats.
I’m a bit early and spend some time browsing, I spy a couple of things I might take home later – a black pudding scotch egg has caught my eye, plus I’m tempted by a thick-crusted pie and a selection of cheeses I’ve not tried before.
I chat with Tom, the manager and our host for the evening, about how this was a gap in Chester’s city centre for a while – a really gourmet food hall catering to Deva’s foodies, and they’ve been waiting a while to bring the winning formula of their West Kirby, Heswall and Frodsham stores into the heart of the city.
The tasting room is down a spiral staircase, a large table with high stools and brick-clad walls awaits – a nice bright but cosy space. The evening’s selections are detailed on a tasting notes sheet and Tom kicks us off with a history of gin and shares some juniper berries so we understand the base note of what makes a gin a gin.
Tom sees the look on our faces as he gets out the 1783 Schweppes tonic – we all seem to be firm Fevertree fans and are wary of the big brand, but the 1783 is its premium, more natural tonic, a newer variant to go up against the might of the Fevertree name that has disrupted the mixer world. We also think the name is a bit close to 1724 (a tonic with quinine picked only at a 1724m altitude) another premium tonic, and is a bit copycat, even though 1783 is a reference to Schweppe’s history…
But we try it and the consensus seems to be it’s ok, better than standard Schweppes, but maybe a bit sweeter than our normal taste, and none of us would swap our Fevertree. In a G&T up to 4/5 of your drink might be the tonic, so it’s a vital ingredient to consider.
Note – it’s a good idea to stick with one tonic throughout the tasting so you can taste the difference in the gin flavours – especially as we’re so used to gin menus where you’re not sure if its the gin, the tonic, or the combination that you like.
The glasses on the table are tiny, and draw some worried remarks only half in jest, especially considering the huge Spain-inspired goblets that are now the norm for serving G&T, but no need to worry, the glasses actually encourage a better Gin-Ice-Garnish-Tonic ratio so you appreciate the whole drink, and are more than sufficient for the evening.
We hear about the history of gin (the origin of ‘Dutch courage’), where tonic comes from, the reasons for its recent resurgence and the different ways the botanicals can be added to the process, plus the endless variety of ingredients (the only constant is juniper to be considered a gin), which gives almost infinite end results. We discuss how small batch gins in particular can really give a sense of place, and time, bringing together botanicals from a specific area and season, each batch subtly different based on what nature makes available.
I won’t spoil the treat and Tom’s thunder by repeating the detail here – it’s all part of the experience so best left to the man himself.
We all remark how selfless and dedicated the W&W team are when we learn they tried at least seventeen(!) options before settling on the recipe for their own locally produced, eponymously named Whitmore gin (I can make myself available for the next session if you need a helping hand).
Tom is a lively, fun, well-informed but far from snobbish (we need a gin equivalent to sommelier) gin guru, truly passionate about the subject and has a keen curiosity that helps him hunt out the cool little tidbits of information that helps bring a basic grain spirit story to life, and leads you nicely into appreciating the differences between the brands.
It’s a nice touch that we are offered some deli nibbles at the halfway point. The food is moreish and considered as the gins: a smoked salmon dip, black-ash-coated carboncino cheese (gone in a flash), a robust oozy perl wen; sunflower, pistachio and apricot crackers that are like having the sweet tang of fruit chutney within the cracker; spiced nuts and giant, juicy, Gordal olives that you can finally buy in Chester. Appetite piqued by the nibbles, we order an extra Scotch egg and it doesn’t disappoint.
For the tastings, the process is: add ice, add gin, sniff the bouquet, taste (‘naked’ if you can), add garnish, add tonic, enjoy while Tom gives you the notes – tasting, history, fun facts about each gin and the producer.
We move through the six he has chosen for tonight from lighter to more robust; we call it the oomph-meter, starting in Ireland and ending in Portugal via USA, Scotland, New Zealand and Chester. The garnishes are kept simple and small, just enough to complement not cover the flavour – again all the better to taste the gin.
Ireland’s Dingle Gin (£42.95) featuring fuchsia, bog myrtle and hawthorne is a little delicate and gentle for the tasters tonight, while No. 209, a Napa Valley USA corn-based gin at £42.00 is ‘piney’ with citrus and sweet spices such as bergamot and orange peel to the fore – a little lacking in top notes for our panel, and its interesting Prohibition based backstory didn’t quite make up for (but you must get Tom to tell it.)
The Botanist from Islay is an example of the trend for traditional or start up whisky producers, to also use their stills for gin production, not only to tap into the growing global gin phenomenon but also to turn profits quicker as it does not need years of ageing. This one has a beautiful bottle listing the Latin names for the 22 locally foraged wild botanicals including chamomile, gorse flowers and the brilliantly named creeping thistle that go into making this gin (in addition to 9 classic aromatics). The more delicate are vapour infused and the stronger ones are mixed with the base alcohol, giving a harmonious finish which earned it 3rd place. For £39.00 it’s a lovely gift gin.
Reid & Reid is the out and out winner – the 4th on the list of 6 so we can safely say we weren’t unduly influenced by the amount of gin already consumed. A New Zealand import with native botanicals including Manuka flower, it packs a floral, citrus and spice punch that had something for everyone – it’s also Tom’s bet for gin of the year next year and at £47.95 the priciest of the bunch.
Local Chester Gin (also £39.00) made it to second place with sweet spices such as cassia bark, coriander and cardamom, typical of the spices brought in to the Port of Chester 500 years ago. Our final taste was of sherberty Mediterranean style fruity Sharish Blue Magic gin, from Portugal (£41.95) with the added interest of its blue colour changing to pink when tonic is added, a fun gimmick but didn’t quite place in our top 3.
As Tom is a true gin lover we were interested in other top gins he’d recommend and he let us into the secret of one of his favourites – Garden Tiger (now called Garden Swift)- small batch and hard to get hold of. This one really is a game changer with essential oils coming through to the finished product, creating a completely different flavour and silky texture, and a little cloudiness, the Sicilian blood orange zest recognisable amongst 33 hand selected botanicals. I was lucky enough to try some and have to say, I’m hooked, just waiting for the next delivery into the store to grab a bottle of my own.
It’s been a fun, informative, chatty night full of laughs and learning, meeting fellow gin lovers and taking the time to appreciate the drinks a little more than usual. It made a great birthday gift and night out for my friend. We spill out into the twinkling street, with happy faces, deli purchases clutched close to our chests.
Whitmore & White Grand Wine Tasting, Chester Cathedral, £15
Exclusive discounts available to ticket holders
20th September 7-930pm