Call us shallow if you like, but the second we locked eyes with the pretty little bottles from Twisting Spirits we were eyes-on-storks in love. Bold, blocky and very clever in the detail, the bottles are decorated by sunshine-bright shades of pantone colours that represent the flavours within.
Mary Bateman, who co-founded the distillery in Oxfordshire alongside her husband, Richard, explains the bold look: “The labels actually represent the DNA of the gin. The smaller coloured bars each represent a single botanical ingredient used in the gin. The more of the botanical, the bigger the bar. The largest blocks of colour represent the flavour profile of the featured botanicals, such as kaffir lime, lemongrass, earl grey, etc. The look and feel matches the taste of the gin and its feature botanicals.”
There is no flagship to speak of here, rather each member of the Twisted Spirits family is just as important as the next. So far in the range there are three boldly flavoured additions to the portfolio: Douglas Fir, Earl Grey and Kaffir Lime and Lemongrass. Each wears its botanical heart on its sleeve, painting a vivid picture of flavour in the mind before the stopper is even out of the bottle.
Still in its early stages (it only launched in 2017), Twisted Spirits is already as wide as it is tall, with constant trials and experiments suggesting that further expansion is an inevitability. There’s a certain mysterious confidence about every step that has been taken by the brand so far too, especially when you consider the fact that the Batemans are completely new to distilling, having bulldozed their way in following a career in IT.
Their initial plan was to open up a micro-brewery, but when Richard’s long-standing back injury came rearing its ugly head again, the duo realised that lifting kegs all day was not going to work.
After much discussion and deliberation, they settled on spirit production, keeping hold of many of the ideas they’d been storing up for beer and transferring them to gin. “For instance,” Mary explains, “modern, colourful packaging, full transparency of ingredients and bold, bright flavour profiles. We wanted our gins to really burst with flavour, presenting unusual feature botanicals to maximum effect whilst harmonising with the traditional gin notes of juniper and coriander.”
It took just over two years for Mary and Richard to go from lightbulb to first run, with equipment, education and HMRC-wrangling consuming that time greedily. Strangely – given their significant lack of know how before embarking on this project – the duo chose a dual distillation technique for Twisted Spirits, so they had to learn how to use both a traditional copper still and a rotary evaporator.
Recipe development, Mary informs us, was “endless,” with a great chunk of time spent getting the base recipe – cooked in the copper still – right. The core gin, in fact, was tweaked right up until the very first production run, when the Bateman’s realised they would keep fiddling around with botanical weights forever if they didn’t just get on with it.
Base gin in place, they began putting all and anything through the rotary evaporator, from Christmas pudding to celeriac (a move, incidentally, that they thoroughly do not recommend). From there, they started to zero in on a number of recipes that showed promise, refining them into prototype gins that they could test on friends and relatives.
To make the gin, the Bateman’s gather all of their ingredients together, weighing and processing them according to what each ingredient requires. Some of the botanicals are hand crushed using a pestle and mortar, whilst others are added into the still in tact. The botanicals are macerated in a neutral grain alcohol/water mix and left to steep overnight. When morning rears its head, the maceration is poured into two 30-litre alembic stills, where it is heated slowly and gently to ensure maximum taste. This spirit – which comes off the still at around 73% – is then cut down to bottling strength (41.5% ABV) with water.
The lighter botanicals are cold distilled, a process which allows the flavours to preserve as close to their original, uncooked taste as possible. These distilates, too, come out of the still at a much higher ABV than when they went in, so they are cut down to 41.5% before being blended, or rather, “twisted” together with the base to create the finished gin.
Twisting Spirits Kaffir Lime & Lemongrass Gin to taste…
“Our Kaffir Lime & Lemongrass Gin was conceived from a love of Thai Green curry, which we both share,” Mary explained. “We had most of the ingredients available in the kitchen freezer and decided to give them a whirl through the rotary evaporator. The end product turned out pretty good, we developed that recipe further, deciding which ingredients to hot distil and cold distil. This was the first gin we developed and is our current best seller.”
