Smeaton’s Gin, named after the road on which Bristol Archives is based, is a gin that’s been 10 years in the making, and something that began as a complete accidental chance.
It began in the autumn of 2005, when founder Michael Palij stumbled across a bit of information that set in motion a series of events, instances and an idea that he would never have anticipated would come to much.
“I was researching gin for the WSET courses that I was running and found a reference to Bristol Gin in Loftus’s Mixing Book of 1869”. I’d never heard of Bristol Gin and, being a bit of a nerd, decided to head to Bristol with a mate to see if there were any surviving documents that proved it had once been made”.
It’s innocuous enough as a thought and usually, chasing something down in an archive is much the same as chasing a rabbit down the hole. Normally it all dies down very fast buried in an abyss of false leads. But, for the lucky few, a world of magical mysteries appears…
The friend in question was Will Betts, a Formula One fuel chemist, and together they set about tracking down old archives, recipes and historical manuscripts. For those who haven’t done such research, we’ll just shred one part of the illusion straight away – it isn’t the same as in quests written by Dan Brown. Rather it’s a painstaking, laborious task that develops with all the frenetic pace of a Jane Austen novel…
Reminiscing about the early days Palij told us that “The Bristol Archives didn’t have masses of records relating to gin”. Hardly a surprise, as only government records are obliged to be archived. In the UK, as for most of the world, it is much easier to find legal documents relating to planning and licensing than it is to find material donated by private individuals.
The duo found a treasure trove of material relating to the Bristol Distillery and to the Bristol Distilling Company which was founded in 1671, burnt to the ground in 1909 and was rebuilt in 1920. There was not a great deal about their inner workings or much to support Loftus writing that the difference between Bristol and Plymouth or Liverpool gins was remarkable.
They could even see evidence of plans for another distillery at Crew’s Hole and references to a distillery owned by a Mr. James whose descendants, in a bizarre twist, crop up again both in Australia and in Bristol, but there are no records that he ever distilled.
While frustrated in the lack of specifics about the gin referred to in the Loftus mixing book and to what exactly was being made at these Distilling companies, at least it was progress. They were in the right place and there was evidence of distilleries of old, active and producing during some of Gin’s most heady years.
Until they hit the jackpot that is – a small pack of distiller’s notebooks which included dozens of recipes for all kinds of spirits. “It was a bit of a ‘eureka’ moment although it’s deathly quiet in the reading room so we didn’t run around shouting. Also, when we first saw it, the idea of actually making gin hadn’t yet crept into my head so it was just fascinating – proof of the existence of Bristol Gin.”
Many, especially in an era before the modern gin craze when the spirit wasn’t exactly en vogue, would have left it there. A good anecdote for the next group of WSET students and a satisfying bit of research concluded. It had taken hold however, and finding recipes emboldened the pair to see if they could take it one step further still. Could they make it?
Except there was one issue: the recipes listed botanicals, the dates suggested that distillations were performed in season, but critically they did not have an exact formula that one could follow today.
Moreover, all the references in the recipes referred to ‘Oils of’ this, that and the other. The distillation method wasn’t defined either, though the distilleries were known to use copper pot stills. To recreate a Bristol Gin meant that much of their work would be piecing together the items of the puzzle they had, in order to imagine the picture there once was.
Taking a similarly studious approach to finding the documents in the archives, Palij & Betts broke down the details further. As Betts says, “The terminology they used to describe the botanicals indicated they were liquid oils”. Taken together with Bristol’s provenance as a port, they came to believe that individual distillations of fresh landed product must have taken place (discounting compounding, which logically would have referred to a dry weight of botanical).
The key part of understanding this aspect of the recipe, is that it must be blended from separate botanical distillates and as Palij explains “meant that we had to distil botanicals individually”.
It is worth caveating at this stage that there could be another explanation to why it is written that way, but recreating history and interpreting the past is just that – interpretation. The only thing one can do is apply common sense and with nothing else to suggest otherwise, the duo looked to create the recipe. It is also important to note that while many look at this more fractionated distilling method as being a completely modern occurrence, Dutch and Belgian distillers, let alone perfumers, have been doing it for generations. The approach and the method that the duo lovingly call the “Bristol Method” led to the next challenge, just how much concentration was each ‘oil’ in?
