Donkey Jack Gin
Donkey Jack Gin, the first product to emerge from the brand spanking new Driftwood Distillery on the Dutch coast, is not the polite, hand shaking, acquaintance making sort. It’s got that ‘here for a good time, not for a long time’ vibe about it, with playful branding work and a really, really weird name earmarking it as the sort of venture that is most certainly not going to play the game, whatever that game may be.
It’s bold, loud and a little bit silly, but despite all that it comes from a place of real love for Gin.
Co-founded by husband and wife team Tim Smith and Hannah Bayliss, Driftwood Distillery was established with collaboration, partnership and creativity in mind. “It had to be something that fit into our local community, appealed to tourists and local businesses alike,” Bayliss said. “We wanted to be hands on with every part of the process, from the branding and distilling through to bottling and labelling. We started with Gin because it was the quickest to take from distillation to glass, and it gave us the most experience with blending flavours and aromas.”
If that sounds a little cynical, fear not; yes, gin was the most immediate option, but it is also the spirit that inspired the whole thing. It all began when they were visiting vineyards in California. They were growing a little fatigued with wine one evening so their friend Ken promised to fix them the best Martini ever. According to him, the gin used in this particularly exquisite libation achieved its smoothness in distillation, because it had been taken from a narrow cut, thus removing a lot of the burn you so often get on the palate. Bayliss and Smith were instantly enthused, relishing the challenge of creating just such a gin themselves.
Let’s get the name stuff out of the way, because, as we mentioned, it’s a little odd. Roll forward a few years and the British couple were back in the US, visiting Ken again, who’d just retired from the US police force. He’d set up a smallholding and bought a flock of sheep to tend to, but coyotes kept getting at them, causing a significant amount more bloodshed than one really requires from a life in the country. He’d heard through the grapevine that if you introduce young donkeys to a herd, they’ll become a defensive part of the pack, rising up on their hind legs to strike any attacker. He got hold of a young one, Jack, and introduced him to the family. Sure enough it worked! As Smith and Bayliss heard this story, whilst sipping on one of Ken’s infamous Martinis, the name Donkey Jack took hold. Yes, we’re also wondering… just how big was that Martini?
The name has shaped the branding, really; Donkey Jack is a superhero, he comes lunging out of the bottle, yellow jacket, trousers and boots (!) on, ready to protect his wards. The other gins in the Driftwood Distillery portfolio share similar hero status; there’s Rose Finch Gin, featuring some sort of masked bird creature, Chow Hound Gin and JVS Gin. Actually, for this bit we’ll let Bayliss take over, because – again – it’s all driven around the same concept: “Donkey Jack is the protector and is based on our personal experience, celebrating the hero in your life.
“Chow Hound Gin is the Provider and is taken from a local story, going from adversity into leaders. It celebrates supporting your local area. JVS Gin is the Patriot, asking if you would be willing to stand up for your country and Rose Finch Gin is the Protagonist, asking a global question of how free we really are to make our own choices.”
Now… If we’re being completely honest, we sort of have a love / hate thing going on with the bottles. The paper is a little cheap and was mottled by the time it got to us. The imagery holds little appeal to us and the donkey himself looks like an ASBO waiting to happen. It’s all a bit comic-con in our opinion, although it does stand out in stark contrast against any other gin on the market. As with all fields of creativity, though, taste is very much an individual preference, so whilst we may be eyeballing one of our decanters so we can get rid of the bottle, others will place it front and centre on their Gin shelves. The artwork may not be to our liking but it is well executed, and whether you like this striking branding decision or not is entirely up to you. It’s clear Bayliss and Smith have obviously put a great deal of thought into it, and that’s to be applauded.
Now, as important as branding is, looks pale into insignificance when it comes to how tasty a gin is, and while concept has driven the looks, it is flavour alone that has steered any decisions the duo made when it came to compiling the recipe for Donkey Jack Gin. This all begins, of course, with botanicals, and lucky enough for Driftwood Distillery, Schiedam, the very home of genever, happens to be just down the road. As such, there are a great amount of suppliers of high quality ingredients a mere phone call away.
When it came to picking the ingredients, the duo initially sought a recipe that would reflect their home town. After a short while, though, and a handful of unsuccessful trial runs, they realised this wasn’t going to work. “The area we are living in is the beautiful bulb region, and so we wanted a floral gin. We also wanted to reflect the coastal nature of the area, with sea and sand. We decided that we wanted to make a traditional style of gin, focusing on botanicals that come from the best areas, rather than try to add something local, which might not actually be so nice to drink…”
In the end, the botanicals used are a fairly standard setup: juniper, coriander, nutmeg, cardamom, lemon, orange peel and angelica. Is the local area reflected? Hardly. Does it matter? Not a bit. In cramming so much character into the branding work of Donkey Jack Gin (and all of its siblings), Smith and Bayliss have given themselves some breathing space that should allow them to stand out from the crowd regardless of locality. In other words, they’ve given themselves license to make a gin that tastes like… well, gin.
