Blossom & Hops Gin
There are lots of excellent distillers in the world, and lots of reasons to get excited about the products they make. Still, the ones that we chime with the most are the ones who remind us of the books we read as children. You know, the mad, eccentric Grandmother who had pots and pans piled high with strange concoctions. The inventors who made breakfast machines, the scientists who brought dreams to life. These were people who had made the adventure into adulthood without losing any of their wonder; they were the people to aspire to.
There seems to be something Trouvaille Spirits founder Tim James that hums with that same energy, so we were keen to get talking to him as soon as we heard of his Blossom & Hops Gin.
James was a home brewer with an intuitive take on flavours. This involved a hob piled high with boil pots, self-constructed mash tuns and buckets filled with fermenting flavours. The set up was rudimentary, but the resulting booze was far superior to its surroundings. “I produced some really good beers and friends and family often said I should sell it,” he told us. “So in late 2016 I bought a more ‘professional’ piece of homebrewing equipment called The Grainfather. A few months later I also invested in a column reflux still/condenser.”
The move to distilling was a natural progression, and one driven almost entirely by curiosity. “Beer is very recipe driven,” James explains. “There are literally thousands of recipes online that you can just replicate as long as you keep things sterile. Distilling and Gin in particular is more a dark art. Yes, you need to understand the basics, but there are so many ways to get to an end product, and most if not all producers keep their recipes a closely guarded secret. This in itself is both challenging and exciting, hence our gravitation towards producing a gin.’
Chaos then, is an attraction. When Trouvaille Spirits was born, the distilling scene in its home country, South Africa, was still very young. “There were probably no more than 30 local gins on the market at the time,” James explains, “but two years later there are in excess of 100.” At the time, it seemed clear that South Africa needed a lot more representation, and with a mad world of flavours at his disposal out there, he was going to be able to satisfy his boundless wonder.
In total, it took 10 months to perfect two recipes, with a lot of trial and a great deal of luck involved. Luck, in fact, became a key part of the brand. ‘Trouvaille’ translates to lucky find or valuable discovery in French, and it was the mixing of their separate gins that helped them to crack the final recipe. Lucky indeed.
The initial plan was to launch a Hops Gin and a Blossom Gin, but when James went for a weekend away with his partner Teresa, the idea to mix his two products struck. He added one to the other and struck gold; Blossom & Hops Gin was born.
The recipe’s key success lies in its traditions. So many South African distillers cannot resist ripping all of the Fynbos out of the land and cramming it into their stills. The end result can be great or it can be a little vulgar, and it can all too rarely be classed as gin either, as juniper hovers around in the background, transparent and ghostly.
In our opinion, Gins from the region are, by and large, heavily medicinal botanical vodkas, so when one comes out wearing traditional colours with a sense of local flair, we can’t help but root for it. The local angle here comes from coriander seeds, citrus (lime leaves, lime blossom, lemon rind and orange rind) and hops. The rest of the ingredients – juniper, angelica, cardamom, liquorice root, cassia, orris and grains of paradise are in imported from Europe, the East and other parts of Africa.
The Southern Aroma Hops, incidentally, come form the Outeniqua mountains in the South Eastern Cape, known locally as The Garden Route. The particular strain used in Blossom & Hops Gin is low in acid and much less bitter than usual, bringing a citrus, grapefruit-like finish to the gin.
The inclusion of hops into a gin recipe was an obvious choice given James’ brewing background. Still, there was research that went into it as well. “We found that hops was used in very old Genever recipes dating back to the 1600s. In these old recipes we also found the presence of lime blossom, a botanical that we were already experimenting with in our lime blossom gin”.
“What drew us to the lime blossom was its perfume, which does come through in the nose of our gin. We set out to create something agreeable to the modern palate, with three criteria in mind: 1. We wanted a mainstream, juniper forward gin. 2. We wanted a gin that was ‘moreish, that people would want to drink again! 3. We wanted to create a delicate gin. The latter point morphed, though, and we ended up creating something slightly bolder.”
The majority of the Blossom & Hops Gin recipe was created in Trouvaille Spirits’ basement, although help to bring it to completion came from the gin’s current maker, Hope on Hopkins.
Gin Foundry regulars will know just how much we admire Hope & Hopkins Distillery, based not far from Trouvaille Spirits’ home. Co-founder Lucy and Leigh are insanely dedicated to their craft and everything they produce is made with integrity and heart. The duo have an intrinsic knowledge of botanicals, so when James hit a flavour wall, Lucy stepped in to suggest lime leaf. It was the final piece in the jigsaw, and gave James great faith in their knowhow.
The barriers to entering the market in South Africa are, arguably, more stringent than in England; a distillery needs to be built and fully functional before the licensing process can get started. This is a process that can take up to a year, so it’s an incredibly costly waiting time for an idea that may not even get approved in the end anyway. James knew the time was now to move into the market – the wave was there to catch and he’d have been foolish to pass it up – so following their first positive interactions, he decided that collaboration with Hope on Hopkins was the way forward.
