Blue Slate Gin
Gin Foundry has only very recently (we’re talking in the last week, here) discovered that the Welsh word for microwave isn’t, in fact, popty ping. It was an unsettling truth; one that made us wonder what else we’ve misunderstood? What else have we missed out on? Is this land of whimsy on the West coast not quite the lyrical curiosity we’d made it out to be? There really was only one way for us to reassure ourselves, and – naturally – it involved a tipple or two. The drink: Blue Slate Gin. Its home: Snowdonia.
Dinorwig Distillery is a cosy little venture nestled into the Welsh mountains. Its flagship gin is a handsome affair, crammed with a bold selection of local ingredients and a necessary amount of interlopers. The juniper, for example, is from Macedonia, while the angelica root comes from Poland. Founder and Distiller Jessica Eade is also something of an interloper in Snowdonia, but having lived most of her life there it’s just about the only place she calls home.
Eade is a smart person. While we may call out the hundred pound question on Who Wants to be a Millionaire and feel a bit smug about ourselves, she’d almost certainly be chiming in at the other end of the show. An ex-clinical psychologist with two doctorate degrees and a certificate from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling to boot, Eade was able to take her systematic brain and apply it to gin. How does a scientist unleash their creative side? With distillation.
Explaining how she composed Blue Slate Gin, Eade said: “Picking the recipe started with distilling and blending using classic gin botanicals, selecting the juniper and working with its flavours to explore other botanicals that complemented and enhanced its notes. I did this through reviewing the profiles of the organic compounds then exploring the aroma and flavour profile through maceration, distilling and blending.
“Always the guiding principle was: what do I have in the garden and what grows here? I wanted to create a gin with depth of flavour and a multi-dimensional profile and used the principles of perfume making to guide me, adding base, middle and high notes working on both aroma and flavour. As with all creative process, there was intuition and luck playing their parts, like when I picked our first harvest of coriander seed. The aroma of fresh, green seed is amazing, and I knew I had to include this botanical in its fresh form in our signature gin.”
Eade starting making gin as a hobby back in 2015. She and her husband, Lew, were relative newbies to the spirit, having only drunk it when a friend introduced them to the boundless joy of a G&T. Both she and Lew are curious a and flavour obsessed people, so as soon as their interest is piqued, they start yearning to understand how its all made. “The progression,” she said, “was natural. I started reading up on distilling and got hooked when I began experimenting with botanicals from the garden and nearby woods.”
By August 2016, Eade’s hobby was starting to turn into something a little more serious. “I had just decided to move on from my career in the NHS and was taking some time to think about work and what resources I had to hand to start a new venture with. “We have a large mountainside garden and our own water supply and a barn that we were toying with converting for holiday lettings. I presented my husband with my latest home crafted G&T and he was so impressed her suggested I consider making a business of it.”
By the following January, Eade was hunkering down in the distillery, working on the recipe for Blue State Gin. She and Lew also sourced (slightly) more heavy-duty distilling equipment and worked on the branding side of things. The label – a beautiful, well thought-out endeavour with rich foiling – is a complicated affair. Eade started by commissioning a local artist to paint a scene of Dinorwig, the she got a local design team to tweak it into a bold line drawing. The labels were then printed using a letter press and hot foil embossing, with the slightly raised images created to be reminiscent of the lines on a map.
The recipe itself was designed to be an authentic expression of the land. “The botanicals were the starting point for the recipe,” Eade said. “I tried to keep the line-up as authentic as possible, using only botanicals that could be harvested in North Wales. We do buy in some of the dried ingredients, but as proof of concept, all of the botanicals used in our gin (apart from honey) can be found growing in the garden around the distillery.”
The end line-up is an interesting one. There’s the aforementioned juniper, coriander seed, angelica and honey, along with rhubarb, Welsh oak bark, bay leaf and rosemary. As the concept was very much built around Eade’s garden, and as the garden is in a less than tropical climate, there is no citrus included in the list. At first, this presented a bit of a problem for Eade. “I wanted those zesty high notes and I just wasn’t getting them from roots, bark and leaves. I was exploring bitters quite a lot as well at the time, and came across the idea of using rhubarb. The garden was full of it, so I got experimenting. It’s a fabulous botanical, giving an almost grapefruit/elderflower tang to the gin.”
Blue Slate Gin is distilled in a 50-litre stainless steel still with a botanical basket attached. The Eades have modified the still so that it incorporates a PID temperature controller and some additional copper, allowing for much needed contact and better purity. Eade takes 25-litres of base spirit bought in from Langley Distillery and dilutes it down to around 60% ABV using water pulled from her own well. The seasoned oak bark is given 24 hours to macerate and removed before distillation, with the majority of the remaining botanicals added in a short while after. Just before the still is turned on, the wood is removed and the rhubarb and honey are added in.