The botanicals used in the gin are, juniper, coriander seed, angelica, almonds, orris, cardamom, liquorice, cubeb, cassia, sarsaparilla, (which we think are all part of the base gin), as well as kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, pink peppercorns, chamomile, orange, lemon, lavender, tonka.
It’s immediately apparent that talk of loud flavours as bright as the bottle design wasn’t just something the Bateman’s pay lip service to – it’s absolutely something their gins are imbued with. On the nose the piercing citronella notes take the fore, but there’s also an added bright citrus zip to freshen it up, as well as a softer, silky floral tone from lavender, chamomile and pink pepper. The first impression is very one dimensional, kaffir lime leaves might as well be rolled up your nose, but the second you get past that, and it only takes a little coaxing – you can see a very multifaceted gin aroma emerge.
To taste, the cardamom, more pronounced on the palate, and cassia spice greatly helps bring the kaffir lime leaf under control and add some much needed depth. It’s not so much Thai Green curry any longer, but it’s easy to see where the inspiration links to the end outcome. Overall it’s smooth at 41.5% and the less evident elements of how the gin is constructed are very clever and deliver brilliant results for those who care to take a closer look. Tasted neat with intent to deconstruct – almond and tonka help add textural qualities, as well as their distinct tones, while the chamomile and lavender play softly above the lime leaf and pink pepper respectively.
The side of the bottle explains that the lime leaf is made up of 80% citronellal – the key note in citronella oil. It’s a big part of the neat gin, but in a G&T – this emerges with an aggressive vengeance and domineers the drink to such an extent that the vast majority of the nuances and the clever layering isn’t just lost, but totally drowned under a sea of tonic with no chance of being fished out with any garnish no matter how inspired (Jalapeno pepper, incidentally, is the garnish we’d go with). It’s not that it’s a bad flavour, just an overwhelming one and while some will think Thai green curry and South East Asian cuisine, to us, Kaffir Lime & Lemongrass Gin in a G&T is firstly, no longer really a gin at all, and secondly, so dominated by citronella that it pushes us immediately back to holidays on in the South of France, with the wafts of mosquito incense keeping you alive during the balmy evenings. That’s no bad thing as a memory, but something that tastes like mosquito incense isn’t exactly transportive romance in a bottle either…
Twisting Spirits Earl Grey Tea Gin to taste…
“Our Earl Grey Tea Gin is the winner of our tea based gin experiments and is the result of lots of experimentation with a selection of different teas. It turns out that cold distilled tea tastes really great in gin, so much so that we plan to release more tea based gins in the future,” Mary explained.
Earl Grey, juniper, coriander seed, angelica, almonds, orris, cardamom, liquorice, cubeb, cassia and sarsaparilla are the botanicals listed in the gin. To smell, the tea is clear and brilliant and leads most the aroma. There’s no stewed element at all, instead, the vivid nature of the ingredient has been harnessed with masterful efficacy. To taste, the tea is equally, if not even more imposing with the bergamot bright and vivid while the tannic tea leaves follow up behind.
Neat, tea dominates – but eventually, the intensity dips to leave way to cardamom, a shadow of juniper and the cubeb which provides a cracked spice to warm the finish. In a G&T, just like with Twisting Spirits’ Kaffir Lime Leaves and Lemongrass Gin, the star botanical – Earl Grey in this instance – injects itself with steroids and rampages wildly.
Twisting Spirits Douglas-Fir Gin to taste…
Finally, we reach the last gin (and our favourite from the bunch). Telling us about this particular experiment, Mary Said: “I read about Douglas Fir in the Good Food Magazine and its growing popularity in food dishes. We thought it sounded really interesting and potentially a very good fit, partnering well with the juniper notes of gin.
“The needles taste different tree to tree according to the growing condition, so having located various trees and after nibbling away at the needles from each, we now have our favourite specimens. We combine a ration of needles from each tree to produce the unique taste of Douglas Fir Gin.”
