Tappers Darkside Gin
Tappers Darkside Gin is a tiny little project that reaches its hands far, far back into Gin’s seedier, bathtub-produced days, albeit in nicer (and, thankfully, much more hygienic) surroundings. Founder Steven Tapril is just one of many Gin geeks who’ve made the journey from drinker to collector to creator, but he’s incredibly unique in his decision to use a cold compounding method.
Tapril’s journey into Gin obsession was one that developed over a number of years, as he quietly amassed a collection of around 60 bottles. When he started placing that collection under a microscope he was struck by the realisation that many of the local gins he’d collected along the way had been made by contract distillers. “I’ve nothing against that in terms of quality/expertise,” he explained, “but it did surprise me as a consumer to find that a regional product’s origins were not always as stated on the label.”
This was the push Tapril needed, and in late 2014 he started playing around with botanicals that he’d sourced from in and around West Kirby. This yearning for real provenance ended up consuming a good year of his life. “I can’t count the number of hours I spent researching botanicals that grow in the local area to understand not only whether they’d be safe for consumption, but also what flavours they’d impart, how they’d interact with one another and how I could effectively group them by strength to determine how much of each of them I would need to use,” he recalled.
Tapril would make tiny experimental batches of cold-compounded gin, sampling his way through each until he had a handful of recipes he was happy with. He took the final few batches to work to share with his colleagues and to some local pub landlords to gauge their responses. “At that time I was only really producing it to see if it was possible to develop a compound gin that was decent enough to drink,” he said, “but I was encouraged to bottle it and think about taking it to market. I must have spent a good few months deciding whether to take the plunge…”
And what a plunge it was! Tapril has never worked in booze before; his industry is IT marketing, so he was a little naïve when it came to the paperwork involved for spirits. “I hadn’t realised just how complicated that process would be – from acquiring a Compounders Licence through to the new AWRS registration and even licensing my own home with the Local Authority so that I can retail online.” Understandably, in total it took six months to sort out the admin – though that’s only half the time it took to perfect the recipe.
The sea beet is foraged locally, while others – like the chickweed—are picked further afield by forager Fraser Christian. The more traditional gin botanicals are sought from wholesalers, and Tapril is in the process of developing a botanical garden at home. By placing the emphasis on quality being the defining factor in selection – he holds no illusions that he’ll be able to grow all of the ingredients himself and says he sceptical of those that claim to build recipes entirely from foraged ingredients: “I use a combination of foraged and wholesale ingredients and I don’t think there’s any shame in that. I am all about consumer awareness and choice given how I got into this in the first place. The fact that my recipes are inspired by the area I live in is what is important to me.”
The name, incidentally, is a nice touch that also nods to the gin’s provenance. Darkside is the nickname given to the Wirral Peninsula, by day trippers from Liverpool who venture over to the “dark side” of the River Mersey to visit quaint seaside villages.
For those under the illusion that cold compounding is as simple as dumping a jar of juniper berries into a bottle of vodka and giving it a couple of shakes… well, Tapril is happy to shatter your illusion. “When it comes to producing compound Gin on any kind of industrial scale it is incredibly labour intensive,” he explained. “The recipes need to be absolutely precise: from the quantity of botanicals (any deviation from the recipe +/0.1g is unacceptable, for example) down to preparing the juniper berries for maceration and testing at each stage during steeping to ensure consistency of flavour, viscosity and so on.
“Upscaling production has always been fraught – mainly because I’m a perfectionist and I over worry and overthink things. I went from producing nine bottle of Darkside a week to 18, then up to 36 – 40 per batch. Each time I panicked about steeping times and ingredient quantities. I ruined several batches which I had to discard because I tampered with the recipe: I’ve learnt not to do that now but it does make me very nervous when altering batch sizes because any deviation can be catastrophic.”
This, of course, prompts a question: why did Tapril choose to compound Tappers Darkside Gin when distilling equipment is (relatively) easy to come by and Gin is no longer a prohibited substance? Well… there are a number reasons, actually. The first is that this relatively unique (in these days) method of production brings different elements of each botanical – the good, the bad and the ugly. Nothing is distilled away, so the freshness of the foraged botanicals remains, as does the earthy, slightly bitter taste of the juniper berries. This allows for an altogether unique taste and a huge, oily mouthfeel.
This also gives Tappers Darkside Gin a point of difference in a hectic market. Tapril explains: “Most gin is distilled and there has been an explosion of new brands hitting the market – a large proportion are contract distilled and the rest are from independent craft producers. There are very few compound gins on the market – Ableforth’s Bathtub Gin being the most widely recognised – and so I wanted to find an unexplored niche, demonstrate that compound gin can be just as good as the distilled variety and row against the tide of very similar tasting products to produce something distinctive and unique.”
Since it’s launch, Tappers Gin has found an enamoured audience amongst foodies and chefs. Paul Askew of The Liverpool Art School and Mark Wilkinson’s Fraiche were amongst the first to take it on, back in 2016. This has spread across the country, with a huge cast of high calibre chefs adopting the gin onto their menus.
Chef Jonathan Green of Albatross & Arnold in Manchester went as far as to produce a seven-course tasting menu, pairing each dish with a gin from the Tappers range.
Tappers Darkside Gin to taste…
Juniper is the first ingredient to rise up out of the glass, but it’s not here in it usual capacity. Instead, it provides dusty, earthy notes, weirdly similar in smell to volcanic rock. Black cardamom provides a wisp of smoke, while orris brings hints of violet.
