Vermont Spirits: Coppers Gin
Gin has been an increasingly location driven subject over the past few years, with hyperlocal botanicals being the definitive factor that holds one brand apart from the next and fills the category with a greater diversity than seen in any other spirit. That said, even the most handpicked-by-grandma gins struggle with the main event – juniper. More often than not the key ingredient is bought in, so it’s always a rare treat for us to come across a distillery that manages to grab the tiny, piny core of gin directly from the bush. Which is why we’re so excited about Vermont Spirits’ Coppers Gin.
Since it emerged in May 1999, Vermont Spirits has seen its way through many different moods in the gin world, from the lowest lows of uncool to its great climb to the role of spirit king. When the company emerged, it was one of around sixty micro-distilleries in the US (and the only one in Vermont). Now there are almost twenty in the state alone, and close to 2000 nationwide. Has competition hampered Vermont Spirits? Well… no. Owner Steve Johnson explains: “Appreciation for high quality craft spirits seems to continue to grow faster than the saturation of the market. Demand for our products certainly is continuing to grow. Consumers appear to want to know more about what goes into their cocktail and all age categories seem willing to try new spirits brands and variations on traditional drinks.”
Johnson wasn’t always a part of Vermont Spirits; it was founded by Duncan Holaday, a retired professor of anthropology who decided to turn his attention towards creating vodka from maple, whey and apple. Johnson, in fact, wasn’t even involved in spirits at this time – he’d been tiptoeing between jobs in construction, banking and journalism. With a family history of tobacco growing and brandy distilling, however, he felt drawn towards spirits, so when he saw a distribution role open up at the distillery, he went for it.
There’s another character in the mix too: Head Distiller Harry Gorman. He built Holaday’s house in the mid 1980s and had kept in touch throughout the years. When he returned to the US following a stint in Ireland as a furniture maker, Holaday – knowing about Gorman’s cider brewing hobby – invited him to join the team.
In 2009, when retirement no longer felt like retirement, Holaday stepped away from the business, allowing Johnson and Gorman to take the reins. They moved to a new distillery and, with room to explore and a tasting room full of customers on whom to test out new products, decided to branch out into other spirits.
“Gin was at the top of the list to work on,” Johnson said. “We released our first of the three, Coppers Gin, in 2013. About eighteen months later we added Coppers Barrel Gin (an aged version of the Coppers Gin) and then, last June, we released Coppers Sugarwood Gin. The latter was the brainchild of our President and only required a few weeks of testing and tweaking to arrive at a flavour profile we were all happy with.”
Although vodka makers, Vermont Spirits had absolutely no desire to use their own, characterful spirit as the base for their gin. It’s only really been a development of the last couple of years that has seen grain to glass distillers treat their base spirit as the first botanical, so Vermont Spirits was a little too ahead of the curve to delve down that path. Perhaps if they were to create another they’d consider using one of their vodkas as a start point…
To make Coppers Gin, neutral spirit and water are added to the still at around 45% ABV. Juniper berries – which are handpicked by the production team every September – are added to the 150-gallon still, alongside orange peel, cardamom, liquorice, coriander, rose petal and lemon zest. Each gin run takes around seven hours, producing five hundred 750ml bottles. The resulting gin is cut down to 42.5% ABV and put through a fine particle filter at bottling.
Coppers Barrel Gin follows the same process, albeit with a resting period chucked into the mix. Coppers Sugarwood Gin, though, is the odd ball in the range, with just juniper, orange peel and green tea in the botanical line-up. This is to keep the palate simple and clean for the proofing process, when maple syrup is added in. Yes please.
Coppers Gin to taste…
The fact that this is labelled as American Style Gin suggests a certain progressive stance. This is one you wouldn’t expect to have that juniper-coriander-angelica dominance, but rather a mix of something altogether new and strange. The thing is, this isn’t actually that much of a weirdo, even when viewed through our Londoncentric eyes. Juniper hits the nose hard, filling the senses with bruised blue berry colours as you sniff. There’s a sweet lick of cardamom and warm, lemony coriander, resulting in a gin that is – on first glance (or sniff) at least – quite traditional.
It’s incredibly savoury and green to taste, with the juniper as loud as a bell and cardamom (not too far behind in intensity) setting a slow, gentle fire on the tongue. Gentle is the key word, here: the gin seems to come to life slowly in the mouth, with all of the flavours warming and transforming on the tongue, growing from something that is at first just juniper and soft curried cardamom to a strange, almost alive sensation of orange, rose and rounded sweetness.
