Germany has a lot of distilleries. We’re talking big numbers here: 1,000’s of active distillers and allegedly, over 20,000 licensed stills. According to our estimates, somewhere between 1500 and 2000 of those have made a Gin at some point, while there are a good 500 or so who are actively building their brands. That, folks, is a lot.
To put that into context, in January this year, the UK had 315 registered gin distilleries to its name, and boy did that feel like a huge milestone… To put a finer point on this: there are a lot of gins in Germany, so to cut across the rest and make any kind of international splash is a sign of only good things. One of the first to do this – in fact, one of the few to do this – was Hamburg’s very first gin, GIN SUL.
The key thing to note about one of Germany’s more successful Gin exports is that it doesn’t quite regard itself as a purely local product and has always had a broader perspective on what we would term as being dual provenance. Founder and Master Distiller Stephan Garbe was inspired to make a gin whilst hiking around the Portuguese coastline during a sabbatical in 2013. A huge gin enthusiast, he quickly fell in love with the flavours and aromas of Portugal and made the abrupt (and slightly left field) decision to create his very own tipple. It took just one year to go from first idea to first bottle, with Garbe assembling a handy team of distillers to help him along the way.
Fresh lemon peel and rockrose from Portugal add a little bit of sun soaked flare. For those who haven’t come across the Mediterranean plant (also known as gum rockrose or to give our inner botanist a chance to shine, Cistus ladanifer), is a sticky and fragrant little fella. When you pick it in summer, the whole plant is covered with the almost glue-like intensly scented resin, which was often the source of labdanum that’s used in herbal medicine and perfumery. Most interestingly for the case of flavour, it is praised for its abilities as a fixative (it helps to reduce the volatility of raw materials in a perfume oil, as well as to increase the tenacity, or in other words, it helps keep the scent for longer).
We digress. Other Portuguese inspired ingredients are rosemary, peppers, lavender and cinnamon, which are said to bring an air of ‘saudade’ to GIN SUL. For those of you in need of Google Translate right now, saudade is ‘a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves.’ In short: Garbe had the holiday blues really bad! Even the name was inspired by the trip, with sul translating to south in Portuguese.
The GIN SUL recipe took a fair bit of tweaking to get right. The first few trials had well over 30 botanicals crammed into the bottle, but Garbe and the team took a less is more approach, eventually whittling this down to a far more simple (and sadly secret) blend. The only other botanicals we know of are juniper, rose and allspice, but we’re sure others are whispering away in the background.
The majority of botanicals are macerated in the still for a short period of time, before it is turned on and left to heat up very gently. A basket filled with the lemon peels, rose petals and lavender sits in the chamber, allowing the alcoholic vapour to pass through and absorb their oils and flavours. Once the liquid comes off the still, a full working day later, it is blended with water from the Lüneburg Heath area. Garbe is joined in his distilling capacities by talented young graduate Doris Kuhn.
GIN SUL to taste…
Lemon notes flare up on the nostrils, more like balm than peel, complemented by a slight floral backdrop and a gentle green pine note hiding behind. It’s fresh and bright in its character and matches the youthful look of the bottle. To taste, the gum rockrose clearly presents itself upfront, just as it does when it swelters on a hot summer’s day, vivid and evocative, and once the flush of waxy citrus has whooshed past, more piny juniper starts to come through, aided by rosemary at first, then more confidently in its own right. The spice kicks in for a warming finish and the ABV of 43% is never felt – it’s a very smooth offering. The lavender isn’t really clear as a specific flavour, but its softness is felt throughout. It’s a nuanced gin and one that could easily be tilted in multiple ways in a G&T, and in which a lemon thyme garnish would work to accentuate the front note, while a pink grapefruit peel would help keep the harmony.
The branding work, it’s worth noting, is quite wonderful. The distillery itself, with its warm lighting, soft wood and beautiful Portuguese tiles looks resplendent, with its beautiful 100-litre Arnold Holstein copper still gleaming away in the corner. The team arrange tastings from time to time, so if you happen to be in the area we’d highly recommend getting in touch – it truly is a sight to behold.
Those good looks spread to the bottles as well. GIN SUL is poured into white clay bottles, which are glazed and printed with the name and logo. This is undoubtedly an expensive way to do things, but Garbe has his reasons. The first is a wink back in time to Genever, which was always kept in clay jugs. The second is that this material preserves the delicate gin flavours just that little bit better. No sun can get in, so no real “light strike” occurs. In fact, for posterity, the team even store any distillates they have in large clay pitchers.
Each year, GIN SUL releases a special edition gin. This is where the branding work takes off. The white clay is printed with glorious illustrations, each telling a small tale. The first, RUBY SUL, from 2014, was aged in a Ruby Port barrel. The second, CRUZEIRO DO SUL was aged in a Moscatel de Setubal barrel, the third, ROTA DO SUL was filled with sun-kissed Portuguese botanicals gathered during a motorbike trip across the country’s South coast. The 2017 edition, Kleine Freiheit (Small Freedom), went out at a slightly larger 4000 bottle batch (the previous had been limited to 1 or 2000) and was, contrary to any of GIN SUL’s previous efforts, a love letter to Hamburg. Juniper, cumin, anise, fennel, dill and lemons made it into the line up, along with five special pepper varieties. After distillation, the spirit spends a night in old aquavit barrels, before being poured into their glorious ceramic homes for life.
There is passion here, but also inventiveness. Garbe’s love of Portugal borders on obsession, and you have to take a rom-com approach to fully appreciate the context here. In the real world showing up at someone’s front door with a boom box is a bit much. In Hollywood, it’s the height of romance. Garbe wants Portugal to know how much he loves it, and he wants you to love it just as much as he does. Sure, its intense, but really the country should be flattered by the sheer adoration being pushed its way. It is impossible not to see the sheer love – both of gin and experimentation – that goes on behind the scenes at GIN SUL. This is very clear to see on the company’s website too, which provides candid production information and a nifty little background information on the distillery. It’s absolutely worth a visit if you find your curiosity peaked.
As far as we’re concerned, the German Gin scene has a great deal to offer, and if you’re wondering where to start: ding dong, you’ve found it. GIN SUL is the epitome of modern day gin. It’s global (or certainly continental) in both it’s approach and outlook, it’s really tasty, it’s evocative and it’s perfectly made. We’re big fans!
For more information about GIN SUL, visit gin-sul.de
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