When Sri Lanka-based Rockland Distillery released Colombo No.7 Gin in May 2015, it unleashed on the Gin world a most intriguing tale of war, resourcefulness and regulation. You see, Colombo No.7 Gin is based on a 70-year-old-recipe, one created when trade channels became blocked during the Second World War.
Founded in 1924, Rockland Distillery was the first commercial distillery to be established in Sri Lanka. The distillery was built to produce Arrack, but along with many others, a decade or two after it launched it was asked by the British Government to stop what it was doing and begin making spirits for the war effort. Rockland founder Carl de Silva Wijeyeratne not only obeyed, but quite accidentally made a spirit that he was sure would make a great base for a gin.
At the time, there were no British regulations in place that would allow either Gin or the distillation of foreign products considered to be ‘non-native spirits” within the commonwealth territories outside of the UK. It was clear, however, that the spirit was – and possibly always will be – of great importance to British people, especially those living in the colonies who wanted a taste of home. A regulation was created to allow non-native spirits to be produced in the country: CMFL – Ceylon Made Foreign Liquor. Of course, once Ceylon was changed to Sri Lanka a slight rebrand was needed, so the word ‘Ceylon’ was swapped out for ‘country’. Logo re-design is such a pain… Incidentally, for those who like this sort of trivia – India was also issued with a regulation called IMFL (India Made Foreign Liquor) around the same time.
When creating the recipe for Colombo No.7 Gin, Carl used his favourite gin – Tanqueray – as inspiration, creating a base of juniper, coriander, angelica and liquorice. As we mentioned earlier, trade routes were blocked during the war so it was hard to get hold of typical gin ingredients; instead, rather ingeniously, the core four were joined by domestically grown cinnamon, ginger and curry leaf – the first of which was harvested from the cinnamon gardens in Colombo itself.
When the war was over and trade routes resumed, thinking the bulk of drinkers were more acquainted and would prefer a more traditional recipe, Carl moved towards a typical London Dry style. He created Rockland Dry Gin, which is still sold today and which has been, since its inception, Sri Lanka’s best selling gin.
Today, Rockland Distillery is managed by Carl’s grandson, Amal de Silva Wijeyeratne, who joined the company in 2005 in order to rebuild it following the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004. As part of his restructuring he began to dig through the archives and in doing so had the bright idea to recreate Colombo No.7; after all, in a world positivity buckling under the weight of gin, what could be better than to seize upon its popularity with something a little different?
On working with the original recipe, Amal said: “We did try to see if we could enhance it and tried adding other botanicals and spices. We tried lemon grass, turmeric, cardamom etc., but somehow we always found that more spices didn’t necessarily make it better and seemed to take it out of balance. My grandfather was always a perfectionist, and Colombo No.7 was already perfect. We didn’t change a thing, and in about two months the gin was ready.”
Colombo No.7 Gin, despite its deeply Sri Lankan roots, is distilled in England by Alcohols Ltd. Rockland Distillery still makes a majority of its own products back in Sri Lanka, but Amal, fearing Government intervention, decided to move the new gin out of the country. “Sri Lanka was just emerging all battered and bruised after nearly four decades of internal revolution,” he explains. “The new victorious Government had radical new ideas and policies, one of which was ‘full stop to alcohol.’ They then took over a state run distillery that had been sold to a private investor and at the time we feared that private distilleries could be taken over. Given this context, and learning from the Bacardi family, we made secret plans to revive Colombo No.7 and manufacture it outside Sri Lanka.”
The recipe was taken to the late Peter McKay of Alcohols Ltd., who was initially less than comfortable using curry leaves as an ingredient. Rockland was a client, though, so he acquiesced, following the botanicals as prescribed by Carl. Peter quickly came around to the idea; calling Colombo No.7 “easily one of the finest gins” he’d ever distilled.
Colombo No.7 Gin to taste…
A hefty dose of sugar sweet juniper greets the nose, joined by a spice that is zesty and bright, rather than curried. Colombo No.7 smells like an honest to goodness gin, redolent of bright purple juniper berries and tropical forests.
Colombo No.7 has landed at a funny time in our gin drinking history; when it was first made 70 years ago it would have been unimaginably alien with its citrus absence and curry leaf presence, but tasted next to gins created in the last couple of years it almost cries of tradition. Juniper leads the way to taste, with liquorice and angelica lending an earthy, almost dusty sweetness and a soft mouth. Cinnamon sings loud and bright, though doesn’t whip at the tongue in a typically barbarous manner, instead conspiring with the ginger and curry leaf to bring a fragrant warmth and depth. Coriander seed rounds out the flavour, bringing a hint of citrus and nuts and prolonging the finish.
Tonic complements Colombo No.7 beautifully; with an initial super-sweet fizz of lemon sherbet curling up the tongue and around the corners of the mouth, before juniper and curry leaves step in to slap the silliness away. Piquancy cannot be distilled, but we’re always of the opinion that no one ever gave cinnamon that memo, as the spice so often coats the tongue in kerosene and lights a fire. That said, despite a predominantly spiced base, the gin makes no attempts to sting the mouth, instead the cinnamon, curry leaf and ginger form a steady, garden-green soapbox from which the juniper can shout. It’s… good. Very good.
Amal suggests curry leaves as a garnish – but only at a push. “This gin,” he says, “is perfect with good quality tonic. Why wreck it with the juices of a garnish, after all the trouble we have taken to make you a perfect recipe.” We tried it with curry leaves and it was pretty exquisite, but as we’re slightly less protective of the gin than its owner, we were also willing to road test it. Our garnish shout is fruit. Play with the gin’s provenance and add a slice of sweet, fleshy mango. Delicious.
While the recipe may have taken no time to reinterpret, the label was another matter. Intricate and beautiful, it took Rockland Distillery a great deal of time and effort to work out the design, which speaks of gardens and nature and baroque henna tattoos. In the midst of all this lush green sits a bronze oval featuring the namesake seven – this in itself representative of Colombo No.7’s ingredients. Towards the top sits another oval, this one bearing an image of the mythical beast Gaja-singha.
Colombo No.7 explains the use of Gaja-singha on its website: the elephant symbolises wisdom, as in pioneering the first gin to be manufactured in the Indian subcontinent, whilst the lion represents the courage of creating a gin using strange and exotic ingredients. The overall look is striking and bold – much like the liquid within.
As a brand, we’re sold. It would be nice to see it made in Sri Lanka but with both national and international uncertainties so easily inflamed it’s UK-based distillation is understandable to say the least. Perhaps ironically, Colombo Gin serves as a reminder that it is through surmounting challenges that real inspiration is born. Had political turmoil and the potential of loss not have been in the air, the Colombo No.7 recipe would never have been dug up out of necessity and may not exist today. With Amal on board, Rockland Distillery is clinging firmly to family roots, and with Colombo No.7 its saying ‘hey! We did weird gin first and what we’ve achieved is great!’
For more information about Colombo No.7 Gin visit the website: colombosevengin.com
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