With tonic, the rose is a little louder, bringing a soft petal-hay taste to the juniper, and the spices – though the burn is removed – are louder somehow, contributing to the overall savoury notes. It’s a very serious gin for very serious gin fans – there’s no dilly dallying here, no time for frivolousness, just gin. And good gin, at that.
Coppers Barrel Gin to taste…
This has an incredibly busy and outrageously tempting nose. Yes, wood is there, but so is the sensation of thick, gooey marmalade and fresh baked loaves of coconut cake. The juniper is all but lost as the vanillins from the wood take over, with the overall sensation akin to throwing open the doors of a French patisserie and taking in all the aromas at once.
That sweetness carries over to the tongue, albeit on the lightest bed of smoke and a commanding wood. The coconut nose translates to the taste, bringing a tropical, almost rum-like feel with it (think sweaty mangos and over-ripe banana). On that note, Coopers Barrel Gin is definitely one we’d advise rum and whisk(e)y drinkers to try; the wood is so characterful that you could get a lot from it, if that’s your disposition. It’s soft and not too sweet, so a great alternative for those who like to make an Old Fashioned.
Gin fans might have a difficult start in their relationship with this spirit, as the gin is all but lost to the wood, but trust us when we say that’s no bad thing. Coppers Gin is so savoury in its nature that the sweet wood didn’t have much of a choice but to either cower in deference or overtake completely. It’s gone for the latter, resulting in a spirit that is entirely lovely, though one that is not that ginny until right at the death, when a little bit of pine emerges to remind you of the ghost that once was. Drink it with ginger ale, or maybe even in a Martinez (where it’ll shine) but for the love of all that is sacred to you, don’t serve it with tonic.
Coppers Sugarwood Gin to taste…
Sugarwood Gin has a quiet nose, and with juniper, green tea, orange peel and maple syrup the only botanicals on the line-up, we’re a little surprised. With less hustle for centre stage, you’d expect the ingredients involved to swell up and be easily discernible from one another. Instead, it’s subtly sweet, with juniper and orange locked into a tantalising tango as maple adds a muting filter over everything.
The taste has a little chutzpah going for it, with the green tea providing a note that criss-crosses constantly between fresh green leaves and bitter hops. The juniper is loud, fresh and waxy, tasting as though you’d popped it in your mouth fresh from the bush. It’s piny and confident, while the maple seeks to rise up and dominate proceedings, juniper holds its own (and holds it well) allowing the syrup to merely add a delicate sweetness and a sense of viscosity onto the finish.
With tonic it’s sweet enough to set your teeth on edge, breezy as they come and filled with so much fun. For those of a more salty tooth, this could be one to mix with a light tonic water or even soda. Our personal desire, though, because it’s so soft, is to serve it in a quaint teacup and garnish with fresh petals. As such, it’d work really well in a French 75…
What a range! Our relationship with all Barrel Aged Gin is awkward to say the least. We love it, we hate it, we slate it, we rate it, but Coppers’ Barrel Aged is a great example of the sub-category and definitely one we’d point towards. The flagship Coppers Gin is a masterclass in juniper and the Sugarwood offers the Gin world something that it doesn’t quite have yet. We’re enamoured. Deeply.
For those wondering, as you do when tasting a gin range or reading an article about it, the name Coppers is a nod towards the coins issued by the Vermont Republic between 1785 and 1791. In fact, all of the names for the distillery’s brands have a link to the state in some way, with Sugarwood taking its name from the maple sugaring industry.
Home is important to these guys; Vermont agriculture and business is supported, local botanicals are used and the land surrounding the distillery is preserved, celebrated and shared far and wide. It’s a local gin for global people, painting a wee picture of the world it comes from. So is that mission achieved for Holaday, Johnson and Gorman? “If the taste of our gin conjures up an image of wild juniper growing on the edge of a field, or maple sap being tapped in spring while the snow is still deep on the ground, or the steam from the boil rising from the sugar house, then I guess we have succeeded” Johnson concludes, a little humbly. They do. They have. Go and make the journey to Vermont “in spirit” if you can.
For more information about Vermont Spirits, visit the website: vermontspirits.com
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