It is perhaps lesser known, but the Irish devote as much of their passion, craftiness and energy into making gin as they do whiskey. With whiskey the emphasis is on heritage, or what we like to refer to as our throne to be reclaimed, so it’s more on everyone’s radar. But while the troops are bashing away on recreations of historic pot still whiskey, competitive contemporary grain whiskey and world class single malts, there are gin makers quietly bending down, collecting their 30-odd botanicals and getting ready to make their much speedier tonic.
Today, we will be introducing you to our three Irish gins. We have only become acquainted with two of them quite recently, but they have made themselves right at home in our hearts and in our liquor cabinets.
Each of these three make a fine example of dedication to craft. It’s true that the artistry that many associate with whiskey – in elements such as: choosing the barley, timing the mash, maturing whiskey in the perfect cask for the perfect length – presents itself in different ways in gin. But that isn’t to say it’s a slap dash affair. This isn’t vodka.
Each of these three Irish gins has required a team of people to think carefully about both
- Ingredients: which of all of the beautiful, odorous, interesting flavours in the world will be chosen as the botanicals for this gin. Do you travel far and wide to find your botanicals, searching for the spiciest flower in the Amazon rainforest? Or do you stay local, scouring your hills and coasts for something that will make your gin always taste like home?
- Distillation: whether to use maceration or whether to vapour infuse the carefully chosen botanicals, which shape of still to use, how long to distill and so on and so forth.
As well as the innumerable other factors that go into making a distilled spirit.
So now we know how much goes into making a gin let us tell you about how these three Irish gins were made…
Skellig Six18 Pot Still Gin
First let us introduce you to the Skellig Six18 Gin. “What a strange word” says you. Yes ‘Skellig’ is a fun smattering of consonants and syllables that is named after the local Skellig coast, in County Kerry. Local is the key word with this gin – they opted for the ‘scour your beaches and hills’ method that I offered – as both botanicals and the people that collect them are locally sourced.
In fact, Skellig says that:
‘Collaborating with sea foragers, land foragers, chefs and fishermen we have been on a journey of discovery, selecting a range of unique local botanical ingredients for our gin…The communities here on the Skellig Coast live and work around the vagaries and the weather of the Atlantic Ocean, proving our adaptability… We are the first landfall point for those rain clouds blowing in off the Atlantic.’
They are speaking about adaptable people such as John and Kerryann Fitzgerald, who collect local Dilisk (seaweed) for the distillery.
Like with whisky, water is the key to the process. In fact, we wrote all about water in our previous blog, which you can check out here. Though it is easy to see the negative side of living and working in a rainy part of the world, Skellig have used it to their advantage. They say that their ‘pure soft water sources’ include ‘an on-sight well, with water pouring down from the Beenatee mountain, and rainfall collection from our roof.’
Using local water is easy, makes for more sustainable practice and gives your distillate that great authenticity.
Irish Gins Made With Local Characters
The real star of the show though is, of course, the botanicals. These include locally foraged Yarrow, fresh Douglas Fir needles and Birch sap, delivering a herbaceous Gin with citrus and pink grapefruit notes. These are some local characters:
- Yarrow – ‘Traditionally in Kerry this plant was known as a good luck charm, for keeping travellers safe on the road. You would pull ten leaves of yarrow, throwing one away and putting the rest in a white cloth, and tying it around your neck. When used to make gin yarrow adds citrus and anise, with a bittersweet finish.’
- Douglas Fir – ‘Generations have used the wood of the Douglas Fir tree for boat building, enabling people to fish and travel. Needles give notes of citrus and pink grapefruit for a herbaceous finish.’
- Birch trees – Are a traditional Irish tree, though aren’t as common in contemporary times. They have a caramel like sap which is infused in the gin.
They recommend adding tonic water, ice and a slice of pink grapefruit to their gin as a simple combination that brings out the crisp fresh flavours.
Ninth Wave Gin
Our next gin is from way up on the other side of the country, in County Down. Ninth Wave Gin is made at the new Hinch Distillery; this distillery is also making waves in the whisky world. Do you see what I did there?
