Twelve Keys Gin
Us Gin Foundry folk are quite strict when it comes to reviewing new gins. As a rule, we don’t! We try to wait at least six months as so much happens in the first few months of a spirit’s life that by the time we’ve written up the method and madness, everything has changed.
Everyone forgets that City of London Gin was a completely different gin to what it is today when it launched, that East London Liquor is slightly different, that Adnam’s Rising Sun is different, that there’s different botanicals in Campfire than in the original line up… We could continue and list dozens and dozens more gins that have been intentionally refined over the years. Since we wrote about Twisting Spirits Gin just three months ago, we’ve already been told that they are adapting the recipe slightly to “up” the juniper notes. It happens all of the time and we have no qualms with any gin makers who do this as the aim is to continuously improve and if it’s better, we’re all for it. Just, that’d rather wait for those changes to happen than write and re-write…
That said, as we type these very words, we know that the booze in question here, Twelve Keys Gin, has some changes that are already planned for Batch Two. Rather than avoid it for a few months though, we’ve got our reasons to tell this story at this time. Namely, it does a great job of showing how distilleries go about ironing out the creases in the early stages, and why it’s as exciting to see that and support them as they do, than it is wait years to taste an outcome that’s set in stone.
The Twelve Keys Journey
We go on (and on, and on) about how friendly the Gin industry is, but we’ve got good reason. Distillers just don’t perceive other distillers as a threat when they make great products, rather they see other quality gin makers as people who are going to help prop the category up, or elevate it even further. We’re all friends here!
No one knows this better than Twelve Keys Founder Matthew Clifford, who’s inspiration to make a gin came a friend’s 40th birthday part in June 2015. When he was at the bar, Clifford was introduced to two of his wife’s former school friends, who offered to buy him a drink. Wisely, he said that a G&T would be a great way to begin the night. Shrewdly, they suggested a Pickering’s.
The two barfly’s, it transpired, were none other than the duo behind the famous Edinburgh based gin – Matt Gammell and Marcus Pickering. As Clifford heard their story he was instantly hooked on the idea of making a gin. The category was booming and its possibilities for creativity were endless. Despite putting it aside for a while and continued on his day job, he wasn’t able to shake it from his mind, so he began researching.
Using Sipsmith as a case study, Clifford began to make estimates on cost. Sipsmith is a truly iconic brand, one that – in Clifford’s eyes at the very least – “changed the landscape of gin forever, opening up realistic opportunities for newcomers at smaller levels of investment.” The more he learnt, the more he was interested in others in the category and the more captivated he became. He’d well and truly gone down the rabbit hole, and the only way out was to keep on burrowing…
“I bought a lot of books and even more bottles of premium gin (150+) from different makers, not just for a better understanding of the liquid, but also to understand the qualities of the packaging and how successfully it portrayed the story of the liquid within, as I feel the two are uniquely interwoven to make the whole,” Clifford explained. “It wasn’t long until I was turning bottles upside-down to see who make the glass – I was evermore curious as to what it was all about.”
Clifford’s observations on branding are abundantly clear. Twelve Keys Gin will launch as a fully-fledged product: the website is cool, loaded with information and stylised imagery. The bottle is a feast for the eyes, with rich, deep blue paper, gold foiling and a beautiful gold bee printed directly onto the neck of the bottle. It’s high quality and very lovely, though we don’t doubt it will change in time. It won’t be a dramatic shift, but Clifford strikes us as the type of person to look at things, bit by bit and treat each as an endless opportunity to refine every detail until it reaches the absolute perfect version it can be.
The journey to do precisely this already has already driven Clifford to find ways of doing things better, to make a product that for most owners would be version ten, not the first iteration fresh out of the door. The bottle and branding is more than good enough to stand out, but – as we’ve said – gins evolve after launch. It’s part of the process.
This idea of evolution incidentally, is reflected in the recipe itself. Twelve Keys Gin has used its recipe to echo the different stages of the history of distillation. It’s every bit as complicated as it sounds, so bear with us a bit here.
The gin’s name is inspired by the alchemic work of Basil Valentine (and his Twelve Keys text) back in 1599. The alchemists are of great fascination to Clifford and in our interactions with him, we’ve wondered on more than a few occasions if he may well have been one if he were born in a different era. The pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone wasn’t just a literal search you see, it was also about seeking out enlightenment, of embarking on a journey of discovery and one of relentless, restless pursuit – a tag that in our opinion suits him well.
“In the original Twelve Keys text, each key is an allegorical description of one step in the process by which the Philosopher’s Stone may be created,” said Clifford. “With each step, the symbolic names used to indicate the critical ingredients are changed, just as the ingredients themselves are transformed.
“To represent this in liquid terms, we used twelve botanicals to reflect each of the twelve ‘keys’ or ‘clavis,’ with each botanical playing a vital role in linking both flavour and its underlying conceptual essence.”
