Navigating Navy Strength Gin
As Gin continues to grow in popularity, so too do all of the sub-categories that make it the most exciting and diverse spirit in the world. While connoisseurs have long been enjoying weird and wonderful hybrids, long forgotten gin based cordials and ancient styles of juniper-laced concoctions, the recent Gin era has seen these expressions not only resurface, but go mainstream, flourishing in every corner of the globe.
This re-discovery is particularly well illustrated in the case of Navy Strength Gins. Even as recently as 2012 higher proof “navy” offerings were restrained to a mere handful of brands. So much so that much of what is known about Navy Strength Gin today is a tangled combination of truth and history, marketing ideas from the likes of Plymouth Gin that have become accepted as truth for all other Navy Strength Gins lost in time.
Navy Strength Gins have exploded in popularity and provide a rich area for Gin fans to explore. Let’s start by separating some of that myth away from the facts before we look at some of the best examples around for those looking into trying a few…
Historically, it is clear that the Navy’s importance on the flavour of Gin can’t be underestimated. Spice imports into Holland, and in later years, England, defined the botanical identity of Gin. The Navy was also critical in the propagation of Gin to other countries, with cargo of both gin and sailors who had a taste for it, docking into cities across the world.
While exact transcripts are hard to find, there is a lot of peripheral evidence to suggest the Navy was an important buyer and a valued client for numerous distilleries for over three centuries too – first the Dutch East India Company and then the British Navy allegedly consumed thousands of barrels a year.
Such was the convenience of easy access to grains, spices, buyers and clean flowing water, many early distilleries were deliberately based in key maritime cities. The quality produced varied from city to city however, and it was often suspected that the spirit had been overly watered down. To test the alcohol, it is reputed that a mixture of gunpowder and spirit was placed in special contraptions and lit. If it burned with a clear flame this was ‘proof’ that the spirit was of sufficient standard. Failure to light or a smoky flame were signs that the spirit was below the required strength and would be rejected. To pass this test, when creating gins for the Navy*, distillers supplied it at a strength of 57.5% ABV or higher. It was only really in modern times (and dare we even say it… during a marketing meeting at the Plymouth offices), that this higher alcoholic level was given the moniker ‘Navy Strength’.
*For those curious, by law Gin couldn’t be sold within the UK above a certain ABV until 1819 (44.6%) and that, 47.4% so this higher proof for the Navy would have been strong even back then.
There is as assumption that Navy Strength Gins would have been earthier and rootier as a style due to the scarcity of fresh citrus and floral botanicals in England at the time. It’s a possibility, but given that Lucas Bols and many other pre 1800s distillers were making fruit cordials, its unlikely that this wouldn’t have spread to Gin. This possible myth is due to the fact that the few left in the late 90’s just so happened to be styled that way.
These days, Navy Strength Gin doesn’t have a “signature” botanical flavour profile. The only thing that unifies the entire category is its high alcohol content and with the rapid rate at which the sub-category is expanding, the future could hold quite an eclectic set of gins in it. Not just flavours either, there are projects like HMS Victory Gin from Isle of White Distillery that strikes the very origins of British Naval grandeur, giving new insight and a different angle about the history of the spirit. We’ve rounded up some of the best below – those that represent the huge diversity of flavours within the category…
Domineering spice is the name of the game here and if that’s what you are looking for in a gin, this has it by the bucket load. As you’d expect from a 57% ABV gin, there’s a hint of spirit to nose, though rather than a burn you just get a pinch of pepper and a sense that something in the glass is alive. It’s surprisingly sweeter than its counterparts – as though the heightened ABV has given each of the ingredients a megaphone and the berry part of the juniper is the loudest to sing. Truly lovely and resinous, this is special occasion G&T fodder.
Most of the botanicals used are relatively traditional in this American Navy Strength Gin (juniper, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and citrus peels) but there is one that jumps out as unusual – wild flower honey from upstate New York. The label is printed on the inside with an illustration of Lord Perry, a wink to Plymouth’s infamous Monk and in many ways, this perfectly describes what the gin is about – a modern interpretation of a classic style and a lovely riff that plays of Plymouth Gin itself.
The result, both in flavour and design, is a unique marriage of tradition and progressive thinking, resulting in an outstanding gin. It’s juniper forward, though surrounded on all sides by warming spices and rooty orange. Once the tongue is numb to the spirit sensation, grapefruit and a lingering earthy note emerge.
Typical of many Navy Strength gin offerings – Rock Rose Navy is the same recipe, simply bottled at a higher proof. The result is fiery and complicated, with a thick, savoury base. The juniper is loud and earthy, while coriander seed gains a huge amount of sway, muting the delicate, rose-y ingredients and forcing the gin in a loud, bright and intense direction.
No one in their right mind would sip a Navy Strength Gin neat, so this is very understandably a mixing drink. The loud coriander gives it a decidedly sharp, citrus edge, so teaming this up with lime cordial to make a Gimlet is absolutely advisable.
Scapegrace Goldilocks (Also Known as Rogue Society Gin)
Showcasing a great use of botanicals and illustrating that it is possible to achieve brilliant citrus and maintain a big mouthfeel even at a higher proof, Goldilocks shares the same botanicals as its older sibling, with the extra addition of tangerine peels.
Huge spice is joined by fleshy, juice citrus fruits, captivating the drinker in a boozy, heady headspace. With tonic, the citrus is even louder, though it’s there in a pithy, earthy and slightly vegetal capacity. Juniper is big and present throughout, clearly enjoying life at a higher proof. It stops the tangerines from pulling the gin in an entirely sweet direction, restoring the gin to some semblance of tradition.
A masterclass in modern ginsmithery, this is a beautiful tapestry of flavours made using a dual distillation technique. Conniption Navy has a different line up to the original, with coriander, caraway, rosemary, cardamom, juniper and cassia distilled in a traditional copper still, and citrus and fig created under vacuum in a rotary evaporator.
It’s dangerously smooth for 57%, and immensely enjoyable. Bright and candied sherbet citrus rings out, and while cassia and caraway make a bid for glory, the citrus is soon vanquished by the assertive citrus fruits. It’s a busy, noisy, mess of tastes, which are rounded up neatly by a freshly-plucked fig taste. Novel and perfectly made, this isn’t just one of our favourite Navy Strengths, it’s one of our favourite gins.
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