These guys triple distill on a 1000lt Pot Still and then use many botanicals from South America, Africa and all over the world. This kind of distillation will create a really light refined spirit; a perfect canvas for the colourful herbs and spices they use to paint their masterpiece.
A particularly interesting botanical they have used is ‘Grains of Paradise’ which looks a little like pepper, but in more russet hues. Grains of paradise is sometimes known as ‘alligator pepper’ and is often used in West and North African cooking. Although it looks like pepper it is actually a member of the same family as ginger. They say that this spice is a little fiery with a lemony edge. As a flavouring for elixirs of life they are more commonly associated with aquavit made in Scandinavia.
Ninth Wave Gin also makes use of the warm weather plant Lemon Verbena. We Northerners of course do not refer to our country when we talk of warm weather plants; Lemon Verbena grows in the humid depths of South America and the golden mountains of Iran, as well as a few other toasty places. According to Bonnie Plants.com
“The plant is a beauty in the landscape, forming an elegant shrub 6 feet tall by 8 feet wide. Leaves release their refreshing fragrance each time they’re touched, making this herb a good choice for planting near outdoor living areas or paths, where you can enjoy its lemony scent”
As well as these interesting tropical delights, the folks at Nine Wave have a fair few other botanicals; they keep the classic juniper but they mostly go exotic with the likes of Orris Root, Cassia Bark and Dried Orange Peel. They actually recommend buying an orange of your own to enjoy their gin with; their perfect serve is to fill a glass with ice, add a slice of orange, your splash of gin and then top up with tonic.
While you’re drinking that you will want to stick your alternative hits of the 80s on because this gin is partly inspired by Queen of the Witchy Vibes Kate Bush. ‘Ninth Wave’ is, they admit, the name of ‘a Kate Bush second side, a conceptual album of a woman drifting alone in the sea at night’. Those familiar with Irish lore will know that Ninth Wave originally refers to the barrier that separates the Earthly world from the Hy Breasil, or the ‘otherworld’. The stories passed down are of a mysterious land that could be found just beyond the West Coast of Ireland, far out across the horizon. The guys at Hinch Distillery tell us that ‘this island was invisible to the naked human eye and only accessible if you managed to survive the mighty onslaught of the ninth wave.’
Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin
Our final gin to yeehaw into town is the much more wild wild western Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin. This distillery takes the jackalope as its emblem, a creature that entranced cowboys in 20th century America and one that was probably just a figment of their imagination. This really is an adventure into territories unknown as this gin is one of the first American styled to come out of Ireland. But, P.J. Rigney, who founded the distillery, has managed to balance the new world with the old. The gin itself is made in County Leitrim at The Shed Distillery which has become the first distillery in the Connacht province in 101 years.
As well as combining the Irish with the American, the distillery also combines two styles of distillation. 8 of the 12 botanicals are distilled in a pot still while 2 of them are vapour infused, This technique involves hanging roots, flowers and herbs in a basket over rising alcohol vapours. While the vapours move through the botanicals they capture more delicate flavour compounds from them. The result is a gin that excludes heavier or more bitter notes in favour of a lighter profile.
Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin is made of botanicals including Makrut Lime, Meadowsweet and Green Tea. The latter element is where they derive their name, ‘Gunpowder Gin’, as the tea is traditionally preserved in tiny little spheres, similar to gunpowder filled pellets. The gin itself isn’t so much as explosive as it is a subtle array of fresh flavours.
Innovation at the Fore of Irish Gins
A spirit of innovation runs through the distillery and can be found from the largest to even the tiniest detail. We’ve already heard that Drumshambo is the first distillery in 101 years and that they are combining methods of distillation but one other example could be the use of Meadowsweet. This is simultaneously a strewing herb traditionally used to flavour mead but is also one of the plants from which aspirin is derived. An important innovation for spirits drinkers everywhere, I’m sure you’ll agree.
For their signature serve Drumshambo recommend that you add a wedge of red grapefruit to the classic G+T combination but they also recommend having it with lime juice and mint or in a martini.