Bullards Norwich Dry Gin
When Bullards Spirits’ head distiller Peter Smith set about creating the recipe for Bullards Norwich Dry Gin, he did so with a simple brief in mind: use tonka. Get all up in that tonka. Get that tonka all up in you. Build a gin – a good, honest, smooth and juniper-y gin – but my God, let that tonka shine.
It’s a notion we can certainly get on board with. Tonka is one of nature’s strangest botanicals, unquantifiable in its ugliness, yet so rich, distinctive and vanilla-y to taste and smell that it brings in mystifying levels of depth. It is luxury, gourmet and oh-so-delicious, so there’s little wonder it’s having something of a moment. Still, this is now. Way back in the year 2013, the wonder-bean was being largely ignored. In fact, Bullards Spirits’ co-founder Craig Allison had barely given it any thought until he tried it baked into a fudge. He was instantly wowed by the taste, and logged it in his mind for future gin trials.
At the time, Allison was running a Gin palace in the heart of Norwich, churning out Spanish-style serves and gaining an understanding of the flavours involved in all 200 of the gins on his shelves. Understandably, he’d fallen head over heels in love with the spirit, so when an opportunity to buy a 120-litre still (along with space to install it in a nearby pub, The Ten Bells) came along, he seized it with both hands.
Smith gained his distilling knowledge though an internship at The Cotswold Distillery, where he learnt both about spirit production and the wider direction of the Gin category. The former in particular gave him the tools with which to build the Bullards Norwich Dry Gin recipe, so he set to work on development, blending regular gin botanicals with tonka until he had a mix he was happy with.
The resulting gin has nine additional botanicals in it: juniper, orange peel, lemon peel, cassia, liquorice, angelica root, black pepper, cardamom and coriander. All of the ingredients are added to the base spirit 12 hours ahead of distillation, so as to ensure maximum flavour extraction. At 7am each day, the still is turned on and the run performed. It takes around 12 hours on average, yielding 60 litres of gin at an ABV of 82% (this is cut almost in half – to 42.5% – with water).
Bullard’s Norwich Dry Gin to taste…
There’s a soft, creaminess to the nose, along with a bright, warm peels and a distinct yet very delicate cardamom in the background. It’s incredibly enticing a smell, with vibrant citrus giving a hint of tonic way ahead of time. It feels as if it’s absolutely, positively screaming out for its G&T partner, actually, so we were almost reluctant to try it neat. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it…
There is such a bright, grassy quality when tasted on its own that we’re almost tempted to accuse the coriander of being plant rather than seed. Juniper obviously has a huge role to play here, bringing an immense, fir-tree-pine to the fore and given a little muscle to do so from the cardamom, while the lemon and orange deliver a freshness to the front end. In the back lurks a huge spice, with black pepper biting the tongue violently, perhaps to the detriment of the tonka. High alcohol content emphasises spice, though, but when diluted, the gin takes on a (slightly) silkier nature.
There’s so much depth to the G&T, with dry, dusty spices lingering in the background as a sweet, almost nutty tonka dances around on top. The lemon and orange work in tandem, playing more of a fruity role than a caustic citrus one (though this, perhaps, is a case of relativity. The rest of the ingredients are hard, dry roots and spices, so the oranges and lemons are the liveliest members of the team). As far as G&Ts go, you’ll be hard pushed to find another that manages to be so close to the classics, yet so very far from boring. You haven’t tasted anything like it before, certainly, but it’s also not so boldly weird that it makes you want to throw your glass against the wall, screaming “where’s the juniper? Where’s the juniper” into the night. It’s exactly the sort of thing we’ve been asking for from the gin market – innovation that isn’t at the expense of the spirit’s history and heritage.
One of the reasons we wait so long to review new products is the variance you get batch on batch in the early days of a gin. It’s quite hard to categorically state the flavour of a gin as it’s still evolving (sometimes intentionally and unintentionally). Tasting early Bullard’s VS this 2018 batch and it seems the citrus has been dialled down, with roots and spice now playing a more prominent role on the nose and the overall impression is that of a far more spiced and dusty gin as a result. In our opinion, it’s better as a result and makes more of the Tonka, which is something we gathered to be of huge importance to them as a team.