At first, Lucy and Leigh were quite hesitant to take on the project. They’re busy as it is (they seem to be the go to contact distiller in the region now) and the duo had their concerns about the impact hops residue has on distilling equipment. After a sip, though, they couldn’t resist, so the combined team worked on a plan for the hops that wouldn’t affect the overall equipment.
Gin geeks, place your bets now: what was the alternative? Why, it was a vacuum still, of course. By cold distilling the hops, the distilling team were able to extract the fresher flavours and aromas, keeping the bitterness in the leftover products, rather than taking it over into the spirit. The process is simple and quick, with the hops put through a mere three hour maceration ahead of distillation.
The rest of the botanicals are placed in Hope of Hopkins’ pot still. A cane neutral spirit is added to the pot with juniper, coriander and the citrus, which sit in amongst the liquid as the still is gently heated. The lime blossom and lime leaves (along with a pinch of juniper and coriander) are added to the vapour basket above the pot. The distillation takes around six hours, with the gin coming off the still at around 78% ABV. This is then blended down to 43% and left to sit overnight, before the hops distillate is blended in.
It’s a mad science, but its an exact one, and with so very many steps in the process, one can’t help but wonder just how long it took to hone the final method behind Blossom & Hops Gin. A long time is a pretty sage guess, though…
Blossom & Hops Gin to taste…
On the nose, juniper and earthy hops combine with the heady aromas of of lime blossom. Distinct and captivating, there are many of the same cues to taste, although there’s also the addition of a notable citric warmth that joins the chorus as coriander seed warms towards the mid journey. The grains of paradise add a real depth to the flavour, but it’s the core duo of aromatic hop and lime blossom that hold true throughout, with the latter that drags onto the smooth, slightly sweet finish.
In a G&T, the tonic further accentuates the lime blossom and lime leaves on the front end while the more assertively spiced and earthy elements, that are so rewarding when sampled straight, disappear all together on the finish. It’s an accessible, pleasant melange of favours, if a little underwhelming given the promising sequence of botanical high notes (and the way they are integrated one into the next) that’s evident when served up neat. For some, that adaptable, slightly ubiquitous and delicate profile will be this gin’s biggest selling point as it can be paired with many a garnish (try rosemary or grapefruit peel as both work, and both bring out completely different aspects of the gin). Others may find the gin’s transience a little forgettable come G&T time, a mid ground that makes sense as the best of both worlds on paper and when served neat on a tasting panel, yet somehow, as in our case, leaves us wondering if the assimilation is in fact a compromise that’s left it incapable of surviving a mixer. For the record, we tried it with four tonic brands at different ratios before writing the above.
While the collaboration with Hope on Hopkins began as a workaround, the team has become a close one, so it’s very unlikely indeed that James will look to produce his Gin at home. “If we look at the original strategy, it was very much to grow the brand and, once established, to build our own production facility. At the journey has progressed, however, so has our partnership with Hope on Hopkins, who have added tremendous value, not only to our product but also to our knowledge and understanding of the industry.
“Their help and expertise has been invaluable, and although our relationship with them is not a partnership in the legal sense, for all intents and purposes we see it as such and our success is their success. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Interestingly enough, given the beery background of James, the only other edition in the Trouvaille Spirits lineup is a Lime Blossom Gin, which is said to be much sweeter than Blossom & Hops (which we felt was already quite sweet, with the cane spirit setting the tone for proceedings). It’s not quite ready yet, but it’s next on the production schedule. After that, a Hops Vodka, perhaps but the reality is that Blossom & Hops Gin is still a very small player in a big market, and like many in their stage of development, almost every plan they have largely involves finding routes for growth.
So far, the brand work has been great. The gin’s bottle is pretty and the box it comes in is beautiful, with stunning illustration work. It works, certainly, but in an age where custom glass is becoming order of the day, it might be a good move for James to start looking in that direction. Yes, it’s expensive to do, but the amount of beautiful, crimped glass on offer in Europe at the moment is mind blowing, and even though our role as critics is to take a rational approach to choosing our gins, you can bet your house on the fact that we just can’t stop buying the tall, ripples, glorious glass.
That trend will make its way to South Africa in no time and for those with long term aspirations and such promise, it may be a clever move that will help them jump in ahead of the crowd. Still, this is a brilliant start, and the contents of the bottle are the most important part (once you’ve convinced someone to try it, that is).
Blossom & Hops Gin is a good drink. It’s familiar, yet unique, with whispers of strange, exotic botanicals rising up alongside a gin core. We are enamoured by this storytelling; one sip, and you haven’t got the wild planes of Africa in your mouth, but the subtle flavours of invention, curiosity and of following an idea down the rabbit hole and return clutching something interesting in both hands. In a world where everything’s trying to grab your attention, a little bit of subtlety is nice to see, and we hope it makes its way to our home turf so that more can get to try it for them selves.
For more information about Blossom & Hop Gin, visit trouvaillespirits.com
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