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Duck & Crutch Gin

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Duck and Crutch Kensington Gin
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22/10/2019
Written by Gin Foundry

Anyone surprised to hear that Duck & Crutch Gin is steeped, distilled and bottled in little more than a two by one metre garden shed may need to sit down for the next bit of news: somehow, it is one of several gins made this way. Garden-dwelling distilleries are a big thing up and down the country and the resulting spirits are not slap dash, crudely made weekend hobbies, but often beautifully well thought-out, balanced gins that are almost always far, far more accomplished than you could even begin to hope for. Of all the garden shed gins we’ve encountered, none have quite made it to the heights of this one.

The Duck & Crutch story is a somewhat inspiring one to anyone considering a move towards distilling; the duo behind it – George and Hollie Brooker were ballsy and brave with the choices they made, electing not to consult with experts (partly through lack of access, partly through sheer stubbornness) or even to particularly study Gin recipes, but to play around with botanicals until they ended up with their very own interpretation of the spirit.

Trial and error was the building method, with George and Hollie sipping many incarnations of their gin along the way. Flavour inspiration didn’t just come from other gins, but from their favourite foods as well. As a result, the botanical selection is somewhat gourmet: juniper, angelica, coriander, cardamom, cassia, nutmeg, thyme, walnut, Darjeeling tea, bourbon vanilla and orange peel amongst the roster.

Such an unusual proposition shouldn’t be too much of a surprise at this stage – the duo behind this gin are clearly on their own path. What kicked it all off, though? We’ll let George answer that one: “It started in late 2016, possibly triggered by a slightly premature mid-life crisis (aged 24…). Hollie and I attended a Gin experience afternoon which prompted some frighteningly reckless ‘grass is greener’ type thinking. We both have always had an interest in alcohol, mainly the consumption of it, but afterwards we had a real ‘f*^k it, let’s just do it’ moment, and bought a garden shed and five-litre still.”

The garden shed became a theme early on, which became something of a problem. There is only so much space, but when you’ve built a brand around your little patch outdoors, there’s no room for deviation. Still, there’s always space for renovation, so the Duck & Crutch shed has become a little roomier of late…

Talking about it ahead of it’s construction, George said: “It has been a challenge as we are restricted with our batch sizes, which means we are distilling far more regularly than we would like to be. Our new shed will allow us to install a second still, which will be a complete luxury. It has been a ‘backs against the wall’ job keeping up with demand, so we’re taking a much more measured approach this year.”

Backs against the wall isn’t just a saying for them either – while their rise has been blisteringly fast so far, their initial shed literally offered no alternative than to touch the walls. There wasn’t even space for anyone over 1.8m talk to stand up straight, let alone be further than a nose hair away from the copper still itself.

Scaling up a recipe is never an easy task, but given the Duck & Crutch duo’s tenacity, we can’t imagine it will take them long to be pushing out their gin in bigger batch format. They have a certain unflappable quality which will see them through, but distiller George also has a certain way when it comes to getting botanicals to do exactly what he wants, usually with a fair amount of elbow grease involved.

On tea, a notoriously tricky botanical, he said: “It took a long time to get the use of it right. When we were developing the recipe we tried lots of different types of black tea and basically used way too much, which ruined the balance. So we reduced the quantity and found that Darjeeling in particular had this stunning muskiness that worked really well without overpowering other characteristics.”

What does Duck & Crutch Gin taste like?

On the nose the fresh orange citrus hit leads, with a vanilla and tea duo just below. You can tell it’s gin, but the piney hit of juniper doesn’t dominate the senses, rather it takes a comfortable place in the thick of it. Tasted neat – that zesty citrus twang starts the journey, then it is into gin heartland’s of juniper and coriander seed. There’s an enduring piney note on the finish that sits just above the tannic dry tea that’s doing it’s best to close the show, while everything else – from creamy vanilla to earthy thyme – just reverberates on and on in a satisfying hum of boozey warmth.

The obvious garnish here would be an orange peel to further augment the inherent note, but we’d opt for herbs like thyme or rosemary to bring out the heart of this gin. Double up on one of each if you are feeling ostentatious but go easy on the dose – there’s a lot there to enjoy already.

For what it’s worth, as one would expect with any young distillery – the flavour shifts ever so slightly batch on batch. Looking back at our initial scribblings, as well as the quick fire notes we make as we do with all samples and gins we can get hold of and visit at shows – it’s always very similar, but with a change in the citrus; sometimes it’s more pronounced. In many ways, that’s what makes Duck & Crutch what it is: there’s an honesty to the production, and while we’ll always consider that absolute consistency is Gin making’s highest form of craftsmanship, take the critic’s cape off and we’ll say the exact opposite. It’s nice to see the human touch, that slight shift. There’s always a frisson to find out if the next will be extra special and that’s a big part of the charm here, it’s made in a shed so it’ll be the same, just not quite. One to revisit then…

Duck & Crutch Gin isn’t a stand alone product, either. Just before Christmas 2018, the duo released a Navy Strength edition of their gin, which largely followed the same recipe, albeit with a little tea and citrus rebalancing. Both Hollie and George adore Navy Strength Gins, so there was a certain inevitability to going down that path. Still, they didn’t quite expect to love the gin as much as they did.

