Mike Melrose – Da Mhile
The Meet the Maker series heads over to Wales for this interview, meeting Dà Mhìle Ginsmith Mike Melrose. Having joined the distillery in 2013, Mike has been overseen the creation of the distillery’s two award winning gins and recently, helped create a Sloe Gin as well as a barrel-aged variant using their Farmhouse Botanical Gin.
Gin Foundry – Hi Mike, you’ve been operating the stills for three years now, could you describe how you distill Dà Mhìle Gin? What’s a typical day like for you?
Mike Melrose – Our still is heated by a wood fired steam boiler, so unlike most distillers, my day starts by bringing in wood and lighting the fire. We adopt a very slow distillation process, allowing the longest possible time to get the flavours from all the botanicals and spices in the pot.
This means I have to balance the ferocity of the fire and the steam pressure valves to ensure a slow and steady stream of alcohol. Much the same as making a good soup or stock.
The other main difference is that we’re a small family business (with just 2 employees) and part of a working farm, so if the cows escape – I often get called on to help round them up! Variety is the spice of life.
We’ve heard that the farmhouse Botanical Gin was nearly a year in the making – what was it like from your perspective and what was the idea behind the gin?
The Botanical Gin recipe was being written before we even had a still. It was the first product we were launching from our still and it needed to be special. When launched, it was the only Welsh gin, plus being craft & organic we knew it had to stand out.
There was no money left to pump into branding / design work or fancy bottles and labels, so we used what we had available – time. We took time to perfect the recipe and create the best botanical gin we could. It’s still my favourite product we make, and it still changes almost every batch – very subtle small changes, honing in on perfection.
It’s nice to hear that it’s an evolving process (even if very slightly). Not many distillers are open about the tweaks they make to improve their products even when they are positive ones. What’s the best part of your job?
Many people display their envy for my job. Making Gin & Whisky, plenty of tasting and appraising. There is obviously much more to it than that. My favourite part currently is product development and recipe writing. I’m really enjoying making small ‘test batches’ of various things and springing tasters on any customers who come for tours around the distillery, gathering their opinions.
There is also a huge sense of completion in this industry. When I made my first barrel of whisky, it was an achievement, but when you open it up after 3 years, and it tastes great, it really fills you with a sense of pride. I can only imagine my thoughts in the future when I taste one of my own whiskies that has been aging for 30 or 40 years. It’s like raising children but without the mess, or the college fund.
You talked about feedback and fine-tuning, awards and medals are quite a divisive issue in that some think they are important, while others don’t care. Do medals / awards for the gins you make matter to you?
Awards are nice, but they represent the opinions of a select few people. I prefer doing farmers markets and getting the reactions and comments from the public themselves.
Talking of markets, Dà Mhìle Seaweed Gin is consistently one of the top 5 best sellers on the Gin Foundry shop and many are curious about how it’s made, as well as what it tastes like. Could you explain how you create it and perhaps for those who haven’t had a chance to taste yet, describe what the core characteristics are?
‘Seaweed Gin’ to a lot of people sounds like an oxymoron, unfathomable and certainly not complimenting. But most people don’t really know what seaweed tastes like. Yes, it’s quite salty, but then so is every meal you buy from a restaurant. In fact, if you took the salt out of most food, it would taste wrong.
Seaweed Gin is simply a savoury gin, distilled with soft garden herbs, fresh mints and citrus. It compliments all seafood very well, and a number of chefs have written recipes using it. It does still work as a G&T, (I’d recommend Fever-Tree’s Elderflower tonic) but it really stands out in a dirty Martini.
It’s certainly not a typical idea for a gin – where did the inspiration for a seaweed infused gin come from?
We make a seaweed cheese on the farm, which has great feedback from customers. Laver bread is one of the historical dishes of Wales, and seaweed is even referred to as Welshman’s caviar. Between that and getting fed up with sickly-sweet aperitifs and desert drinks, Seaweed Gin was born.
You mentioned it earlier, we also think that it’s great for matching with food. What would you pair it with for those feeling adventurous?
OYSTERS! The epitome decadence is to shuck your fresh oyster, consume, and then re-fill with seaweed gin and drink from the shell. The gin mixes with the left over juice and brine and creates the ultimate mini luxury martini. Add a squeeze of lemon if you’re feeling tropical.
The gin category is a hugely busy and diverse category. There is a gin for everyone and every taste. As a distiller what do you look for in a gin from a flavour perspective?
I try to look for a balanced palate, I’m not keen on the juniper heavy gins, nor the overly floral ones. Something well rounded, smooth and light.
Are there other gins that you enjoy in particular?
Gin Mare and Sibling are two that I would happily swap my own for, but I’m generally more of a whisky guy.
Do you think there should be clearly defined guidelines as to what constitutes “craft” gin?
I think there should perhaps be an annual volume limit? A lot of large companies have jumped on the bandwagon of craft gin as they’ve seen the boom, but I don’t think you can class it as craft if the still is controlled by a computer programme.
And finally… what are you most excited about for Dà Mhìle in 2016?
2016 is the first big production year of our organic Welsh whisky. Plus a possible visit from HRH, Charlie!
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