Anyone with a set of eyes and a cynical disposition will note that Minus 33 is never referred to as a gin, but rather a ‘juniper distilled spirit.’
Before you scoff, this isn’t creator Sam Trett’s attempt to shroud his product in poetry, it’s EU law: to be a gin, a spirit must be bottled at a minimum ABV of 37.5%. At 33%, Minus 33 isn’t a gin, it isn’t even a flavoured vodka – instead it’s a spirit stuck in definition purgatory. But does a gin by any other name taste as good? Let’s find out…
Trett founded his spirit company, LoCa Beverages in August 2013, despite very little experience in the booze industry. His cloak and dagger entry into gin began when his friend, Cory Mason, snuck him into a laboratory in 2013 to begin experimenting. Trett knew he wanted to create a spirit, but he was torn between gin and vodka. As a man with marketing experience, though, he knew how to build a brand and was keen eyed enough to see that gin was just about to take off again.
He put the hours in, working in the lab almost every weeknight, pulling 12 hour stints in his bid to come up with a catalogue of recipes. Each week, Trett and Mason would create 10 recipes, taste testing what they’d designed with focus groups on weekends. “There was a lot of work in educating the testers on each botanical,” Trett told us when explaining the work that went into the project. “We were eager to have a group who could pick out which exact flavours they enjoyed and which they didn’t.
“We’d use that feedback to improve the recipe each week. It was a long process and we distilled dozens of botanicals individually in order to educate our wiling participants.”
These focus groups are where the low ABV comes in to play. The group of tasters LoCa Beverages used had a preference for floral and citrus notes, which come through better at a lower ABV. The higher a spirit’s alcohol content is, the better (and the more harshly) spice presents.
The lower ABV results in a lower calorie, and while this is clearly a marketing angle, Trett does well not to push it too hard. At forty-six calories per serve, Minus 33 is indeed lower in calories than a standard gin, but with Opihr coming in at 50 calories, Hendrick’s at 54 and Plymouth at 62, these numbers are arguably negligible. The real selling point is the lightness of this gin; with an ABV of 33% it’s intended as an easy sipper and a nice, gentle G&T (or JDS&T, if you like…) that won’t send you stumbling into the night. Perfect summer cup material…
In the end, the recipe that made it through consisted of juniper, angelica, orris, fresh lemon and orange peel, coriander seed, lavender, elderflower and liquorice. The botanicals are treated according to how they best give off flavour; a benefit of putting so much time in with their tasting panel meant that Trett and Mason distilled dozens of botanicals individually, and in doing so learnt which methods worked best to extract the oils from each ingredient.
Mason now works at the Silent Pool distillery in the Surrey Hills, where he creates the brand’s eponymous gin. Having been such a great mentor to Trett, he was the obvious choice to distil Minus 33 on a grand scale. Whenever it’s time for a batch, LoCa Beverages hires the distillery for a day and set to work creating their spirit.
This begins with maceration. Orris, liquorice, angelica and coriander are added into a grain neutral spirit and left to macerate in for 24 hours. A basket is then filled with lemon, orange, lavender and elderflower and suspended over the still. Just before the distillation run, the still is charged with the macerated botanicals, as well as a 50-50 mix of GNS and water, and the all important juniper berries. In a sixteen hour day, Trett and Mason can perform two runs, yielding enough liquid for around 1100 bottles.
Minus 33 to taste…
Served neat – muted tones appear on the nose, with a surprisingly herbaceous lavender raising up above a quiet but present juniper. Juniper is first up on the tongue, given strength by the lavender. This transcends quickly, when the mouth is suddenly filled with a lemon drizzle cake sensation – one that is heavy on the drizzle to boot. Coriander clings onto the citrus, carrying it right through to the end, where elderflower steps in to bring a floral finish. This is a strange circus to observe, because while all of these things happen, it’s as though they’re happening far away. It could be the low ABV, but everything feels slightly muted. Such a flavour journey should or could be brilliant, but instead its a little… ho-hum.
