We went to visit the Iron Balls Gin Distillery shortly after England made its untimely, though not undeserved, exit from Euro 2016. Winding through the sweaty, swampy, durian smelling streets of Bangkok, our taxi driver managed to divide his attention into four separate activities: 1. Repeating “England football bad. England good. England football bad; 2. Shouting “Iron Balls” out of the window in a determined hunt for directions; 3. Trying to sell us a suit; 4. Steering.
The distillery is on site at the Iron Balls bar, located in a somewhat upmarket district tucked just a minute’s walk behind the laughter-filled, vendor strewn streets. Walking through the door has a distinctly magical, Narnia-esque feel; out there is mad, loud, hot Thailand, in here is a wood-panelled, 1930s-esque speakeasy, calm and cool with Otis Redding piping through the speakers and liquor, liquor everywhere.
Iron Balls Gin Distillery was conceived and designed by Ashley Sutton, an Australian bar and club designer who has made something of a name for himself in Thailand, having conceived such world famous establishments as Sing Sing, Iron Fairies and The Bookshop Bar. After years spent creating fantastical grown up playgrounds for other people, Ash decided in 2015 to embark upon his own project, thus A.R. Sutton Engineers Siam bar was born. And subsequently renamed…
Iron Balls is an undeniably attention seeking name, and it’s hard to read the company motto without a smile forming – ‘you always have options if you have balls.” Subtle? Not at all – nor does it need to be. That said, while the brand gives off a faint air of, as Ash himself describes it, “taking the piss,” it would be unfair to say he hasn’t taken gin seriously.
The distillery’s license was the first to be granted in Thailand in 31 years – it took Ash wild amounts of work to convince authorities that what he was doing was safe (distilling in Thailand has been very much a rural endeavour, taking place in wooden structures and fuelled by coal fires. Flames, wood and spirit are not the safest of combinations…) and the project has been bankrolled by him entirely. His investment is palpable, so while – when he describes the production method with a vague air of flippancy – it may seem to some as though he’s purely there to cause a scene, the reality is that this is a huge passion, involving great persistence and vast risks.
The time from inception to production took three and a half years and, as Ash told us, “over 600 recipes, 2000 runs and all the money and property I’ve ever had.” The reason for gin? The license for Iron Balls only allowed the distillery to produce a clear spirit and gin was the best way to harness the amazing fresh and rare botanicals on offer.
Iron Balls masterfully captures its surroundings; the base alcohol is made from coconuts and pineapples, all of which are peeled, chopped and blended by hand. Blood, sweat and tears has never been so literal a phrase – pineapples are beastly to peel and Bangkok is unutterably hot. For each run, around 500 pineapples are crushed and around 100 coconuts are cracked. Once blended, the fruit goes into the fermentation tank for seven to 10 days, where it transforms into a 13% wine. The wine is then distilled in Iron Balls’ huge, two-column copper Carl still, where it is transformed into vodka.
There’s a whole host of secrecy surrounding production, with Ash keeping his cards clutched very firmly to his chest. Of the 15 botanicals used in the production of Iron Balls, Ash reveals only German juniper, lemongrass, mace, roasted nutmeg, Cambodian pepper, Chiang Mai ginger, Indian cinnamon, coriander seeds and ginseng. The others are kept very much under wrap.
The botanicals are left to macerate in the spirit for “a while” (more of those secrets) before being put through a run, which takes around four hours and produces around 100 bottles, at 40% ABV.
Iron Balls Gin to taste…
The nose will be familiar to anyone who grew up in England; so strongly does it smell like the pink and orange Fruit Salad chewy sweets of childhood that you can almost feel the paper getting stuck to your teeth.
The scent of tropical fruit steers the gin, meaning that either the ethanol is not taken to an ABV higher then 96% when it’s made, or that a lot of fruit forms a core part of the unspecified botanical line up. Mango-like fleshy fruits are really in abundance here. Juniper doesn’t make it through on the nose, but the ginger and cinnamon burst in, bringing with them a distinctive warmth.
Fruit comes straight through on the taste, too, and holds in the mouth long after the drink is finished. The ginger and cinnamon bring a slight tingle, while the coriander seeds deliver a toasty citrus. Juniper isn’t a dominant factor here, bringing the gin more in line with the “progressive” American styles we’re seeing more and more of. That said, a vague sense of pine is left in the mouth, so while far from the lead role, or really that noticeable in it’s own right, our little purple friend is present.
The barman at Iron Balls, Carson, fixed us up a great serve as soon as we walked through the door: Iron Balls Gin topped up with tonic, a couple of sprigs of basil and some thick slices of fresh, juicy pineapple. It was genuinely delicious and a serve we’d be hard pushed to beat.
Whatever choice you make for how to serve it, when you taste Iron Balls Gin, it’s important to remember the context of where and how it is made. We often talk about instilling a sense of place in gin, but that “place” is usually not somewhere as batshit mental as Bangkok. It’s a diverse, unique city that frequently delivers a barrage of different aromas, flavours and experiences that result in a sensory overload. This gin captures those moments with its fruity, tropical, warming and genuinely enticing mix. It captures the city and while this makes it very different as a gin – that’s also why it’s easy to say that it is very well put together as a concept and as a spirit. It is not something to simply be written off.
The brand is cool. Very cool. So cool we’re instantly transported back to school, especially with the taste of fruit salads sweets now embedded in our minds… The bottle is short and stout, small at 330ml with a flat, fat bottom, designed to stay upright on ships.
This ties in with both the maritime history of gin and Ash’s passion for free diving. He has a boat back in Australia which he uses to explore reefs and shipwrecks – a ballsy sport, especially given the fact that he’s just built a shark cage. He also has some friends who are commercial divers, and Iron Balls, true to its name, sponsors them to do some borderline insane diving with great white sharks.
The clear bottle has the name of the distillery embossed in glass across the top. The cork has a copper ring around it also featuring the name of the distillery and black rope tied around the neck reveals the batch number (handwritten). This is very much a hand made project – from crushing the pineapples, to labelling the bottles, to getting the cork in place with a rubber hammer and to splicing the rope. All that said, the bottle is nigh on impossible to pour from without reducing the table to a gin swimming pool.
At just under £30 (1400THB) for a 330ml bottle, the gin is expensive, but when one considers the sheer amount of work that goes into making it, it is possible to argue that it might be a fair price. Variations are not on the agenda for now – after 600 attempts to get to the right recipe, Ash is happy with what he has and the sole purpose for the time being is to get the gin out there and in the hands of top bartenders the world over.
It’s a sweet, mellow and easy to sip spirit with huge potential for brightening up a cocktail and while it’s currently stocked predominantly in Thailand, we expect to see it slowly filling bar shelves a little closer to home.
It’s not really gin as we know it and if this was made in the UK, we’d have written it off as a “Hoxton Gin Version 2.0”. However, it’s important to remember that it’s Thai gin and that it’s trailblazing in a country that hasn’t ever really had a deep rooted passion for the spirit. Something different, loud and distinct may well be what gin needs out there to ignite interest in the category.
After all, you always have options if you have balls, and the free spirited faces behind Iron Balls seem to have plenty.
For more information about Iron Balls, visit their website: www.ironballsgin.com
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