When the Echlinville Distillery opened its doors mid-way through 2013, it was the first new distillery to have been granted a license in Northern Ireland in over 125 years. The last five years have seen startling change, though; Trump is President, Bowie is dead, we all ride hoverboards to work and gin is everywhere. Everywhere. It’s in your kitchen, it’s under your bed, it’s being made in garden sheds and spare bedrooms, under rocks and over mountains. It is no longer a feat to become a distiller – anyone can do it – so Echlinville is very lucky indeed that it has another trick up its sleeve.
And no, it’s not just whiskey, although that was founder Shane Braniff’s initial interest. No, the distillery’s main point of difference – the thing that stops Echlinville Gin from being just another gin – is its grain to glass approach. That extra step is a surprisingly rare thing, with the majority of distilleries buying in the neutral grain spirit with which they make their gin.
Grain to glass, for those not quite in the know, is the process of covering the whole booze making process on one site. Of turning grain into mash (kind of like a beer), mash into spirit and spirit into gin. It is a costly, time-consuming, equipment-eating process, but It’s one with a huge pay off. Distilleries can be sure of the quality of the wheat they’re using, its provenance and it’s flavour profile, thus the quality of the spirit they’re making. They can also leave a little bit of character in the not-as-neutral grain spirit so their vodka is a unique, flavoursome product, which results – of course – in their gins beginning with a (lightly) textured canvas.
Whiskey producers have to get the kit in to make spirit anyway, so it makes sense to keep the stills working when the spirit is laid to rest. So… how did Echlinville Distillery settle on gin? Well, in 2016, founder Shane Braniff was approached by Belfast bar owner Gerry White, who was after making his own take on the spirit. They worked together for months, with the end result being the oh-so-classic and quite brilliantly named Jawbox Gin. We’ve already reviewed that one, of course, so head over this way for a bit more on that…
With the popularity of gin growing at breakneck speed, and with it a flood of gins pouring from every corner of the United Kingdom, Braniff started to consider making one under the Echlinville umbrella. First, though, he had to work out what was missing from the market. There was standard supermarket fair, super traditional, stylish and stylised, hyper-local and super strange stuff about. There was premium, too, but – unlike the super collectable stuff in the whisky world – there was very little super premium gin on the shelves. Something that features the very best ingredients and branding, fetching a pretty penny in the process.
We spoke to Echlinville Distillery’s Marketing Officer, Anne-Marie Clarke, who explained just how seriously Echlinville take the topic of provenance and terroir that is so loudly espoused in the artisan world. “Born into a farming family and a farmer himself, Shane has a robust connection to the land in this area. Echlinville is very much a family venture, with Shane’s wife Lynn at the helm of the hospitality and tourism side of the business. They are very proud of their roots in the Ards Peninsula, and that sense of place is the essence of Echlinville Gin.
“The base spirit is infused with an array of carefully selected botanicals, including sweet kelp seaweed from Strangford Lough (which lies less than a mile from the distillery) and indigenous gorse or ‘whin’ bush petals handpicked by the distillery team from the fields around the still house.”
Even the branding embraces that ‘super premium’ title, with gold and purple metallic foiling and a gold lid adding a certain prestige. Small and stout at only 50cl a pop, the bottle pays tribute to the distillery’s namesake, Captain Charles Echlin – the most prominent member of the family that founded the Echlinville Estate – and is in fact the first of the spirits from the distillery to bear the name. It’s a nice enough slick package, perhaps not as super premium as it thinks but more on that later, the real questions is does the liquid inside match up?
Echlinville Gin process…
There is a big process to making this gin, and it all begins in the field. The malted barley is picked, milled, mashed and fermented in Echlinville’s fermentation hall, before making the transfer to the still system. Then it goes into the wash still, before making the move to the spirit still. Or rather, the spirit stills, as there are two big copper columns attached to the still, each column housing 24 copper plates, thus the perfect tool to drive that liquid up to north of 96% and over the threshold for neutral spirit.
Across the front of the bottle, you may have noticed, are the words ‘trickle pot distilled.’ This is a technique Echlinville claims to be perfecting by slowing down the still “to achieve a gentle balance between complexity of taste and delicacy of nature.” Whatever that means… Either way, it’s a long, slow process, allowing maximum copper contact and great purity.
Echlinville Gin to taste…
The botanicals included in the gin (well, the ones we know about, anyway), are lavender, juniper, coriander, elderflower and rose, though undoubtedly a handful of other herbs, peels and spices are in the blend as well.
The creamy, nutty base spirit comes through immediately and very evidently on the nose, with that rain-kissed Irish wheat the very first botanical to grace the gin, even if unintentionally. Sweet, soft elderflower petals nip at the nose, while a zesty lemon providing a little added brightness to the picture. Juniper isn’t present at this stage, but the smell is enticing enough to make us leap face first into the sip.
Initially creamy up front, a cassia/grains of paradise-like fire ignites across the mouth, though it quickly gives way to the fresh taste of vegetation (the seaweed, most likely). There’s a bright burst of lemon sherbet and a great big swathe of soft lavender buds, with the various flavour elements – spice, herbal, citrus and floral – doing competitive somersaults. It’s very lovely and quietly complex, with a huge, lingering finish that colours the mouth with a spiced undertone of an otherwise lemon thyme hue.
Tonic only seeks to exacerbate the greenness within, also making room for the juniper heart to rise up fiercely. You know when your patience pays off and you finally crack through that tough sherbet lemon exterior to get to the good stuff within? An Echlinville Gin and Tonic is the good stuff, all fresh, fizzy and comfortably caustic. Serve with a big bunch of basil if you have it, as it certainly needs to citrus assistance but that fresh, leafy garnish could help drag the seaweed out of the vegetable patch.
Now, with all of that nice stuff out of the way, we’re going to question the super-premium tag here. We’re really not sure about super-premium as a concept; what does it mean? Isn’t premium enough? As far as we’re concerned there is ‘craft gin’ and there is mass-produced gin, and while this certainly falls into the former category, so do many others and they don’t charge near enough £40 for a 50cl bottle (and to be fair, when they do, we also berate them too). It’s not a custom bottle nor is has it had any custom elements added to the stock shape (like de-bossed name such as Sipsmith or Lone Wolf). While the branding is nice, with some discrete embossing to add a textural quality and lovely foiling, it has a plastic screw cap with a white plastic pour insert that really makes it feel very “un-premium” (see image).
Jawbox, made by the same team, is around £30 for 70cl, which – when you do the maths – works out at almost half the price, with Echlinville coming it at circa £80 per litre and Jawbox at £42 per litre. If one were to point out that it’s the grain to glass approach that makes it more expensive, fine, but Jawbox was launched and heavily marketed on the “single estate” tag line with claims to the same provenance and process, so that’s not valid here.
Either, Jawbox wasn’t ever grain to glass (thus why it has always been cheaper) and Echlinville is (thus the extra cost), or the price isn’t justified. Phrased differently and perhaps more to the point as we’re now wondering given the price disparity and the flavour intensity of the base that’s clear here but not in Jawbox… either one was/is disingenuous in its Single Estate claims, or the other is unnecessarily priced high with no real cause to justify it. Either way, it reflects poorly on the distillery who have ownership (or at least part ownership) of both products.
Echlinville is great gin; it’s something totally unique in a busy market, something that doesn’t exist anywhere else and something that hardy gin fans – desperate, by now, for something new that isn’t also something a thousand miles away from gin – will latch onto. But it’s expensive and needs refinement to justify it, so will already alienate a huge amount of its potential audience right off the bat. The verdict’s out…
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