Duck & Crutch Kensington Overproof Dry Gin to taste…

There’s a lot more directness about this gin, it’s much louder and there’s more of it.  On the nose, while similar notes come up, it’s actually the fullness of the gin that’s more noticeable. Yes, there’s a raise in ABV,  but there’s also an increased density that brings both a spirity tingle on the nostrils and a weight to the aroma. This is a bigger beast and one that’s compelling to smell.

To taste, there’s more citrus, so much so it actually rides straight over the mid tones and into cinnamon-like spice (cassia). Juniper still features but it’s been largely vaulted over as the flavours go from orange to warming spices, before tannic tones of Darjeeling chime in. There’s a lot of residual heat – a combination of botanical warmth and booze – that lingers for much longer than the flagship dry gin.

Given Hollie’s prior incarnation as a Graphic Designer, it is no surprise that both of the Duck & Crutch bottles are absolutely stunning. Decanter shaped and beautifully foiled, the bottles feature twee illustrations that speak to everyone and no one all at once: this is a bottle you could buy for an 18-year-old or an 80-year-old, with both finding something to connect to within. We think its perfect gifting material, so if you’re trying to nail it with something special, look no further.

There is something about this brand that feels much greater than the sum of its parts too (and not just because its parts are stored where the rest of us keep scrap metal and old tyres). It’s tasty and extravagant, offering jack-in-the-box surprises with every sip. It’s also very personal – you can feel the efforts and the story of the couple that make it. You can almost feel their hands on the bottle as they place the label and dip the wax.

There are just so many personal touches; even the name, Duck & Crutch, is a fragment of their past – the first test run of their still was made on Hollie’s 27th birthday. Duck & Crutch is the bingo call for the number 27… everything ties in somewhere else. There are no loose ends, just sweet little threads to pull at.

It would be unfair to not restate our bugbear about price points here though, even if we do feel as if this can justify it. It’s something we’ve brought as criticism to each and every gin maker whose offering are over £40. At £50 Duck and Crutch is very expensive, perhaps, even, too expensive for us to justify within our own collection. Especially when you consider the sheer glut of gins in the world, many of which have bespoke bottles etc for half the price.

That said, if you look into it further and ask if all the usual reasons people use to justify their costs are actually real, you’ll find that in this case they definitely are. Small team / small batch / small operation / limited availability are genuine claims here. Looking more broadly, to quantify a fiscal tag – one must also ask if have the producers have delivered a package and a brand that tries with every single interaction to live up to that premium price point. Is it beautiful and has Duck & Crutch done this? Yes.

In time, we’re sure the price will lower and that production savings and scaling will allow them to be more competitive. For now, it’s a both a minor and easily explained asterisk on an otherwise stellar offering. While we bemoan the price of it, we’re also the first to recognise that wanting a beautifully, multilayered ‘craft’ product at a sub £35 price is, in essence, asking for martyrs rather than entrepreneurs.

It’s simply not possible to do that from the start point most have without some serious scaling involved. Put simply – it takes time for production costs to reduce, therefore it takes time for output costs to reduce.

Looking ahead at the future for this dynamic duo, it’s clear to see how the broader slick aesthetic and considered tone of voice that has been so consistent will be important for them going forwards. It will be the key differentiator as and when as the category contracts, as it’ll be those with a multilayered proposition (one that travels over and above just liquid, or just aesthetic) that will prosper. Duck & Crutch is much more than just another Gin brand, so it has massive potential.

They also show that scale, size and experience doesn’t have to mean a rough around the edges approach to getting your name out there. They are (or certainly should be) a huge inspiration for nano-distillers, as despite their incredibly limited size and budget, they’ve put out a bottle that looks expensive.

Most importantly of all – brand chat and evaluations aside – is that both Hollie & George have not committed the cardinal sin of taking themselves too seriously. They mockingly call themselves “wise” for entering the crowded market at its peak, and they invite visitors to follow their “ludicrous” journey on social media.

Making a gin when there are thousands of others already out there is indeed a very silly thing to do, but there isn’t a single second in which they have regretted it, so we’d urge you to pile in and celebrate it. Help them on their journey and enjoy their gin!

People like that will stop the world from ever becoming anything close to boring, and when they do it with such panache, they’ll only make it more beautiful.

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