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Does Base Spirit Matter?

Cuckoo Gin Brindle to Distillery grain to glass
Lone Wolf, LoneWolf Gin, Scottish Gin, Brewdog Gin
Lone Wolf, LoneWolf Gin, Scottish Gin, Brewdog Gin
Lone Wolf, LoneWolf Gin, Scottish Gin, Brewdog Gin
williams chase gin - gin foundry
Kirsty's Gin Arbikie Distillery Scottish Gin
Dockyard Gin Copper Rivet Distillery Grain to Glass made in Kent
Dockyard Gin Copper Rivet Distillery Grain to Glass made in Kent
Jawbox Classic Dry Gin
Written by Gin Foundry

When it comes to Gin, we’re in a brave new world. There is so much choice out there now, that even the most discerning of drinkers struggles to know in which direction to turn. We’ve been, as the Evening Standard termed it, “flooded by more out there Gin flavours than the Mad Hatter’s tea party.” So, how do brands ensure that their gin stands out? Well, one of the biggest trends we’ve observed in 2017 is the rise of distillers making their own base spirit.

We think this is for two reasons: the first is ‘craft’. ‘Craft Gin’, is a term so widely spread, overused and misappropriated that it has become useless. Many point to the act of brewing and distilling the base spirit themselves, as real craft (some more aggressively than others) and while we do think there is both merit and romance to making one’s own base spirit, such a stance is entirely disparaging towards the majority of people who’ve helped to revive the genre. Yes, agricultural origin is a fascinating concept, and there is enormous skill in brewing and distilling – but it is not the be all and end all and calling it such shows both disrespect towards the work of rectifiers and a naivety to what flavour makers actually do. Distilling spirit is only a small portion of the act of making a gin…

The second reason is taste. Forget the botanical tea party going on in mad modern gins for a second and think of the rich, grainy, caramelised taste of un-filtered vodka. This is a strange rabbit hole to delve down, with the dark arts of brewing, fermenting and distilling throwing up some truly interesting flavours. As such, there has been a strong move by many of these grain to glass distillers to recalibrate the conversation around the base spirit being an essential part of the taste of their gin, and not just a neutral canvas from which to work.

With more UK-based grain to glass distillers emerging in the past year than in the previous three combined, we thought it was high time to explore this sub-sector in full…

Some history…

The obvious start point here is to ask why, until recently, it was the standard for everyone to buy in a Neutral Grain Spirit. Historically in the UK, there was a law stating that brewing and distilling had to be done separate to where the rectifying happened. Primarily it as a law designed and introduced as a way of being able to tax alcohol efficiently and regulate the amount being produced. Sparing you inches of historical twists and turns – suffice it to say this was only changed recently (in the context of hundreds of years of distillation) but despite this, the idea of there being a difference between a distiller (someone who makes the spirit) and a rectifier (someone who redistills it with flavourings / botanicals) has remained embedded in UK culture. Many gin makers who enter the market don’t even consider the idea of making their own base alcohol.

With legalities having changed, more recently, buying in a base spirit VS making it your self is more of a commercial matter. It costs a fortune to set up a grain to glass distillery, and unless you build a large scale operation it’s more expensive to produce your own base than to buy it in thereafter. It’s the key factor as to why most who do consider it, then choose not to embark on that journey.

There is a second strand to the decision making process that sways some distillers however. If they are not put off by the additional requirements of extra finances, expertise, warehouse space, admin or one of the many other complications – it becomes about a very pertinent question: is it worth all that hassle to create something that is intended to be flavourless? It’s called Neutral Grain Spirit for a reason, right? So long as it’s smooth, it’s good to go. Why bother crafting something that is intentionally invisible in the context of the end product.

This is important as it’s very hard to make a smooth base and it’s an art reliant on equipment. If you cannot make a base spirit efficiently in your gin still, and if you are not making a feature out the flavour of the base, then why try to industrialise what is an otherwise artisanal set up, especially if it’s not likely to produce the same quality, let alone something better? Answering this understandably puts many off doing it themselves, and again, this philosophical question assumes the extra investment isn’t an issue to begin with…

From inherited practices and mind-sets formed by archaic history, to modern hurdles and then artistic visions of what matters most (spirit or flavouring), grain to glass gin has (and probably always will) remained a rare thing in the UK.

The 96% ABV; What is it about, why do people get annoyed about it and why does it matter?

To be lawfully transformed into a Distilled Gin or a London Dry Gin, a base alcohol needs to have been distilled to over 96% ABV. It is the EU requirement, and anyone who stops short of reaching this ABV and labels their products as either of the above is doing so illegally. There are loopholes, of course, and various interpretations of the laws, but law is what they are.

The more you drive the ABV up in a spirit, the more you strip out flavours and the more neutral, or ‘pure’ the spirit becomes. When it reaches 96% ABV, it is considered organeleptically flavourless. Anyone who has ever distilled or seen distillation performed will be able to understand that getting a spirit to a consistent average of 95% ABV is hard and requires careful precision. With some graft and attention to detail, it is however reasonably achievable. The sheer effort to raise it that extra 1%, however, is lunacy.