Regardless on minor variations – it seems we aren’t alone in our approval, too. While we’re the first people to note the futility of awards (there are so many participation medals these days that actually coming away with a gong is often equivalent to making one out of an old cereal box and scraps of tin foil), when Bullards Norwich Dry Gin was named the best London dry at the 2017 World Drinks Awards – just a couple of years on from its launch – we couldn’t help but take note. As far as prizes go, it’s not a bad one to take home…
With an eye for trends, thus an inclination of what was to come, the Bullard’s team went straight into production of a fruit gin, using the classic strawberry and black pepper G&T serve as inspiration. “The subtle sweetness and subtle spice compliment the dryness of juniper,” Allison explains. “It got us thinking, anyway, and we brought this idea to the distillery, where Peter began work creating a product completely different product to our current Norwich Dry Gin.
Smith hit a wall pretty quickly, seeking help from an unlikely ally. Allison explains: “During the initial recipe build of Bullard’s Strawberry & Black Pepper Gin, we found that something was missing. It had strawberry on the nose, with a very late, very strong peppery finish, but not a lot of strawberry to taste.”
Now, if you’re anything like us, you’ll have a madly Millennial reaction to what comes next. There’s an interloper in the mix. A yellow interloper. To soften the blow of the pepper and up the saccharine qualities of the strawberry, Smith added in a wedge of banana into the spirit. It has us shook, it’s so extra it’s… well, it’s a total weirdo to be honest. Allison agrees. “Peter came up with the idea of using bananas to bridge the gap, and what initially sounded crazy… actually worked.”
Bullard’s Strawberry & Black Pepper Gin to taste…
Understandably, we had to taste it to believe it. There is no denying the banana presence, though it’s never too sweet, nor too cloying, it’s just there in the backdrop, providing an anonymous sugary note (and a big, tropical leafiness). Juniper, black pepper, lemon and cardamom also find their way into the line-up for Bullards’ fruitier endeavour, and while strawberries and bananas are the first flavours that make their way onto the tongue, the pepper has bite and the juniper feels like an iron rod through the core of it, holding everything in place.
With tonic, you really understand what the gin is trying (and, for the most part, managing) to do. This isn’t a fruit gin for the sake of it, and it’s not a silly, thoughtless safari into the intentionally weird. It’s a gin first and foremost, with a rigorous herbal base and a bright, burnishing citrus that stops it wandering too far off the righteous path. It’s really quite lovely and with it’s balancing act of fruit but still gin it is, arguably, one of the best infusions on the UK market.
The bottle is a standard Oslo affair and nothing to write home about, but given that we’re entering the age of custom glass (look around – there’s some beautiful glasswork going on at the moment), this is something that could change. Liquid is important, but branding is key in the booze industry, especially in the crowded Gin market. A gin should be visible from across the room – just think how quickly your eyes land on Bombay or No.3 when you’re at a bar. With an understanding of the category not just as a drinker and a maker, but as a bar manager too, Allison will have a better understanding of this than most, so we’d say it’s only a matter of time until the gin becomes enshrined in something a little more jazzy.
Of course, we wouldn’t be us if we were being entirely nice, so a slight bone of contention we’ll share is the reasoning behind the Bullards name. Bullards was a famous brewery that served the city for a good 130 years after it opened its doors in 1837. The anchor label splashed across the Bullards Norwich Dry Gin bottle is borrowed from the brewery’s logo so too is that EST date in particular, so they’re making a right song and dance of it. Making a nod to your namesake town’s history is all well and good, but there’s something a little cynical about borrowing the Bullards timeline.
It feels a little like they’re up weighting the link between the two even though it doesn’t quite belong to them. To those that don’t look with enough scrutiny, which is 99% of people, it suggests a closer connection to the historic brand than mere geography and we’ll be the first to flag we’re uncomfortable with it.
Moreover, the brewery’s reputation and provenance is simply not something that this distillery needs to use to elevate its profile. Its gins really and truly speak for themselves, and with a fun, bright and un-pretentious team behind it, Bullards Spirits is a company that can go very far on its own steam. The team are welcoming the curious in with open arms and creating something of an open invitation into the Gin world. Make like Alan Partridge and head to Norwich – take a tour, meet the team and learn about the history of gin as told through the eyes of those that are living it.
For more information about Bullards Norwich Dry Gin, visit their website: bullardsspirits.co.uk
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