Eade heats the kettle quickly, allowing the foreshots to come through quickly. These are discarded, then the bay leaf and rosemary are placed in the botanical basket to allow the vapour to pass through them. The distillate comes off the still at around 82% ABV, producing a tiny 25 litres worth of hearts cut per run (around 65 bottles once cut).
Blue Slate Gin to taste…
There’s bay leaf and rosemary aplenty on the nose, floating just above a candied sweetness. The aroma is full, fresh and evocative of being in a garden after a downpour. To taste, the orange-like notes are impressive given there is no citrus in the mix, meaning the fresh coriander seed is working overtime to create a cacophony of flavours far beyond the usual capacity of a single botanical. There’s huge twang of jamminess that emerges in the middle, yet no recognisable rhubarb in its own right and just as it starts to appear, honey balances out any of the pithiness the fruit can sometimes bring – keeping the botanical hybridised and intertwining with others. Rhubarb clearly imparts a lot into the mix, yet never plays a staring role – a sign of some very careful and considered dosing and recipe development and a feat that many would struggle to achieve.
The honey also brings in a decidedly complex wild flower element towards the end of the journey that’s both floral, and somehow, mentholic all at once. Angelica dries out the finish and the herbal tone (which we assume must be a combination of bay, rosemary and juniper) continues on the taste buds in a similar way to when makers use the slightest touch of caraway.
The bark isn’t evident and has only become something we’ve noticed more as we revisit it (neat or over ice). There’s a subtle but cunning rooty touch to the gin that underpins the journey. It’s not smoked, not earthy, nor overly woody either – just a looming note underneath that provides a backdrop of shadow off which the brightness of the garden botanicals can fully shine.
There’s a journey to this gin and a delicious one too. One that lingers and that compels you to revisit it once more. In speaking to us, it’s something that Eade described it as having an “afterglow” and while it may not mean anything to most drinkers as a recognisable term, it somehow completely represents what her gin is like. Taste it and you will see.
The genuine provenance of Blue Slate Gin will go someway to ensuring its success. There aren’t just a handful of local botanicals and some tricksy branding at work here, this is a small-scale, made with heart enterprise. This is someone working hard to satisfy her own endless curiosity. There are plans to improve production efficiency with the addition of another 50-litre still, but the flavour wasn’t designed to be scaled up and, at present, Eade doesn’t believe she’ll be able to go bigger without compromising the details.
Integrity and patience, too, are at the core of Blue Slate Gin. Eade isn’t racing her endless amounts of competition to the top of the bestseller list; she’s making the gin that she loves to make at her very own pace. That it might not be readily available makes it all the more special. With scaling up not on the agenda, milestones are not going to be the sort you can measure. There’ll be tweaking of packages and process, but otherwise things will remain as they are. Eade described herself as a maker first and a business person second – as long as what she is going it viable, she’ll keep at it. Just like many other regional and countryside businesses, finding the right strategies to make what they do physically sustainable as well as profitable from a business perspective will be a continuous challenge for the years ahead. For those who endorse their brand and buy into what Dinorwig does as a distillery, there’s a charm to the romanticised idea a distillery based in a former quarry workers cottage being snowed in in winter or to it being so rural, that the internet drops off when the wind blows hard enough – but there’s a reality to running a thriving business from there too.
Uniqueness, in the broader sense, is something one has to fight for in a market as insanely diverse as gin, a fact that Eade is all too keenly aware of. “There are so many wonderful micro-batch, craft gins out there that are authentic to the area, it would be ridiculous to suggest that anything we do or use is particularly unique. However, we feel that we have successfully created a gin that stands out on the shelf: authentic in nature, beautifully presented and distinctive in flavour. It is a quality, micro-batch regional product that aspires to stay that way.” In an era of pink and glitter strewn products with a desperate need to grab your attention, yet once they do, are vacant of character and devoid of anything remotely captivating, Dinorwig’s quality is in its timeless classism. In its reserved quality. In its desire to be true to what it is and what it aspires to be. There’s soul there.
Such a scale leaves room for experimentation though and while there’s no total weirdo releases on the books, Blue Slate Gin will be joined by seasonal varieties along the way, with limited batches rolling on out of each passing quarter. There intention is that all will reflect the authenticity of Dinorwig Distillery’s approach: certain flavours will only be available at certain times and the production will by influenced by the environment.
As you may have gathered from our verbosity, we’re quite sold on Blue Slate Gin. It’s rare these days that a gin comes along that makes us actually pay attention, but there is something honourable about Eade’s approach. A dignity to it. She’s not here to make the biggest gin brand the world has ever seen. She’s here for the process and the craft of it. As she says herself: “Gin making as a craft just gives and gives. There are so many botanicals to explore and a multitude of processes to discover, but the making gives relatively quick gratification. I really enjoy a G&T, but it was the crafting of the spirit that captured my heart and imagination.” She’s a Ginsmith and one you ought to get to know.
For more information about Blue Slate Gin, visit dinorwigdistillery.co.uk
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