For context, so long as you distil slowly and perform a “stripping run” before hand you could clean up a spirit that averages out at 95% ABV using a column (or equivalent) of around 10 – 14 plates. In layman’s terms, each plate triggers a mini distillation, and so the more you have, the more you can separate water and alcohol and the more you can drive the overall %.

To reach the 96% ABV plus, it is not an incremental amount more plates that are required…. It demands at least 30, more typically closer to 40, and that would be assuming everything ran at maximum efficiency all of the time. That’s a difference of about €30,000 – €40,000 in copper plates alone, and a further thousands in set up costs, lighting, rigging infrastructure, testing, transport… Then there’s also the additional costs in the time it takes to perform each run, the build of the distillery to accommodate the apparatus and the fact that it requires a slightly larger pot (thus more money) to make it run cost efficiently. Financially, there is a huge difference between reaching 95% and 96%. Like we said, it’s lunacy, but it makes a huge difference, and not just to the legalities of what you can write on the label.

This investment is partly why those who achieve 96% get annoyed with others who merely claim they do. It is the same as looking at a Golf Hatchback and a Ferrari and saying they are the same because they are both sports cars. A proper grain to glass operation is a different beast altogether and needs to be respected as such.

As people without skin in the game, the difference to commentators and enthusiasts doesn’t lie in the fiscal investment but in what that 1% does to flavour. There is a huge difference here. Not only is the underlying agricultural product no way near as discernible to taste in the higher ABV spirit, but the added copper contact (in most cases) helps smooth the spirit too. We’re not saying that one is better than the other, but that they are, unequivocally, not the same.

Some examples of what is going on in the market today…

Today, the market is waking up to a growing consumer demand of wanting to know the exact provenance of what they consume. Drinkers are prepared to pay a little extra, when given the chance to support a maker who can show them the craft and care they take at each step of the process too.

We tend to separate those who make their make a base spirit into three camps.

The first is those who go all in, and after brewing and an initial distillation, drive the base to 96% plus, pure alcohol. These tend to be distillers on the larger scale of operations, and while their spirits are not devoid of flavour, they are very clean and neutral in flavour, though with a certain texture and underlying weight on the mouthfeel. Lone Wolf, William Chase and Adnam’s are good examples of this and whose vodka showcases both the underlying agricultural source and the quality of process they employ to make it.

The second is those who don’t quite drive their spirit to 96% and whose outcome has clear flavours of their agricultural origin. There are many such producers in the US, and the numbers are growing in the UK. These makers often only part use their base, and combine it with more bought in Neutral Spirit to dampen down the underlying flavour. Cuckoo Gin and Boatyard Gin are both examples of two fantastic gins that fall into this area.

The last area is those whom are not claiming grain to glass status but who look at spirit as a possible botanical addition, and who add a spirit (such as sake, brandy, or young whisky) after distillation and who deliberately focus their attention on it. They are hybrid spirits of sorts and are quickly growing in numbers.

Rather surprisingly, while one might assume that when it comes to how prominent the flavour is in the end spirit, it would be non existent for the first group, clear in the second and dominant in the third, that’s not necessarily true.

The underlying spirit is often still discernible the gins belonging to the first group. If one takes them at their word, Sibling, The Oxford Artisan Distillery and Arbike all state they to go to 96%, but in all of their gins that base is evident, be it Sibling’s sugary qualities or TOAD’s caramelised, chocolate-y wheat. Perhaps then, how neutral something tastes is both about the distillation of the base spirit, as well as a distiller’s subsequent gin recipe (that can accentuate its flavours)… 

Why is there a raise in Grain to Glass operators now?

In some ways, the noticeable growth in grain to glass operations is not that recent at all. While it can take a small-scale rectifier a matter of months to go from inception to being on shelf, those looking to brew, distil and then redistill have a much longer process to get through.

It’s not just the licences, either; the amount of investment is triple, if not quadruple, while the distillery footprint required merely to fit all the tanks, columns, water and waste management systems is completely different. The skill level required and expertise is higher and the risks (in terms of how likely you are to blow up or serious poison someone…) are higher.

In short, going grain to glass, properly and with EU regulations in mind, is not an incremental step up, it’s another league. It’s therefore logical that it seems to be on average an 18 – 28 month process to go from initial conversations to producing the first drinkable spirit. Those entering the market this year have been hard at work making it happen since 2015. TOAD is a three year project, Dog House Distillery is a two year project, Ramsbury took two, and even Lone Wolf, with all their know how and brewing infrastructure, also took well over two years to get to the races. It takes time, and that simply can’t be fast-forwarded.

This incubation period is one of the big reasons why we expect to see more grain to glass distilleries entering the fray in 2018: they won’t be new projects, but makers already a year or two into their journeys.

Does base matter?

So, if you can taste the base spirit made by those who distil it themselves on a “craft” scale, is there a difference between the spirits made by those who are supposedly on a more industrial scale?