Douglas-fir, juniper, almonds, orris, cardamom, liquorice, cubeb, angelica, cassia, sarsaparilla, coriander seed make the line up for this gin. Surprisingly, given the lack of citrus botanicals listed, there’s a distinct lemony levity to the gin, no doubt coming from the needles. Cardamom adds a fragrant warmth while cassia and sarsaparilla root helps with their spice and light touch of smoke. Almonds once again add weight to the mouthfeel and a lovely fullness to proceedings while the cubeb prolongs the finish with a dusty spice.
As with the tea or the Kaffir lime leaf and the Earl Grey – the signature botanical dominates the flavour, but in this case the botanical in question, Douglas-Fir is a lot closer to juniper that overall, it feels more ginny mainly as it feels more piney and herbal as an ensemble – a fact that stays true when mixed in a G&T.
Overall, we’re fans of the range, and especially of what it is trying to do and be. It’s hard not to like a bold flavour, that’s well constructed and that really showcases the full spectrum each botanical can bring to an ensemble. The bright, zinging, overwhelming weirdness of the Kaffir Lime & Lemongrass wasn’t for us in a G&T, but is lovely neat, and doubtless it will appeal to those with a taste for Far East madness. We’ve got a strong appreciation for the Douglas Fir however, which knots itself together with the piny juniper to appeal to our love of more classically styled gins.
In our opinion however, the thing that’s most frustrating with the Twisting Spirits Trio is that they are very good spirits, and the only thing that’s needed to make them world class gins is for them to have more juniper. They are wonderfully loud as flavours, but they are not that distinctly ginny, or even at all, once mixed.
For those who haven’t had the chance to taste the range (and do – it’s a spectacular flavour journey) we’d point out the labels to illustrate our point in a way that you can see across the internet. The labels actually represent the DNA of the gin and the more of the botanical, the bigger the bar and it’s been done in a quite accurate way. The juniper on the labels are represented by the blue colour, and for a category where the one rule is for the spirit to taste predominantly of juniper, there’s a shockingly small amount of it compared to the other colours…
While we feel (and so must they as the team designed them to be representational) this graphic depiction of the flavours within is accurate to the contents, it’s also an area of concern for those looking to drink gin, not botanical vodka.
In our opinion, sampled neat, the Twisting Spirits trio are all just about on the right side of the contemporary, progressive gin flavour predicament – you can discern juniper, it’s not predominant but it’s there. In a G&T however, they are not and all semblance of gin, at best, is very questionable. A smaller dose of the star botanicals would make them better as gins and ensure that juniper survived tonic, yet would still mean they remain unique and complex as spirits, distinct in their own right and charged with the same emotive power the existing recipes have.
We understand why they pushed the flavour so far, but we also feel there’s no need to do so.
While the Twisting Spirits range is only really dominating the local scene as yet, we’ve got faith that the Bateman’s methodology and design work will steer the gin down a wider path. Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in their own perceptions of taste, and having such obvious, singular flavours helps to educate the palate well. Where that line of wider botanical ensemble vs juniper is not something that will come as shock to the Twisting Spirits team either, and they are aware the fault lines on which they have built their home.
Mary, in all her wisdom, cites this as Twisting Spirits’ main point of difference with other gins. “We wanted to experiment with the concept of presenting bold, fresh botanicals flavours in all our gins alongside the leading juniper notes. As a result, our gins taste just as described on the bottle – there’s no need to go searching for the feature botanical in the taste profile. It was a risk as we’d never seen this done before to such an extent.
“The amazing reactions we get from our customers when they try our gins for the first time really is very reassuring. The positivity really drives us to keep developing new products and shows us we are on the right track with the concept. We feel very proud of the end result, each Gin is a taste explosion!”
We completely agree. They are booming spirits and spirits everyone, from casual fans to connoisseur, should seek to make their own opinion on which side of the gin / botanical vodka divide they sit. What you will discover is that the great thing with these three, is that regardless of what you conclude, it’s hard not to just like the liquid and the flavours in your glass.
For more information about Twisting Spirits, visit the website: twistingspirits.co.uk
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