When The Glasgow Distillery Company released its first gin, Makar, on the 27th October 2014, it unleashed on the world one of the most juniper forward gins to have come out of the recent boom. Robust, bold and sappy, juniper combines with a pungent rosemary to lead throughout, coating the tongue so heavily that the taste lingers long afterwards.
It was love at first taste for us (read the full review HERE), so we’ve been following the distillery with somewhat greedy eyes as we awaited another expression. You know that old saying? You wait ages for a bus and then three come along at once. The Glasgow Distillery seems to have taken that as a direct instruction, because in the latter half of 2016 they released not one, but three new gin variants: an old tom, a mulberry cask aged and an oak cask aged.
With a talented distiller to hand and a large still at their disposal, variants were inevitable. But why the two-year wait? “It was always important for us not to rush this process,” said co-founder Mike Hayward, “and to allow the brand extensions to evolve as and when they were ready.”
Makar Old Tom was created with the past in mind, albeit very much a Glasgow Distillery interpretation, with juniper remaining a boisterous character. A vast majority of the Makar recipe remains, although rosemary and cassia bark have been swapped out for orange peel and almond, whilst honey has been added for sweetness.
Mike Hayward’s suggested serve is in a Tom Collins or a Martinez, as both recipes (original and Old Tom) rely on the sweetness of this historical spirit. As many will know, Old Tom Gin had its origins during the 18th Century, when the government placed such a levy on the spirit that it became near impossible to buy via legal means. Crude distilling became the norm (well, even cruder – it was already rudimentary), and vast quantities of sweetening agents were used to mask the otherwise hideous taste. While Old Tom as a gin only began as a more defined idea some hundred years later, the two notions that carry through to this day are the botanical intensity and sweetness that were continued on from the early days.
The popularity of this particular style of gin died out in the 20th Century, but by then it had become a necessary ingredient in many a classic drink, so the resurgence of cocktail culture has brought this – and a slowly waking number of historic gins styles – back to life.
Makar Old Tom Gin to taste…
The botanical line up for Makar Old Tom Gin consists of almond, angelica, black pepper, coriander seeds, liquorice, lemon peel, orange peel and – of course – juniper. Without that information to hand, you’d still be able to confidently place pepper as an ingredient. It wafts up to the nose, not sharp or unpleasant, but spiced and dusty. There is an aroma of green juniper and a hint of freshly chopped coriander, as opposed to seeds.
This is a well balanced affair; liquorice sweetness and pepper spice clamber for prime position on the tongue, while a fresh and zesty lemon rises and falls – given heft at the end my the coriander seed. An overwhelming juniper kicks in somewhere in the middle of the sip, building momentum until the mouth is filled with pine, pepper and woody liquorice. Honey has been used very sparingly, so that the first impression is of sweetness, but it isn’t the dominant force throughout. However, once the spice meets its end (quite rapidly) on the finish, the sweetness rises back up, and lingers long after the final sip.
Perhaps because it’s not a classic Old Tom and is a touch dryer than others in the genre, this is an absolute delight with tonic. Pepper is the first botanical to grace the tongue, combining its dryness with the bitter quinine to create a sharp, sweet slap to the tongue. The sweetness of the liquorice is multiplied, bringing this gin into a taste territory that even the biggest gin naysayers might enjoy.
Hayward’s cocktail recommendations of a Tom Collins is a must try, although we’re hard pushed to try any new gin without imagining it as a French 75. The bright lemon in this would work well and the liquorice and simple syrup would match up beautifully, while pepper would anchor the ensemble.
Onto the aged gins…
Initially, the Glasgow Distillery had no intention of creating two barrel aged variants, but during the experimentation process the team became so enamoured with the results from both mulberry and oak casks that they decided to go with both.
No tweaks were made to the original Makar recipe before ageing, “as we wanted the successful variants to be a true reflection on what the wood contributed towards the Makar flavour profile,” Hayward told us.
The biggest challenge when ageing a gin is timing; gin is tricky due to its complexity. Some botanicals pare very well with a strong wood, whilst others could do with less contact… It’s usually a matter of trial and error over a long period of time (a year in the case of the Glasgow Distillery), with patience and a willingness to potentially destroy stock being a key factor…
There is a somewhat medicinal property to the nose of this gin; although in a strictly New Age sense of the word… the wood has imparted a sauna-like smell, while the rosemary and juniper conspire to bring a herbal, piny feel. The wood is present on the nose, although far more subtle than it is to taste.
Wood comes through first with all its potent vanillins as one might expect following a maturation in virgin American oak casks. It is then joined by fiery cassia and black pepper. This feels very much like a grown ups’ drink; something that you might not like instantly (if you’re more disposed to a sweeter taste), but something that is so complex and intriguing as to keep pulling you back, until eventually you reach for it first.
What must be applauded with Makar Cask Aged Gin is its ability to find the centre ground of both gin and whisky. Too many cask aged releases are dominated by wood to such an extent that they are no longer recognisable as a gin. The juniper, rosemary, citrus and coriander seed keep this spirit firmly in the gin camp and make it an intriguing addition to the category.
Aged Gins and tonics aren’t the most obvious partners; the wood brings this more in line with a whisky, so it’s one to be sipped neat over ice, with Ginger Ale or perhaps as an Old Fashioned (using orange bitters in this situation). That said, it’s not bad with tonic – diluting somehow strengthens the wood, making it far more prominent on the nose and on the tongue. Where this – and, for that matter, the mulberry variant – would excel is in a Bee’s Knees, with honey combating the dryness of the pepper whilst lemon and orange juice add weight to the citrus botanicals.
A more subtle, charred wood greets the nose, accompanied by a bright cassia spice and a very mellow juniper. Tasting and nosing the two aged gins side by side is quite incredible, as the disparity between them shows the huge difference the type of wood makes (even with the same ABV and maturation times).
This is even more evident in the taste. The sip seems soft and sweet at the tip of the tongue, with the liquorice and angelica working in tandem to create a gentle entry, while waxy lemon and orange peel positively scream to announce their presence. The finish allows juniper to show its presence in a great big swell at the end of the sip, which – after a nip of pepper – leaves behind a more fruity edge. There’s less botanical intensity to the gin (mainly less pushy oak!) in comparison to the Oak Aged variant, but it feels smoother overall.
As with the Oak Aged, tonic doesn’t particularly belong here. It’s not that the resulting drink is horrible, rather there’s something quite perverse about it. It just feels wrong. Try this in a Martinez instead, as the soft complexity of the oak allows for a half way house between it and a Manhattan.
These gins serve as an incredible lesson into wood types, with the difference in end spirits serving as evidence that no corners can ever be cut, and nothing bodged. This is a process that needs to be done correctly in every sense of the word, because even the most subtle differences are loud.
All three expressions are jubilant examples of what Gin as a spirit has to offer; the category is expanding all the time, bringing with it new, experimental twists that don’t necessarily stray too far from the juniper heart.
The Glasgow Distillery is becoming something of a force to be reckoned with; the gins it’s producing are bold, juniper-forward spirits with equal respect for tradition and experiment and the people behind it have a good understanding of keeping up with the competition. We can’t wait to see what comes next.
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