Oxley Gin, one of the first gins credited in using the cold (vacuum) distillation technique, is a must-try in the super premium gin category.
Oxley Gin is a product that merged both scientists and distillers alike in order to create their unique distillation method. It hasn’t been an easy journey and it took some time – eight years of experimentation – to get the method right. That’s a long time to make a gin! Launched finally in 2009, the Bacardi owned brand, is an impressive product and worth the wait.
Vacuum distillation is no longer completely novel as a distillation technique in gin production, but Oxley was one of the first spirits to use this method and is unique to others in the category. Word of warning – this post gets geeky so best buckle up before launching in…
What is vacuum distillation and why is it also called cold distillation? Quite simply, it’s because by creating a vacuum the boiling point required to distil alcohol is greatly reduced. Instead of heating up the botanicals and neutral grain spirit until they both reach a boiling point of around 78 degrees Celsius, cold distillation uses vacuum pressure to bring down the boiling point to a rather tepid 25 – 40 degrees Celsius. The reasoning behind doing this is for the botanicals to remain intact whilst the spirit gets distilled. Oxley takes this to the extreme by distilling at -5°C. Even in the context of vacuum distillation, this is unbelievably low.
To put their unique method into perspective we would like to refer to Sacred Gin, who use a rotary evaporator that distils using similar “cold” principles. Sacred‘s equipment operates at around 40 to 50 Torr (Torr is a unit for pressure that equates to 1/760 of a standard atmosphere), whereas Oxley‘s bespoke still uses much stronger vacuum that generates between 9 and 7 Torr. This means that they require even less heat to reach boiling point. More suction = less pressure = less heat. Still with us? Great, so why does heat matter you ask..?
This sub-zero distillation method means that the delicate flavours and oily compounds stored within the botanicals are maintained instead of lost or changed through the heat. It also prevents the harsher, ‘cooked’ smells and tastes that can come through in final products where the stills have overheated. Whether one is better than the other is subjective given it is to do with flavour preferences. It’s certainly very different and that’s the key point. No heat creates a very different flavour profile.
The second point of difference in Oxley‘s distillation method is that by reducing the heat so much it ensures that there are no heads or tails created in the process. The gin is so highly rectified that no methanol or other unwanted substances are present. Making no cuts to the liquid means that 23 litres of the 25 liters first added emerges from the distillation process with 2 liters being absorbed by the botanicals and any uncontrolled defects in the pump system.
Super geeky production aside, another point of difference is that in comparison to many gins created using a rotary evaporator, Oxley distil their botanicals together in a one shot distillation. In the case of Sacred and many others, each of their botanicals gets distilled separately. ie. Oxley’s botanicals are macerated at the same time then distilled, rather than Sacred who distil separately then blended afterwards.
Scientifically, it’s an impressive feat. On the other hand, housed in a warehouse at Thames Distillers in Clapham, the still looks a little like a complex machine that has seen better days (a domestic pan was used as the collection vessel when we went to visit). The pan was slowly being filled as the tiny runs from the still ran-off a drop at a time, which makes Oxley Gin, to this day, one of the smallest batch productions we’ve ever seen when touring a distillery. The still is possibly the least glamorous or appealing to look at. However, the science, chemistry and performance it can generate is quite simply mind blowing. Think science not art and Breaking Bad season one while the set up was still gritty… There’s a reason why our photos on the left are the only ones available on the entire Internet (we know, quite the scoop, applause all round etc.).
The production is overseen by Oxley‘s distiller, Matthew Pauley, who is employed by Thames Distillers as a ‘Project Distiller’ and whose background lies in biochemistry. He is the mastermind behind many of the techniques unique to Oxley‘s sub-zero distillation.
To create a batch, there is a 15-hour botanical maceration period, then the spirit is distilled (a process that typically lasts about 5-6 hours) before being watered down and bottled at 47% ABV. They run an average of five distillations per week, producing an average of 600 bottles in the process. Without being sidetracked into a separate debate about the following subject, it’s worth mentioning as a footnote that Oxley Gin conforms to all the legal requirements to be labelled a ‘London Dry Gin’.
The secrecy around the early days of the brand and the limited information available about how Oxley Gin is made has meant that their innovation and Pauley’s dedication to this labour intensive gin, have largely gone unrecognised. Don’t be surprised to see this change over the coming years as both are celebrated a little more! The batch size is tiny, but mightily impressive when one considers all the elements.
A total of 14 botanicals are used following a recipe called ‘Recipe 38‘. Each of the botanicals were chosen to shine through so a perfect balance between them needed to be worked out. They found that the taste of fresh citrus ingredients are much sharper and brighter using their distillation method, in comparison to the more marmaladey notes in traditional pot stills. This is quite the opposite reaction in cold distillation of juniper berries however. Rather than creating dominant piney notes we’re so used to, a much more grassy flavour is produced and juniper is significantly more gentle and greener on the palate. It took exactly 38 attempts until finally the perfect recipe was concocted (thus the name “Recipe 38“). The botanicals are now weighed and vacuum-packed into bags with the exact weight for one distillation before being sent down to the distillery.
So, alongside juniper and grapefruit, lemon and oranges, the other 10 botanicals include meadowsweet, vanilla, aniseed, orris root, liquorice root, cocoa, grains of paradise, cassia bark, nutmeg and coriander. The result means that Oxley Gin is bright and clear to taste. Zingy grapefruit and a lively juniper define the gin, but it’s rounded by other citrus and is incredibly smooth despite a relatively high ABV of 47%. It’s perhaps strange to describe a gin that has all the familiar flavour elements of traditional gins as being vivacious, but the term seems apt for Oxley Gin as the notes are just so crisp.
Oxley‘s bottle design is simple and elegant too. The long elongated bottle with a green leather tie hand-wrapped around the bottle neck makes this an enjoyable bottle to grab and hold. Each batch number is written on the bottle confirmed by the ‘Small Batch’ engraving. The bottle is placed within a small silver container, which helps differentiate the product to others on the shelf. Rather surprisingly however, Oxley Gin only comes in one litre bottles. It’s both a nice point of difference but also quite an issue given this is part of the steep price point. There’s more liquid but it’s just out of range for many looking to try something new hence the reason why Oxley Gin remains far from being a recognized name amongst gin enthusiasts.
With the super premium end of the gin market providing growth in 2013 and 2014, it’ll be interesting to see how Bacardi choose to develop it and take it to the next level. It would seem that for the moment, they are happy to see it up and running while slowly growing in sales, rather than investing too much time in trying to establish it further. With a new distillery site due to go live in 2014 for sister brand Bombay Sapphire, it would seem that the Bacardi team have their hands full and just want to focus on that instead of battling on two fronts. Moreover, Oxley‘s small batch nature means there are as many issues with taking it to the next level as there are opportunities for expansion.
Currently geared to the global travel retail market, it is a must-try and a must-buy in the gin world. Oxley Gin is a very easy gin to sip on its own with a few ice cubes and doesn’t need to be masked or blended with anything else. It’s pricey but damn it, for all the effort that went into making the gin, it would be rude not to try some for yourself!
For more information about Oxley Gin, visit their website: www.oxleygin.com
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