Corner Fifty Three
Regular readers of this site know that we think the endeavour that goes into making a Craft Gin is just as important as the spirit’s end taste. The people behind it, their passions and the stories that they want to tell are captured within each drop of liquid, so as well as engaging with the botanical flavours in a spirit, we’re engaging with concepts, too; what does it evoke? Which memories does it provoke? Who is it from and who is it for?
With a three-strong core gin range that veers from mushroomy to maple-y along the way, it’s safe to say that Corner Fifty Three distillery has built a portfolio of spirits that has a weird and wonderful story to tell, so let’s dive in…
There are a lot of names and faces behind Corner Fifty Three, though the two main characters are Tom Rudman and Jamie Williamson, childhood friends and next door neighbours. Tom always had a fascination with distilling and creating, and while working with Jamie for Fullers bars he’d constantly mix stuff up and try his hardest to persuade Jamie to stock it. Tom is undoubtedly an ideas man, constantly reeling off fresh ideas with enough conviction that people get caught up in them. He talked regularly about creating an open business space too, sharing his dream to buy a farm on which he could make gin, whisky, beer, wine, and on which others could build small businesses. A nice dream, but a dream none the less.
“His ideas were mostly written off,” Jamie explains, “but Tom didn’t let it go and for a long time kept thinking about where, on a barman’s salary, he could start. Gin was very much his driving force in the cocktail bar he was running and he had some very different ideas to everyone else, he just needed a chance.
“The talk of a distillery became louder until eventually several people, me included, told him to either put up or shut up. He proved us wrong.”
Tom was only 21 when he approached his parents with the idea to build a distillery in the back garden. They were hesitant at first, but once he’d laid out his plans and showed them how committed he was to the project, they were sold. Tom’s father, Brian, poured petrol on the flames by working hard and fast to build the distillery, while his mum, Liz, played a mentor role, keeping Tom and Jamie focused and heading in the right direction at all times. It became a real family and friends affair, with Tom’s Granddad offering his wisdom and their friends, Richard Cope and Cris Bowyer providing advice and support (and design work, in Richard’s case). “The way Tom regularly paints it is that we are all family anyway,” Jamie says. “we work together, eat together and drink together, we may as well run a business together.”
With all that manpower behind them, it only took Jamie and Tom nine months to go from inception to production. Once the idea was born, Tom’s parents pushed him to get it started, so they invested in their stills (a 3l and a 60l) and had them installed by February 2017. By November they were ready to sell their first bottle.
As you would probably expect, there was a great deal of trial and error involved in the early stages of Corner Fifty Three. “We make jokes that they didn’t pick the recipes, they picked us,” Jamie said. “There was always, with each one, the idea of a flavour and almost a personality, and then talking with chefs or our local greengrocer for advice. We would experiment with what was suggested to us and as flavours came through there’s be a couple of ‘lets up that’ or ‘lets keep that but tone it down a bit,’ or ‘lets dial that one up to 100 to see what happens.’”
Though devised universally, all of the gins are distilled by Tom, whose learning curve was steep enough that the others are reluctant to take on the mantel. It’s quite handy really, though, because the stills go on first thing in the morning, and his back garden isn’t too much of a commute compared to poor old Jamie, who now lives miles away.
The three core gins sitting under the Corner Fifty Three name are Cherokee, Umami and Pomelo. They are, if we’re being completely honest, a bunch of bloody weirdos.
Corner Fifty Three Cherokee Gin
Cherokee was the gin that Corner Fifty Three set out to make. Inspired by Bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys, the team sought to capture those sweet elements both through ingredients and process. Tennessee whiskey uses a maple charcoal filtration process that adds so much flavour to the overall spirit; they couldn’t copy it (not that they didn’t try), but they could add maple syrup into the gin as a botanical. They also added sarsaparilla to bring in herbal and vanilla notes, and oranges to add a sweet, fruity dose.
Jamie explains: “We wanted to capture the flavours we really enjoy getting from a bourbon, sat in the garden, looking at the stars, talking bollocks until the early hours.”
To make Corner Fifty Three Cherokee Gin, Tom prepares a 47-litre steeping solution of 50% ABV in the base of the still. Juniper, sarsaparilla, orris, freshly crushed almonds, liquorice and angelica are combined ahead of steeping, then around 40 naval oranges are peeled manually. Lemon peel, fresh pippin apples and conferences pears are added to the pile, and the whole lot is added to the still and left to steep for nine hours.
Ahead of distillation the orange flesh and extra sarsaparilla re added to a vapour basket within the still to allow for a greater, fresher and more intense flavour. Once the hearts cut is made and cut to bottling strength, the gin turns a little milky, so it’s heated up to 40c and then allowed to reduce in temperature over a 24-hour period. After this, a tiny proportion of maple syrup is added before a final filter.
It is a complicated old process, but it’s well worth it!
Sweet oranges are clear on the aroma, alongside a candied banoffee pie hit that’s got a vanilla filled-boozy finish. The more you sniff the more the dried banana complexity emerges and develops alongside sweet orange peels. To taste, the first thing to reveal itself is the lack of viscosity. Maple has been added in a very small amount to add a touch of sweetness, but not in any amount as to affect the mouthfeel. The juicy oranges a clear upfront, leading into something that’s a little sweeter and with a touch of smokiness that’s so distinct from sarsaparilla. With tonic, we felt the crisper apples and pears were more noticeable, but overall – while we’ll happily smash through a bottle as we like the flavour, there’s a clear lack of juniper that’s holding it back from being spectacular Gin.