Working on and off for a decade with Oxford University’s Dyson-Perrins Laboratory for Organic Chemistry, Palij & Betts carefully tried to recreate the recipe using small, vacuum distillations. Now this wasn’t the relentless pursuit of a possessed sniffer dog. No, life has a habit of getting in the way of pursuits as preposterous as recreating a 19th century Gin recipe! Palij’s wine business, Betts’ work in Formula One, family commitments, laboratory time and the resources that could be justifiably devoted to following a hobby and a distant dream of making something authentic and interesting, meant that the R&D was a here and there process.
Yet, just like going from discovering the category in a book, to discovering the texts in a hushed archive room, moving forward, slowly, organically and at its own pace, progress happened. “Although we knew the relative amounts of each botanical, we didn’t know the actual concentrations so worked with ten dilutions of each. This obviously led to an immense collection of small vials, which we organised and blended in seemingly endless permutations…”
The time to cross blend all of these in search of a decent flavour profile aside, context is key here. Even by the half way stage of this journey, in 2011, the likes of Warner Edwards or City of London didn’t even exist. Gin was still not cool and this project would have seemed absurd to many looking in at the time. But perseverance and respect for the original botanicals and method paid off.
Smeaton’s Gin to Taste:
To move to production, Palij enlisted the help of Dutch master distiller Patrick Zuidam, who understood Palij’s desire to respect the original “Bristol Method” of separate distillations. Patrick has now made the first batches of Smeaton’s Gin, using botanicals sourced from Bristol’s old trading routes. The taste, incidentally, is both classically styled yet something that would appeal to some of the most progressive of palates. And, as Loftus had opined, it is remarkable as a different style to Plymouth or Liverpool gins. Fresh soft orange peel positively leaps out of the glass, alongside classic juniper and dustier undertones of roots.
To taste, the orange is just as clear, providing both lift as well as welcoming sweetness to the fore. The calamus, still used in Italian Bitters but rarely in modern gins, isn’t obvious in its own right, yet there is a warming gingery zing to the finish that brings a piquant note to the dryness of angelica.
According to Palij, “the recipe is classically juniper-heavy and we’ve stuck to that (against plenty of advice offered by some distillers), selecting juniper from Tuscany and Macedonia”. We agree, it’s clear to taste and comes though strongly alongside the fresh citrus top notes in a G&T. There’s a classic core to the gin.
As Palij puts it “We’ll never know for certain whether or not we have recreated Bristol Gin the way it tasted in the 19th century, but we are confident that we have respected the method and the type of still – we’ve done the best job we can.”
We’d go one step further and ask if it really mattered that it’s an exact replica? No. They’ve worked tirelessly to faithfully recreate it. Palij and Betts genuinely researched it, interpreted records in the most logical ways possible based on all the evidence they could find and they’ve been a great deal more authentic about trying to do it justice (from the use of fresh botanicals and copper pot stills to the Bristol blue glass bottle and the cork stopper) than many are with the ‘old recipes’ they draw inspiration from.
It’s probably not the same as it used to be, but distillation has moved on, and so have modern drinkers looking for a cracking G&T or a classic Negroni! What Palij & Betts have created is quite delicious, and if it happens to be a little different so that it tastes as balanced and as bold as it does (something that we’ll never know anyway), we’ll gladly accept historical interpretation if it means we’ll get some more in our glass.
Our only bone of contention is the price, which at over £40 is steep. There’s good logic for why and the packaging is reflective of the positioning, but it’s steep never the less and in a ferocious market right now – that might be holding them back.
Pushing forward at double time isn’t exactly much of a concern though, Smeaton’s Gin has been a slow burner and the passion project of two individuals, it’s a quiet tale of steady progress. The result looks and tastes spectacular. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that Palij and Betts never set out to create a product for all to enjoy, and yet in the process of its recreation, Smeaton’s Gin has become one of the truly well considered gins to have been launched in the past 18 months.
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