The twelve botanicals in Twelve Keys Gin offer great promise, flavour wise. They offer something entirely unusual to the gin world, so we’ve been greatly excited about this for some time. Juniper, cinnamon, orris and angelica anchor the gin into some sort of normality, but frankincense, caraway seeds and gentian root bring a hint of something unusual, whilst honey, basil, apricots, quince and figs shed a whole new light on the Gin category, promising rich fruits and dense, indulgent flavours.
The reasoning behind the twelve ingredients were not solely based on flavour either. They are divided into four equal quarters, each of which follows the journey of alchemy itself. The quarters are linked to Bacchus (the God of wine and moist fruits), Persia (the home of advanced distillation and alchemy), early medicinal scripture of the Benedictine monks and – finally – the ritualistic use of juniper during the era of Cathar priests. The idea for each quadrant and each set of botanicals, from base to top note, was to draw inspiration from every stage of distilling’s evolution, and imbue this into the conceptual and intellectual underpinnings of Twelve Keys Gin.
Just as the Twelve Keys are written in alchemical form in such a fashion as to conceal as well as to illuminate, the botanicals featured act in a similar manner and are interconnected, intertwined and have both flavour and conceptual links that underpin each and every decision, looping back into one another.
Complicated? Yes. Too much for the every-day drinker? Of course. But in today’s category, making something tasty is just the surface and if you are going to pursue an idea you might as well go ‘all in,’ and do it to such an extent and to such a degree that it has so many layers that the outcome is a thinkers drink with incredible value. One who’s depth extends to sight (beautiful branding), to taste (indulgently delicious gin) and to intellect. This gin will, in time, have it all.
There is nothing random about Twelve Keys, nor about how Clifford has approached the task. Different ABVs were played with, different botanical ratios were tried and thirty-three iterations of the gin were created before the final (but not final, we’re getting to that) recipe was picked.
Sample number seven was chosen as the gin showing best promise, 46% was picked as the best ABV. With these as his canvas, Clifford went to make Batch One of Twelve Keys Gin, working with Mike Hayward of the Glasgow Distillery to get this done.
Twelve Keys Gin to taste…
We’re actually not going to run full tasting notes this time around and will wait a few batches in and revisit this article. Suffice it to say, it’s big on resinous juniper, with soft apricots to follow. We like it – booming juniper is hard not to like, but we have had the chance to preview a lab sample of what they are building towards. The recipe didn’t scale up quite to plan when distilled on Glasgow’s stills and the juniper, so boisterous and confident in its desire to take centre stage has cast a shadow over the sweet quince and the succulent figs. The sweetness from the honey used in the distillation still provides a sweet backdrop but the commanding juniper has also extinguished the lovely heat on the finish from the cinnamon and the gentian. The first batch of Twelve Keys Gin is good, with lots to love and all of the elements of the concept they so beautifully portray on the label are there, just a little concealed. What they are building towards and what we tasted in the sample version however, is great. In time, with a few tweaks here and there this will be a world class offering.
The honey used in Twelve Keys Gin is taken from Clifford’s farm in Norfolk. The bees in the hive feast on a range of flora, from yarrow and meadow buttercup to birdsfoot trefoil, lady’s bedstraw, chicory and cowslip. As a result their honey is bright and floral, adding delicate notes to the gin (when not overruled by the juniper!). With his abundance of honey, Clifford has a good opportunity here to go down an Old Tom route or even make an infused sister edition at some point in the future.
As a micro-farm owner, Clifford understands very well the importance of bees in the pollination of food and plants. He also understands how endangered the species is, so for every 5,000 bottles of Twelve Keys Gin sold, he’ll invest in a new beehive – one big enough to house 60,000 bees. Five-thousand-bottles, incidentally, is all that exists in the world currently. Clifford is planning on taking his time with this; the past 18 months have been quite an adventure already, but now it’s time to seed the gin out slowly, creating a quiet demand and fine tuning the elements.
Batch One of Twelve Keys is a good gin in a great bottle. There is nothing not to like about it – solid, gooey, piny fresh juniper positively hums out of the liquid. If you love classic gins, you’ll love it. That said, it is going to be better as the team work to harness the uniqueness of the botanicals and make each shine. The adjustments in botanical ratios will allow the four conceptual quadrants to flourish, telling their story a little more clearly. And storytelling is what gin is and has always been about.
As a result, we’d urge any collector to get hold of Batch One while they can. To support this journey and to join them on their quest for their own version of the Philosopher’s Stone. Taste it, love it and keep hold of it for when the next batches emerge to compare. Try them side by side and feel the Twelve Keys story as it evolves. Even better, be a part of it!
For more information about Twelve Keys Gin, visit www.twelvekeys.com/
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