When No. 209 Gin came out way back in 2005, the Gin landscape was so incredibly different that stock was basically being transported by horse and cart. Well, ok, that might be a slight exaggeration, but still this was very much the early days of the Gin boom, even in the US who were far ahead of the UK revolution, so when we tried the spirit, its huge citrus notes rendered us jaws-to-the-floor shocked. “My goodness,” we exclaimed. “What a thoroughly modern gin.”
In fact, the American palate was something we discussed often; gins from the region were the first to dial down the juniper hit, so ‘American’ became something of a substitute word for ‘modern’ or ‘different.’ “Contemporary Classic” was, in fact, the way we described No. 209 Gin, but given how batshit mental the category has got in the last five or so years, we’re rescinding our words. No. 209 Gin is, if we’re completely honest, a trusty classic Gin in this day and age.
That’s not to say that company is resting on its laurels, nor has it been left behind, mind. Far from it, there are constant variants being added to the portfolio, from those aged in different wine barrels to those made for specific audiences. There was a Kosher-for-Passover Gin (made from a sugar base), an International Women’s Day bottling… So yes, while No. 209 Gin may no longer be leading the weird charge, it still has a very up-to-date, inclusive outlook, like a grandma saying “yasss, Queen, slay.”
Before we get onto flavour, we’ll take a quick hop back in time to 1880, when distiller William Scheffler bought Edge Hill Estate in St Helena, Napa Valley. At the time, this was one of the most impressive wineries in the area, but it wasn’t long before old Billy had rigged up a still. The distillery’s license number, 209, was proudly painted above the door, and in no time at all he was producing spirits of high quality and repute, even winning a medal at the Universal Exposition of 1889 in Paris, France.
Prohibition came along, of course, and led to a premature death for the distillery. Unlike most, though, this was only temporary; in 1999, Leslie Rudd took over stewardship of the Edge Hill Estate. They’d purchased the estate for its vineyards, but whilst working on restoring the crumbling buildings onsite, noticed the ghosts of the words ‘Registered Distillery No. 209’ written above the iron doors.
Unearthing the story of the distillery became a huge passion for the entire Rudd clan, and the resulting restoration was performed with history in mind. In fact, the site received preservationist awards from Napa County and the State of California. The size and location of the original distillery, unfortunately, was not that conducive to production in the modern age, plus agricultural regulations in Napa Valley meant that no spirits could be produced from anything other than grape, so Rudd and his newly assembled team took the story with them to Pier 50 in San Francisco. While it’s undoubtedly a very cool fact that theirs is the only distillery situated entirely over seawater, the biggest perk this creates is fantastically cool conditions – the air temperature remains perfect all-year-round.
Distillery No.209’s 25-foot still was created with the Glenmorangie Whisky stills as inspiration (think long and tall swan’s neck). Built by Forsyth’s, this beastie is capable of holding 1000 gallons of spirit, which makes 209’s one-shot approach somewhat more viable.
No. 209 Gin is an 11-botanical strong spirit made on a four-times distilled base created from midwestern corn. The finish to the NGS is a little sweet and creamy, which creates a fantastic canvas from which the gin can commence. The botanicals – of which we know eight: juniper, cassia, cardamom, bergamot, orange peel, lemon peel, coriander seeds and angelica root – are left to rest with the spirit in the still overnight, and once distillation has commenced only the hearts cut is collected. Our guess for the additional three botanicals are orris root, angelica and liquorice, but given the floral nature we’d also be happy to wage that a flower or two may have made its way into the still, so if you’re up for a guessing game on the final three, get your best gardening head on.
Separate to this and to ensure year on year constancy – Distiller Arne Hillesland gives each batch of botanicals a quick run through in a mini pot still to check for intensity and consistency before loading them up into the big still, demonstrating a hunt for quality that goes right down to the bear bones of the gin.
No. 209 Gin to taste…
Citrus notes pack a punch on the nose, namely the bergamot – but it’s followed with a mellow juniper sitting pretty in the middle as fragrant cardamom notes paint the backdrop. It’s a citrus forward gin in our opinion as the cardamom fights back instanly, making it sway from one to the next, though not in an overbearing capacity. The bergamot clearly plays a part to the taste, but the coriander and cassia warmth anchor the gin, while the cardamom again imparts a distinctive, almost perfumed taste. The juniper notes, as we’ve mentioned before, are subtle compared to the booming London Dry’s of old, but they’re still waving the flag quite proudly.
The branding work around No. 209 Gin is something special, too; the bottle’s shape is taken from those of the 1900s, with broad shoulders tapering down to a skinny base. The glass is engraved beautifully, adding a real air of distinction and quality. The shape of the bottle is reported to have come from a Prohibition era bottle of bootlegged Canadian Genever that would found in the disused Edge Hill distillery.
When it came out, No. 209 Gin was priced far out of our level of acceptable and we thought that was what was holding it back. At just over the £30 mark, however, the bar has risen to meet it; in fact, it comes under price for many UK craft gins despite being bottled at 46% ABV which usually adds a couple quid. So what is the problem? If you think about the gins that have emerged since long after 2005, so many of them seem to have surpassed the success of this brand. You’ll see FEW and St George propping up many a back bar here in the UK (and worldwide), but No. 209 hasn’t captured as much attention here yet. It’s done more than other adopters Leopold’s and Junipero, but it’s not quite become THE American Gin in the way that Aviation, Death’s Door or even Brooklyn Gin have managed to carve out either. It’s a fair performance and a distillery that’s done well, but whose maker and whose liquid deserves way more.
Perhaps it doesn’t need to, or perhaps it’s taking a slow approach. When we spoke to the team recently it seemed as though there was no great hurry to catapult the brand; Sustainable growth build around long term values appears to be the target, which – while it won’t necessarily lead to a meteoric overnight rise – does show a good, quiet confidence in their product. No. 209 Gin is great stuff and it should see this Gin trend way past the finish line.
It’s just that it would be nice to see more feet on the ground internationally to grow this gin into one of the most renowned around. With its consistent desire to respect history whilst creating spirits that are of the highest quality, we’re very firmly of the opinion that it deserves to be one of America’s biggest distilling success stories.
For more information about No.209 Gin, visit their website: www.distillery209.com
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