Hernö Cocktail Awards 2017
The Hernö Gin Cocktail Awards made their return last weekend, with bartenders from Hong Kong, Denmark, the UK and Sweden challenging their creativity to concoct a drink that would reflect the location’s terroir.
The challenge was a daunting one: to create a cocktail so vividly transportive it would whisk the drinker drinker straight to Sweden’s High Coast, where the competition was held. The winning creation needed to be emotive of the wild landscape, conjuring the essence of a place so beautiful it stirs the soul. The area has such a diverse and rich character of fauna and flora to pick from that achieving something that would reflect it – all of it – was quite the feat. And if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, there was one additional handicap… the participants had to pick everything for the drink on the trails of the mountain during a four-hour foraging expedition.
The base spirit that the cocktails were developed on was Hernö’s newly launched High Coast Terroir Gin. The release of this year’s edition (of which just 399 bottles were made) coincides with the distillery’s competition finals. The gin and the cocktails share a deeper link, too, in that Master Distiller Jon Hillgren goes foraging for his ingredients in the very same mountain trails.
For the 2017 edition, he used wild juniper, rowan berries, willow herb, hops and spruce tips. The resulting 2017 High Coast Terroir Gin is more singularly centered around juniper than 2016’s more rounded and soft meadowsweet forward profile.
In this instance, the green, assertive pine of the juniper is given additional attack by the verdant nature of the spruce tips, while the hops and rowan add just a touch of citrus and the willow weed provides a perfumed floral touch to the nose. It’s a gin that speaks of its the landscape from which it was sourced, and having it as the base armed competitors with a choice to either use it as a tool for their creativity, or as an entity around which they could curate an experience.
Armed with a knife, a basket and a few helpful pointers (like “ants are edible and provide sourness”…!), the bartenders collected a veritable glut of ingredients. Impressively so, given how alien most of the wilderness plants in the High Coast are to a barkeep from Hong Kong or the urban jungle that is Central London. From wild raspberries to lingon berries, wood sorrel, mushrooms, pine needles, pineapple weed, rowan, juniper and birch sap, the foraging expedition tested their ability to manage time, creativity and to project a vision for a cocktail that would not just evoke a sense of terroir, but work to harness the flavours of the underlying gin.
Upon their return to base camp a wordless whirlwind of colour, texture, aroma and hypnotic spoon rotations ensued as they steeped ingredients, reduced and infused their syrups. Watching the competitors provided a wonderful snapshot into the resourceful process required to innovate and extract flavour from unfamiliar ingredients, and gave an insight into the huge array of techniques now used by modern bartenders to create drinks for their customers.
While it would be impossible for them to recreate the drinks upon return to their respective bars, the creative challenge of being tested in such a way (having been forced to look at alternatives and been pushed to re-interpret familiar ratios and ideas into new directions), will undoubtedly have given them new reach when it comes to reinterpreting flavours and the ways in which they can be used. From a more personal perspective, the Hernö Cocktail Awards, by being held in the wilderness, provide a completely different kind of experience for its competitors. Hopefully it will be one they will be able to draw from as they develop their careers.
Out of the 10 finalists, the winning drink was from Devender Kumar of Otto e Mezzo Bombana in Hong Kong. While each of the judges had their own reason for selecting him as the champion, our decision was made with no regard to what he’d made and the flair with which he had presented it. No, we admired his ability to bring together all the elements that could represent terroir. While only inferred, it was clear to see from what he was saying that “a sense of place” cannot be about flavour alone. It also has to embody the idea of the people who live and work there, and the attitudes they have to daily life as well as his own.
He managed to instil a sense of confidence and deep-rooted humility in his process, as well as a sense of humour with a clear respect and a mindful self-awareness in his presentation. These are attributes that are typical of those hiking the trails and of those living in the High Coast, who make a visit to the region a joyous and fulfilling experience. With its muddled lingon and crowberry base, the drink was tasty, expertly assembled and sympathetic to the underlying gin – but it was the subtle combination and implicit understanding of all these elements combined that ensured he was crowned as victor.
While it was a slip of the tongue (he only meant for it to be one or the other), with hindsight it was probably the most apt of sentiments when he called his drink “In and Of The Forest,” as he captured the moments, the flavours and the sentiments that most who were present during the 24h competition will take away.
In some ways, this combination is befitting of the prevailing attitude of Hernö Gin themselves too, who share very similar attributes as a team. While a bartender competition is always about those competing and their talent, it’s hard to look on as commentators and not be inspired by what the distillery has achieved since its launch in 2011, as well as what it showcased over the competition.
Having spent an entire weekend in the region, it’s no surprise to see that they are receiving continued accolades and building one success after another. The Hernö team have slowly and organically grown, bringing a sense of soul and place to everything they make. They have sent a whisper on the night wind that is now calling others all over the world to want to taste their creations, work with them and adopt some of that distinctly Swedish way of life.
For those looking for a bottle of the limited edition Hernö High Coast Gin, it will be available from September. While we wait for the 2017 video, here’s a look at last year’s…
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