It’s a quiet spirit served neat, so it’s borderline mute when mixed with tonic. Served without garnish, there are glimpses of juniper, a touch of floral flavours with lavender and orris, a softer elderflower and a sweet undertone for those who want to shut their eyes and concentrate. It’s all so quiet and nuanced that it almost feels like someone whispering “here’s a G&T” and then running away, when your mouth is wanting a screaming explosion of joyous juniper driven flavours. Ratio of 1 part gin to 2 parts tonic worked okay, but anymore it was more strange tonic than G&T, and to be fair Low cal tonic options do seem to favour the spirit better. From a recommendation perspective – Minus 33 is one we’d rather recommend serving with soda than tonic for a better experience of the spirit’s flavour. As for a garnish Minus 33 works well with hibiscus (almost relies on it a little in our opinion) and there’s good reason why a sachet of dried flowers accompanies each bottle.
There’s absolutely no doubt that low ABV gins can produce huge flavours. Just look at Seedlip, which is a loud, cheek feeling drink despite containing no alcohol at all. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here, and while we applaud Minus 33 for doing something different and for being very good at describing what it is and isn’t (especially without leaning on gimmicks or being overly singular – as Seedlip shows, anything can be “loud” with so much cumin) – it is, unfortunately, just somewhat lacking in the flavour department.
While the flavour left us uninspired it does however, look much better than most Gins on the market. Good Creative designed Minus 33’s branding, managing to capture both the science and creativity that went into making the spirit by adding a detailed label to the front that looks as though it could have crawled out of a laboratory itself. It’s neat, it’s cool and it’s tactile, a decision Trett made based on the idea that while taste brings customers back, looks sell them in initially.
He explains: “Many gins play on tradition and as a result have a beautiful, albeit slightly vintage look and feel to them.Why can’t gin be young, fun and exciting? Most of the gin drinkers I have come across fit that description over the old presumption it was a drink for grannies. So we made sure our bottle relayed the experimental nature of our brand whilst appealing to the exciting new wave of gin drinkers coming in.”
Each bottle comes in a cardboard tube with the same label on the front, along with a small bag of dried hibiscus. The hibiscus is a nice touch – adding a premium gift feel to the spirit (whilst also working well to complement the botanicals within).
It’s a bold move to create a gin that isn’t a gin, but it gives Minus 33 it’s USP and we hope they do well even though the verdict seems to still be out. To be honest, the calorie aspect holds zero appeal to us (and doesn’t really stand up in court, given that it is four calories less per 25ml than Opihr. Four calories, for reference, is about two grapes worth…), but the idea of a lighter ‘gin’ – one for afternoon sipping, perhaps – has its merits.
Trett has built a good brand around this, with great photography and a strong social media presence attached to his spirit. There is no home for Minus 33, due to LoCa Labs hiring out the Silent Pool distillery, but Trett is working hard to pick up groundswell by appearing at as many consumer shows as possible. Currently, the spirit is only available in a few select places (including the Minus 33 website), but this will grow in time.
Minus 33 is, in Trett’s own words, an “unapologetically unconventional” spirit, and while our first instinct was to balk at the calorie claims and turn to a bottle of Navy Strength, we’re glad we tried this. It’s not gin, but it’s not pretending to be. It’s clearly an infinitely sippable spirit that makes for an interesting G(ish)&T. That said, it’s also a little difficult to really get overly excited about and one’s mind tends to gravitate towards the question, what is the point of this?
It’s almost as if it’s stuck in a middle ground of awkward adolescence, not quite a fully fledged adult, but too much to pass off as a junior. It’s actually not that low in ABV (drinks like Aperol or Campari are both sub 25%, while alternatives such as Vermouth and Port are also at least 10% to 20% lower than Minus 33). It’s not really low calorie as we mentioned above, nor is it that cheap despite having less tax applied to it. At £30 it’s directly comparable to most gins. We really didn’t see why it would be interesting to be a “kind of” gin, as opposed to just making a great gin – it’s clear they as a team would have the capacity to achieve this.
You might, just like us, find yourself feeling a little ambivalent once you’ve had a sip but whatever you do, juniper heads, don’t shun it. It’s worth discovering and tasting for yourselves and once you do – be sure to let us know what you think.
For more information about Minus 33, visit the website: minus33.co.uk
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