Despite a solid launch and early growth making it a relatively common sighting around UK and US bars, No. 209 Gin seems to have stagnated amongst the flurry of gins now competing for shelf space.
Launched in 2005, No. 209 Gin is one of the dozen or so gins that emerged in recent years from the re-invigorated craft distilling culture underway globally. With its citrussy and spicy flavour profile, No. 209 Gin is what we’ve come to call a “contemporary classic” here at Gin Foundry. No doubt, the flavour profile leans more towards American pallets with a slightly subdued juniper presence and more prominent citrus notes. However, the core gin backbone is still there. It hasn’t shied away from the category’s heritage and the team has managed to create a modern, contemporary gin, which would appeal to many.
The No. 209 story begins in 1880, when William Scheffler bought the Edge Hill Estate in St. Helena which was at the time one of the most impressive wineries in the Napa Valley. A distiller at heart, Scheffler added a stone and brick distillery to the wine making facilities at Edge Hill in 1882 and registered the distillery with the Federal Government. The license number, 209, was granted which Scheffler proudly painted above the front door of his new distillery building. The spirits he produced were reputedly of very high quality and won numerous awards, including a medal at the Universal Exposition of 1889 in Paris, France.
Skipping some 100 years of history – most notably when all production ceased during Prohibition – new life was injected into the distillery in 1999, when Leslie Rudd became the new steward of the Edge Hill property. The Rudd family’s background is in wine and fine food – they own both Rudd Oakville Estate Winery and Dean & DeLuca and had purchased the estate for the vineyards. The story has it that Leslie Rudd had begun the restoration of the building on his estate, and one day while he was surveying the poorly maintained property, noticed the faintly visible words “Registered Distillery No. 209” painted above the iron doors.
From then on, unearthing the rest of the story became a passion for the family and the point of inspiration behind the historical restoration of the Edge Hill site. The restoration of the original Distillery No. 209 site received preservationist awards from both Napa County and the State of California. However, the size and location of the original distillery building was not conducive to the team’s plans in potentially reviving some of the production that went on there. Moreover, the constrains over what type of spirits that could be produced in Napa Valley were also limited as agricultural regulators did not allow distilling of anything other than a grape based spirit.
Intent on creating a distillery, the team decided to convert a 1920’s warehouse on Pier 50 in San Francisco. As it stands, the 209 distillery based off the end of a pier is currently the only distillery in the world that is located completely over seawater. By no means simply a novelty, there are very good reasons for this – the natural cooling properties of 13 feet of San Francisco Bay water beneath the pier keeps the air temperature in the distillery perfect for distilling all year-round and the high ceilings could accommodate the 25 foot high still.
Once Leslie Rudd had decided to create a distillery, the goal was both clear and simple: to make the finest possible gin with care and intelligence for people who think about what they drink. Lofty ambitions perhaps, but we applaud any person seeking to make fine quality spirits, let alone gin!
No. 209 Gin is distilled in a copper alembic pot still in a one shot process that takes nearly 11 hours to complete (not including the overnight maceration that happens before). At nearly 25 feet tall, and capable of holding 1000 gallons, the still was created based on the shape of the Glenmorangie Whisky stills (relatively distinct for their long swan’s neck) and were made by renowned still makers Forsyth’s. Interestingly, No. 209 Gin’s base spirit is a four-times column-distilled spirit made from Midwestern corn and has a smooth, almost sweet finish. This is rather different to the neutral grain spirit many gins are made with and creates a unique canvas on which the botanicals take on slightly different characteristics than they usually do.
There are between 8 to 11 botanicals used in the making of No. 209 Gin (the exact number and list is undisclosed) and they include juniper berries, cassia bark, cardamom pods, bergamot orange peel, lemon peel, coriander seeds, angelica root. From the taste of the gin and the flavour journey we experienced, we would suggest that others could include orris root, liquorice and perhaps angelica – although this is pure speculation and we can’t tell for sure. Each individual batch of the various botanicals are thoroughly tested by the master distiller Arne Hillesland in mini pot stills to judge their intensity. They then all get put together in the pot still to macerate before distillation. Although there will be very small variations between each batch, altering the quantities of botanicals added to the final process allows Arne to have greater control and consistency in the end product.
As with the majority of gins, only the heart of the distillation is used to create the final spirit, with the heads (beginning) and tails (end) of the distillation discarded. For No. 209 Gin, Arne Hillesland selects a relatively small amount for the hearts cut, which roughly comes out to be around 65% of the overall distilled spirit generated. This chosen spirit is combined with water from snow melt from the Sierra-Nevada Mountains and is bottled at 46% ABV.
On the nose, spicy citrus notes come to the fore with a mellow juniper and slightly floral backdrop. Overall, the flavour of No. 209 is citrus forward, but not overbearing – although the bergamot orange clearly plays a large part in the ensemble. The warmth from coriander and cassia anchor the gin, while the cardamom imparts its very distinct taste. The juniper notes are much more subtle compared with the sometimes resinous feel of some classic London Dry’s. Overall, No. 209 Gin feels like a modern interpretation of a classic gin done with an American twist. We suggest using a slice of pink grapefruit (not squeezed) as the choice of garnish when serving a G&T. Lime and lemon push the citrus elements while orange just increases the already prevailing bergamot orange flavours in the gin. The pink grapefruit works as it compliments the notes without over exaggerating the existing ones, whilst also offering something new.
The bottle shape takes its cues from the more familiar shapes of 1900’s bottles, with its broad shoulders tapering down to a skinny base. Ironically (given that with so many gins in existence, there are few that use numbers as their names), the bottle is very similar in shape to Berry Bros & Rudd’s No. 3 Gin (who incidentally share the Rudd family name but were not connected in the creation of No. 209). Allegedly, the inspiration for the shape came from a Prohibition era bottle of bootlegged Canadian Genever discovered during the restoration process amongst the rooms of the disused Edge Hill distillery site.
There are less than 10 members in the No. 209 Gin team and as such, this means that its profile has only been growing slowly since its launch 10 years ago. The important part has been achieved – they have created a great gin, slowly built credibility, continued quality control and are now taking the next step in looking to reach a wider audience. It’s a foundation that many new gins should look at as a model of how to establish a long-term brand. That said, there are also lessons to head for those looking to learn form this Californian Gin – No. 209 Gin’s price point makes it slightly inaccessible and combined with relatively limited availability outside of the US, opportunities to try are not the easiest to come by. In the UK, whether this is reflected in sales or not – the perception is of a brand that has now fallen well behind the pack and is suffering as other US brands have cracked the export conundrum. These other American gins have flooded the market with equally good craft spirits, considerably cheaper price points and much better distribution. Despite this, we would say that like its San Franciscan cousin, Junípero – it’s worth seeking out.
Talking to the team a few years after our initial review, they seem to be focused on building sustainable growth. In a fierce marketing environment this means two things for the future; firstly, that it will not see a meteoric overnight rise/ fight back any time soon, and secondly, that they deserve respect for trying to do the gin justice. Perhaps it will grow in time, and we look forward to seeing it on its journey, but the verdict is out and it may well be one of those gins which simply remains in the background of the category for years to come.
A quick glance at the Rudd estate and what has been achieved with their wines gives a good indication of what’s possible for the gin – should they put their mind to it. Also, anyone who’s enjoyed any of the Rudd Estate wines will be able to confirm that, while they may be slightly more expensive and not as easy to come by, boy, they are worth the hunt.
For more information about No.209 Gin, visit their website: www.distillery209.com
Say hello on Social Media!
Copyright © Gin Foundry