Empress 1908 Gin
Though ultimately it’s what’s on the inside that counts when seeking a new love, a bright blue gin can be hard to fall for in the first instance.
Colour-changing or not, there’s something about that bleach-bottle-hue that has us heading back towards the door just as soon as we arrive for the first date, and despite the promise of all-natural ingredients, we can’t help but wince in anticipation of the chemical bubblegum syrup taste set to hack at our senses. We’re always happy to be proved wrong, though, so it was with little persuasion that we agreed to review Empress 1908 Gin, described by its very own branding team as having “an impossibly lush and vivid indigo blue.”
Made by Victoria Distillers in Sidney, British Columbia, Empress 1908 Gin is the result of a 2016 collaboration between the distillery’s President and Master Distiller Peter Hunt and Victoria’s iconic Empress Hotel. The hotel’s bar, Q, was flying through its stock of the distillery’s other gins, Victoria and Oaken, at the time, so when Hunt approached the team, they were all too keen.
The grandiose Empress Hotel is famed for its High Tea, so Hunt took that as his inspiration whilst developing the recipe. Tea, though, is a complicated beast to work with, with nuances greater than you’d ever be gin to imagine. As such, it was a big old process: “We distilled about 20 teas from their tea room and narrowed it down to two over a period of several months, with hundreds of small distillations.”
Once the tea was selected – Empress Blend, a Canadian-made blend of black teas from around the world – Hunt set to work choosing the other botanicals. There’s juniper, of course, along with coriander, grapefruit peel, ginger, cinnamon, rose and the piece de resistance: butterfly pea flower.
While the latter’s presence is there for a more obvious, show boat-y reason, others have a story to tell. The ginger and cinnamon, for example, are a nod to India, as the Empress Hotel was named after Queen Victoria, Empress of India. According to the team, they stumbled on butterfly pea flower as it was part of one of the teas
To make Empress 1908 Gin, Hunt macerates the juniper, rose, coriander, grapefruit, ginger and cinnamon overnight in a mix of water and corn spirit. In the morning, the mix is moved into the pot of Victoria Distillers’ 900-litre Specific Mechanical still, a sizeable, locally made beasty with a six-plate rectification head. The hearts cut is collected from the still at 91%, then blended down to 42.5% ABV before the butterfly pea flower and Empress Blend Tea infusion. After a couple of hours, it’s ready to be bottled, labelled and numbered.
Empress 1908 Gin to taste…
The nose is so classic as to be almost formulaic, as though Victoria Distillers had been rehearsing a high-kicking dance routine for months and have the steps down perfect for the big show. It smells as a gin should smell – juniper up front, bright coriander to one side and a stripe of citrus to the other. The butterfly pea flower brings an oily sweetness to proceedings (it’s hard to not be influenced by the colour and describe it as “inky”), guiding the grapefruit peel towards a candied status.
The flowers – butterfly pea and rose – are first up on the tongue, landing softly and sweetly before being slapped out of the way by an aggressive ginger and cinnamon combination. The grapefruit peel plays its part, but much like juniper (which incidentally, is a little shy having been subdued at each stage by something else) isn’t really given a chance to shine until you’ve put out the spice fire by swallowing. Overall, it’s a lovely gin that manages the grand feat of being both simple and complicated, taking the tongue on a real adventure.
An Empress G&T is one with wide appeal. Once the initial colour changing joy wears off (this magic trick, incidentally, is caused by the butterfly pea flower and citric acid doing all sorts of mad things together), the flavours take hold. There’s huge, sherbetty grapefruit citrus, a warm coriander and a purplish juniper at the fore, all going round and round like noise trapped in an amphitheatre. It’s as ginny as the next gin, but somehow fifty miles from boring, with the grapefruit bringing a twist and the ginger adding a slightly tropical heat. A solid all round offering.
The gin itself comes in a simple, but beautiful, bottle. It’s no mean feat for an indigo-tinted liquid to look like a class act, but somehow Victoria Distillers has achieved this, with a copper lid and a simple white ribbon around the bottle delivering a simple, elegant look. It doesn’t shout out about the fact that a splash of tonic takes it from stark blue to soft pink, because that – at least, as far as the gin is concerned – is a by-product of its production, rather than a major selling point. It helps, though. Like… how cool is that?
And lo, we have been given a stern (but enjoyable) lesson in not judging a book by its cover. Empress 1908 Gin is, despite its magical, colour-changing nature, an incredibly no-nonsense gin.
The Gin feels modern (both in design and in the fact that it’s quite at home in this crazy new world of weird and wonderful flavours), but beneath it all are some nice conceptual historic underpinnings and the small distillery ethos of collaboration.
“Victoria Distillers (Victoria Spirits at the time) started in a converted barn on an organic vineyard ten years ago,” Hunt told us. “I used to start my day chopping firewood to feed the wood-burning still. The whole family would come out and take an entire day to bottle a single pallet of gin. We have come a long way!”
So too has Gin. That a bottling this crazily, lusciously blue and colour changing feels like nothing out of the ordinary says more about the evolution of the Gin category than we could put in words. In a world of weird gins, this is quite safe. With more than its fair share of juniper in the mix and a modern grapefruit twist, this is not a sub-standard (or even an average) product hiding behind a gimmick, but a well-considered, deeply respectful and very usable spirit wearing a technicolour coat. We like it and expect it to do very well.
Happily for us, it has recently secured UK distribution, so keep your eyes peeled and your tonic to hand. This is one you’re going to like…
For more information about Empress 1908 Gin, visit the website: empressgin.com
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