Can you taste the difference between a wheat, barley or potato base, even when it’s made on the type of apparatus and on the type of scale that we’ve all been led to believe through years of inherited teachings would strip all flavour out? Absolutely.

We assembled four samples from Netherlands based Sasma BV, whom work with a worldwide network of Premium Alcohol producers to supply their clients. In order to make it a fair test and to assess whether their is a difference between spirits, we did not pick the extremes of what they offered. Discerning a difference between a rice alcohol and a malted barley spirit would be too obvious, and it wouldn’t be relevant in the context of Gin making.

Cutting all spirits from 96% to 40% ABV for the tastings, we compared Sugar Cane, Wheat, Barley and Potato Alcohol blind. All four are used in gin production with Sugar Cane and Wheat prevalent in the industry. There is a clear textural difference between each sample, and there is also marked differences in how the spirit presents itself, with some that are smooth to start, while others have a marked attack.

Sugar Cane spirit provides an obvious sweetness but there are similarities between it and the Wheat alcohol sample, with the latter providing a more subtle sweetness. It has a lightly sugared texture and soft mouthfeel, yet not as distinct as Sugar Cane and in this most basic of comparisons, the similarity and dosage of underlying flavour highlights the choice afforded to a distiller and the question they must each ask themselves; What are they looking for in their base and how evident do they want that characteristic to be?

The differential between samples and the opportunity for a decision to be made that could influence the profile of a gin’s flavour, is once again evident when comparing the Potato and Barley side by side. The Potato is soft and smooth, with almost creamy tones and is a base opens up on the mouth providing a naturally round and extended finish, while the Barley has more detectable aroma and a clear cereal note the fore. It doesn’t open up but has an enveloping sensation that isn’t present in Wheat or Sugar cane. Both have a textural quality that simply put, could overpower a lighter botanical bill but would add an entirely new dimension to something intended to be more like an Old Tom.

Should going Grain to Glass matter, should Base Spirit be celebrated and where is this all heading?

It’s fair to say that base matters, and that even when distilled to a high degree, by specialists focused on creating a “neutral” flavour, there are clear flavour differences that can be accentuated, harnessed and developed around using specific recipe ideas. It’s also important to caveat this with the words ‘up to a point’. For those larger operations and continuous still, you can taste differences in underlying spirit tasting neat, but it’s subtle in the grand context of things and once botanicals are added, becomes more about the textural quality of the base than the flavour itself. It matters much more when a base spirit is made on a smaller scale as it’s really not subtle at all.

This conversation around spirit and not just botanicals matters and will become even more relevant as the future of gin becomes ever more diverse. It matters especially to those who go all in and make their own base as they need to be celebrated now, if there is ever to be more of them in the future.

The best way to encourage a growth in distillers as well as a growth in more informed rectifiers, is for consumers and trade to understand the difference between the two, and to start having some form of interest in what the spirit underpinning the gin is made from. The interest will spark conversations and debate around what role a base plays and there will be a chance to gain an industry wide consensus on what matters and what doesn’t.

Paying attention to it will also be the best way to protect the flavour of gin, too. The easiest way to make a gin, well… not gin, is by having the base permeate throughout the end product. That clean white spirit we all know and love, so bright in its botanical flavours becomes heavy, grainy more akin to Genever in an instant when the texture and character of the base changes.

No matter how traditional you are in your preferences in Gin, it’s time to accept that as the category becomes ever more adventurous, the agricultural origin of a spirit and how palpable it is in the end outcome, is a great area of future exploration as well as possible innovation.

Perhaps using the base spirit as the metric on which to judge, name and group a subcategory of gin is a good idea too. It’s measurable, calculable and quantifiable in scientific terms, rather than subjective ones. If it is, now is the moment to act, as the EU laws we talked about are now under question and being rediscussed. It is possible for this conversation to be more than simple talk and become official – a rare moment and a rare opportunity.  Whether the base been distilled to 96% or not could be one of the defining items that separate’s products labeled as London Dry Gin and, others simply labeled as Gin and for there to be a move to actually enforce it.

The likes of Vor Gin in Iceland, Foxhole, From London to Lima and co, all with their underlying spirit bursting on the nose and palate, are not really gins as we know them. They are, however, tasty, very gin-like and progressing the conversation of what it means to be a gin today.

A sub-category with a catchy name and some clear rules around what could be used as “base” alcohol not only help frame the conversation around those types of product (and there are hundreds of them when one considers those outside of Europe and tastes US and Australian Gins in particular), but also educate consumers about their point of difference. It would incidentally, help protect the producers making more traditionally styled gin too.

It’s time that the conversation becomes less cloak and dagger between players in the industry (especially those who know better but hoodwink their way around regulations) and is placed into the consumer arena, for all to see and for all to judge. Perhaps, once this happens the question will not be whether “base” matters or not, nor what the standards or naming conventions should be, but whether anyone even cares about the topic to begin with and has an appetite to pursue it further.

Kirsty's Gin Arbikie Distillery Scottish Gin