To taste, bitter juniper rushes the tongue; that earthy floral element so prevalent on the nose comes through and the initial taste is of a dry, tart, miles-from-ripe berry. The sea beet, clover and chickweed bring green, bushy elements to the middle of the sip, and while these are soon pushed aside by a rampaging black cardamom spice, which adds a smokey touch and circles back around with the trio of sea beet, clover and chickweed to fill out the finish alongside the dusty juniper. The texture is thick and rich, coating the mouth in a film of flavour that lingers long, long after the sip.
Something to note is the colour. Don’t be alarmed by it’s yellowy golden hue – it’s a gift from the juniper berries, and not a sign of anything untoward… With tonic, that earthy smell is louder – filling the nostrils like a cloud.
We once ordered a litre of cold pressed juniper juice to the office and it smelt exactly like this – it’s quite amazing how much of itself the juniper gives to spirit. In G&T form the gin is much softer; that cardamom/coriander spice is gone, replaced by the berries, and while the other botanicals undoubtedly play a role, it’s a hazier, quiet one.
To that end, Tappers Darkside Gin is very much a juniper-led gin, but it doesn’t have that resinous, pine forest taste you associate with classic gin, rather it’s an unusual adventure in technique and while the flavour might not appeal to those who like a clean cut spirit, it’s earthy, green, profile certainly has its merits and we’ve been enjoying sipping on it since the bottle made an appearance at our HQ.
The abundance of juniper in Tappers Darkside Gin is very intentional. Steve’s love for Gin means that he’s protective of the category and thus thinks it should be flush with the piny berries. “There’s a lot of talk around juniper – and rightly so,” he said. “The category has been flooded with products that are disingenuously taking advantage of the popularity of Gin.
“I’m a firm supporter of Simon Difford’s view that alcohol labelling should include an ingredients list, just as is the case with food, and also product origin. I’m a firm believer in raising consumer awareness. We have always been transparent about what we put in our gin, how we make it and where we make it.”
That taste could well change in the bottle over time but it shouldn’t be a massive concern here. A little Oxidisation is inevitable and natural degradation occurs even in distilled gins. Tappers Darkside Gin’s black clad bottle will go some way to prevent UV from affecting the spirit, but its likely that the effects of time will steal their way into the taste eventually. That said, you needn’t hurry – the oldest bottle Tapril had to hand when we discussed this with him was an eight month old bottle of his Wintergreen edition. He pulled it out and cracked it open, reporting back that the gin was still very much intact.
Wintergreen is one of four seasonal expressions and contains spruce needles amongst its evergreen line up. There’s also the much more floral spring fever, which contains gorse, cowslip, elderflower, orange blossom and chamomile in the line up. The more adventurous expressions are the extremely limited Figgy Pudding and the chocolate rich Eggcentric; only 40 bottles of each were made, thus proving the artisanal nature of the range. We’ll be writing all about these separately in a different article, due for release soon.
This idea of small and artisanal is continued in the branding too. Tappers Darkside Gin is packaged in a small, square, black apothecary style bottle, with an aged, medicine label bottle front and back. The vintage look certainly speaks of the liquid inside… if the bottle were a tardis, you’d hop right in and land in a time long gone, full of noise and wonder and clandestine parties.
One point we have to pick at is the gin’s price. At £40 for a 50cl bottle (and even more via other retailers), Tappers Darkside Gin comes out at a very high price. Defending his prices, Tapril said: “The price for our gin has been set by retailers to reflect the fact that we are independently producing our gin by hand, authentically, in small batches of around 40 bottles. Each bottle is individually prepared, from the hand-numbered labels to the wax seal finish. Our gin isn’t mass produced or turned off a factory line. I won’t compromise on that; it’s what makes us different.”
That argument is all well and good, but there are other makers we can think of creating gins in small batches at much lower costs – for example Graveney Gin for example also produces sub 100 bottle batches and charges £35 for a 70cl bottle. Having seen the work that goes into it we certainly can’t argue that it’s less labour intensive than that which goes into producing Darkside. Direct comparisons aside, in our opinion it is very difficult to justify the price tag with the calibre and diversity of independently owned craft gins on offer under the £35 mark in today’s scene. We quite consistent on that across our reviews and while we value the small and the can appreciate what modern luxury looks like, small bottles and bigger price tags will always get flack here. For those doing the math and to add context – if one considers the initial investment needed to purchase stills, plumb them in and the production overheads thereafter are lower for compound gins, you can see why we’re making a point here…
2018 seemed to mark something of a gear change for Tappers; Tapril is the first person to say he isn’t a front of house character, but he’s certainly getting been getting his gins out there this year, even putting it in the Ginvent Calendar. Usually at this stage in a brand’s life we’d criticise that lack of decent imagery and assets to hand, too, but here is’t all part of the charm. Honestly, some of the pictures across the Tappers social media sites are so low res as to look like they were drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch, but this is still very much a one man band operation, and Tapril clearly isn’t trying to net a global audience just yet. Rather, it seems, the approach he’s taking is one of confidence: he likes his gin, and he hopes you’ll like it too if you happen upon it. No expensive photoshoot is going to show you the flavour, and flavour is key – but it would definitely help add some value and we are hearing that there are plans for just that soon.
Tappers Darkside Gin is certainly worth trying – especially if you like sipping gin on the rocks. It’s the salmon swimming against the tide and standing alone (well, almost alone) in a world of noise and chaos. We aren’t promising the taste will hold universal appeal, but those interested in a history lesson via a tasty G&T should definitely give it a go.
For more information about Tappers Darkside Gin, visit their website: tappersgin.com
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