In terms of serves, it’s a tricky one. Tonic tends to make it over sweet, ginger ale makes it overly weird. We think this is more of a cocktail sort of gin, and it feels like we say this all the time these days, but it really would work well in a Martinez, which with its Old Tom history is more suited to sweeter gins. The Corner Fifty Three team do a Gin Old Fashioned with it, replacing the brown sugar with a dollop of maple syrup and a dash of orange bitters. Excuse us while we run to make that immediately…
Corner Fifty Three Pomelo
Pomelo was originally meant to be an absinthe inspired gin, with wormwood the initial star of the show. After dialling in other flavours to complement it, though, the team felt that they had little choice but to follow the flavours where they wanted to go. “Basically, we just kept playing until something came out that made us go ‘that’s what we’re looking for.’ Dealing in extremes send you that way,” Jamie explained.
The Pomelo undergoes a very similar process to the Cherokee, though the botanicals that make their way into the still are juniper, pink peppercorn, fennel seed, liquorice, wormwood, the peel of 30 pink grapefruits and 8 lemons, fresh cox pippin apples, conference pears and – steady your nerves as this may seem nuts – fresh asparagus.
This is all left to steep for six hours while Tom dashes up the garden for a quick sleep. In the morning, a third of the apple and pears (which have been kept back) are added to the vapour basked alongside the grapefruit flesh, and the run commences. As before – once the gin is blended down to bottling strength it’s re-heated to ditch out the milkiness.
On the nose – the customary twang of asparagus, somehow, almost comes up just behind the pink grapefruits. An extraordinary feet when one considers just how much peel is being used in the process. Of course, the predominant note is far more citrus led but it’s made complex and intriguing by a beguiling combination, in which fresh apple, pear, asparagus and just a hint of the anise-like fennel join grapefruit and run riot.
To taste, pink grapefruit rough shots anything and everything in its way. Nothing shall pass beyond it, above it or around it and everything tasted here on in must be considered to be seen with the pink hue of grapefruit that’s in your grill. There’s not much of a mid palate, but there is a definitive piquancy that swelters towards the end as the warming fennel seed and pink peppercorn try to emerge. Wormwood’s qualities play themselves out on the finish – drying proceedings and leaving behind a bitter grapefruit tone that endures long after the final sip.
It’s both undeniably tasty and very enjoyable, but one can’t help but wonder what would happen if there was, say, a quarter of the pink grapefruit instead and some semblance of juniper at the core of this. It is, in our opinion, way past the line of gin / no gin and while well made, seems like a missed opportunity for something that could have been an exceptional bottling for the category.
Corner Fifty Three Umami
Where to start with Corner Fifty Three’s Umami gin? It’s a wild ride, that’s for sure, and it’s likely to rub a lot of people up the wrong way on the name alone. This strange, savoury beasty gin began as a challenge; Jamie is allergic to mushrooms but he wanted to know what they tasted like, so he set the ever inquisitive Tom on a distilling mission (Nerd moment: allergens are usually removed during the distillation process). After a bit of experimentation, the Umami idea was born. It was much more of a success than anyone at the distillery expected; they thought perhaps it would provoke a bit of debate, but instead it triggered sales. Lots of them.
To make the gin, the team gather juniper, sun dried tomatoes, orris, shitake mushrooms, coriander and plum tomatoes together and added to the steeping solution for two hours. Meanwhile, four large butternut squashes are diced and roasted in rapeseed oil. These are then added to the column, along with fresh rosemary and more plum tomatoes. Once we get to know it a little better to be able to fully comment on its nuances, we’ll be adding tasting notes here in due course.
Despite their boundary pushing natures, in this modern era of very contemporary flavour profiles from every producer – all of the gins from Corner Fifty Three are still, probably, juniper toting spirits by many a person’s standard. We’re less convinced and if you were told they were botanicals vodkas, we’re sure you’d happily agree. If you like a more progressive, new wave feel to the type of gin you seek out, these are fantastic examples of well made spirits, and in fairness to them you’d probably be able to dig out the juniper here when you go hunting, too.
We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, split the difference and suggest it’s on the line, as while we’re excited by Corner Fifty Three and everything that they have to offer, we’re also aware that’s it is very early days yet and that there is still much to iron out.
For those wondering whether they should try some, it’s worth noting that with the type of process and the quantities they use for each run – it’s bound to be a little variable and already, we’re tasting differences between batches. For some that’s a quirky charm of tiny distillation runs, for others it’s a frustration and either way, for Tom, it’ll be a learning curve to further hone it to a point at which it’s the same gin, each and every time.
The Gin market is not just crowded, it’s like a bloody clown car these days, and as a result its full of jokers doing anything to get attention. Tom, Jamie and co aren’t, however strange their spirits may be and however batshit mental the botanical combinations are. They come from a place of curiosity and inspiration – they are, essentially, Alice in Wonderland, exploring with innocence, rather than greed.
The bottles and design, the simple website, nascent social media channels and raw look to the photography – everything is at that stage of flux. It’s got a youthful charm and a swagger to it along with the rough and ready “that’ll have to do for now” vibe. We feel it’s starting to gain momentum as a brand and one that’s worth you supporting through its early phases. It’s also, from our battle weary and jaded journo eyes, got a lot of things that will need to be changed to ensure the next stage of growth. It’s exciting now, but very little of it is either slickly produced and the bits that are don’t seem very scaleable at present.
Most brands have been there, though, and just like these Gins you see on the shelf now and whose incubation and metamorphosis is long forgotten – we’ve got a feeling these guys will do just the same and flourish into something of an established name too. What they need, is support and encouragement through this young stage – and luckily for you dear readers – that means lining up to have a taste and enjoy their creations.
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