Donkey Jack Gin to taste…
The first sniff delivers a great gin punch to the nose, with a fresh juniper and bold coriander lighting up the airways, paving the way for an earthy, pithy and slightly musky orange.
It’s incredibly rooty to taste, the angelica and juniper working in tandem with each other to form a tight, inseparable and slightly strange new flavour. The angelica root brings huge floral qualities, a soapy, bold bulb explosion that seized the tongue in its grasp, while the cardamom, nutmeg and coriander spice quickly take possession of the tongue (At 45% ABV, the spices are given a great chance to rule). The orange is present throughout, but it’s not orange as you know it; it’s not the fresh, juice-running-down-your-arm version of the fruit. It’s as musky on the tongue as it was on the nose, adding depth to the flavour, rather than fruitiness.
The flavour really stands up to tonic, retaining its bold earthiness even when all that citric acid comes in to perk up the orange. It’s a genuinely brilliant G&T; same same but different. As far as serving it goes, we’d add some fruitiness into the fold, cranberries, perhaps, and almost certainly sweet orange.
Currently, Driftwood Distillery are still working on their prototype still – a tiny little bit of kit that is capable of producing just 50 bottles per run. The production level still is due any day now and once that’s in we’ve no doubt there’s going to be a bit of tweaking taking place. It is a daunting task to scale up a recipe, and it’s one that is almost always underestimated. Distillation is a mad alchemy – metal types, batch size, temperature in the room, temperature outside… it is a wild science, affected by countless factors – and it always takes a lot of fiddling to get that flavour back.
To make Donkey Jack Gin now, Bayliss and Smith (who take an equal role in the distilling process) place the juniper into the cold neutral spirit to macerate overnight. The rest of the botanicals are then hung inside of the still for vapour infusion, yielding a softer flavour profile overall and a much zingier citrus.
As we mentioned before, there are a handful of gins in the Driftwood Distillery family. We just so happen to have their version of a Navy strength, JVS (named for heroic Dutch pirate fighter Jan Van Speyk) as well as Rose Finch. The Navy Strength has a few extra botanicals added into the line up: liquorice, orris, cinnamon and lemon zest. The addition of two roots is a wise one, as they tend to add viscosity once distilled, thus achieving a smoother feel. That, and the fact that this is taken from an incredibly narrow cut, means the Navy Strength is much easier to sip than its 55% ABV content would imply.
JVS Gin to taste…
Pungent orange rips through the nose, offering the same damp, earthiness as in the regular edition of Donkey Jack Gin. You can breathe as deep as you like of this, but no fire is going to come to the nose. The smoothness that Bayliss and Smith strived for has certainly been achieved on the nose…
That said, the taste is a different matter. It’s not harsh or caustic, but the cinnamon claws at the back of the throat like fire. It’s not one for neat sipping, not by any means, but with tonic its an interesting proposition: bold, flavoursome and memorable.
Rose Finch Gin is a tiny little twist on the Navy Strength, taking its soft pink colour from the addition of aromatic bitters. The taste isn’t that dissimilar to that of the Navy Strength, though there is a vague, sweet, hay-like sensation.
Rose Finch Gin to taste…
The orange is quieter here; in fact, the nose is much calmer overall, with an almost woody quality taking hold. Hay comes through on the tongue, too, and there are almost rooibos like qualities here, too. Actually, it acts much like rooibos in that, all of a sudden, the spices are given a new, almost savage lease of life. It’s no longer a tame animal, rather it’s the lion that rears right up and eats the ringleader. Fiery and alive and something quite unlike anything else. With tonic, it’s earth and loud, with all of the botanicals swirling around in a mess of flavours and noises and smells. It’s mad how much difference such a little addition can make to the flavour, really, and absolutely showcases the power or aromatics. With tonic we recommend a twist of lemon, but really this is to be showcased in a Dry Martini.
Something that needs to be pointed out here is the sheer speed at which Driftwood Distillery is working. It’s as though Smith and Bayliss are trapped in a snowball that is only gaining in speed and size; in January 2017 they started to think about opening a distillery, by April 2017 they were building it. Getting the permits in place to start distilling didn’t come until the October and winter was spent burrowed away, working on recipes. Now, just over a since they built the distillery, they’re constructing another; a much, much bigger one that is scheduled to open to the public in July 2018.
It is already bigger than the sum of its parts and that is very much down to Smith and Bayliss. A USP is important when trying to sell your product, especially in a market as crowded as gin. The fact that Bayliss and Smith are using Donkey Jack Gin (and his cohorts) to try to tell stories that depicts the world we live in is certainly a factor that will help them stand out, but it is their speed and tenacity that will drive them to success.
This is a modern tale; it’s about co-working, about doing your own thing. “It’s about creativity, innovation, collaboration and an unforgettable experience,” Bayliss says, summarising the entire process in one swift sentence.
This is a gin to seek out!
For more information about Donkey Jack Gin, visit www.driftwooddistillery.nl
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