It’s a common feature of most bars these days to offer a cocktail masterclass, perfect for a hen do or girls night out or occasion. Truthfully though, how often are you going to actually put what you learn into practice at home? When I was invited to attend the new gin masterclass at The Botanist in Newcastle, I was actually really excited. Gin is so popular at the moment and with so many options it can be overwhelming for new gin drinkers to know where to start, and for the frequent gin drinker a masterclass is the perfect opportunity to fine tune your knowledge, mixing and tastes!
Chris is the head barman at The Botanist in Newcastle, and should you choose to try out the gin masterclass it would be him hosting it for you, and I think up to 10 guests. The masterclass was held in the Granny Smith room, the private dining area through the restaurant, and it was perfect for all the space you actually need when throwing out gin creations and testing different fruits and flavours.
So what can you expect if you decide to give it a go? Well first of all you’re going to get a bit of a history lesson. Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘Dutch courage’? The phrase comes from how courageous the Dutch soldiers seemed in the war, but rather than actually being courageous, they were actually just drunk on gin. Gin became a massive craze in London in the 1600s when British soldiers brought it back with them. The water supply was so dirty and contaminated, that in typical British fashion, people resorted to drinking. Specifically they drank gin.
We were given this artists impression of what London would have been like in 1600s, with havoc in the streets, everyone drunk, and the only open businesses being a pawn shop, a court and a distiller. People would fill their bathtubs with gin to make sure they didn’t run out, which is perhaps why Bathtub Gin today is wrapped in brown paper. Back then, that’s how bottles of gin were served.
We were also given this scary looking photo of doctors masks, recognisable as what they wore when treating patients struck with the plague. Doctors would fill the beaks of their masks with juniper berries, the key ingredient of what makes a gin a gin. In reality the berries did nothing, but they believed at the time that it would stop them breathing in the plague. Any excuse for a gin after a days work if you ask me!
To create a real gin, a very high concentrate of alcohol needs to have been distilled down to about 37.5%, followed by adding at least 51% of juniper. For a gin to be a London Dry gin, any additional botanicals to alter the flavour are added in at this distilling point. It’s the measure of juniper that makes it gin, and the botanicals at the distilling process that make it a London Dry gin. Hendricks for example, can’t be classed as a dry gin. The cucumber they add isn’t put in until after the distilling process.
The history lesson took about fifteen minutes to go through, and it was really valuable knowledge for when we went on to taste the five gins that make up the masterclass:
First up was Tanqueray. Charles tanqueray was a religious pastor, but in 1830 he decided to leave the church to create his own gin. By 1838 he had perfected his Tanqueray recipe. It only has 4 botanicals – juniper, coriander, Angelica root and liquorice. Taking a sip of it straight, you can immediately tell it is a dry gin, as it retracts all the moisture in your mouth. I’m not a fan of liquorice, but with tonic, it was light and refreshing, and mixed it with grapefruit it was even nicer.
Next up was the fruitiest smelling gin of all five glasses. Brockmans gin is one of my favourites and is instantly recognisable by its smell. It’s a Scottish gin rather than a London dry gin, created by 20 Scottish men. With ten botanicals, including a mix of berries, almond and coriander, Brockmans mixed with different fruits can really change flavour to your taste, as well as bringing out strong flavours individually.
We tried it with blackberries, and grapefruit skin. This was by far my favourite, and I found it really interesting to discover how easily you can manipulate the taste by bringing out the botanicals with fruits.
Our third gin was Hendricks, my least favourite gin – or so I thought. I really don’t like cucumber in drinks, so whenever I order a G&T or gin cocktail I avoid it completely. Hendricks was created by a woman in 21 days, (she got shit done!) and named it Hendricks after her cat. As mentioned earlier cucumber is added to two separate gins that are mixed together, but as it’s added after the distilling process it isn’t a dry gin.
While most of our group added the cucumber, Chris suggested I use any other citrus based fruit. I went with orange, but lemon and lime would also work well I was told. The taste of Hendrick’s was completely different. It did still taste citrusy, but the cucumber wasn’t being extracted and I couldn’t taste it at all. I’m actually really chuffed that I will be able to have it in future, but I doubt the bartenders will be when I’m micromanaging how they make it and telling them what fruits to use.
Gin Mare, a very nice little delight from Villa Nova near Barcelona was our fourth gin of the evening. Distilled in a monestary by the Ribot family in 2007, and packed full of around 11 very citrusy and Spanish flavoured botanicals. The full list aren’t known, but it does include a lot of orange peel, olives, rosemary, basil and thyme. The inclusion of olives is what makes it the go to gin for an olive based gin martini.
When it came to adding the tonic and fruit, I substituted the basil (as I’m allergic) for juniper and grapefruit peel. I still got the very Spanish smell and taste when drinking it, and I would definitely order a gin martini in future. It’s not a cocktail I’d really go for, but now I’ve tried the gin itself and that it contains rosemary and lemon bitters that might change!
Our final gin of the evening was Thomas Dakin. Dating back to 1761 he created the recipe in Warrington when he was only 25. His entire distillery was bombed taking everything with it – distilled, recipes etc, so the new Thomas Dakin gin recipe was only created in 2015. Emerging from Manchester, Thomas Dakin gin has 11 botanicals in it, but nobody knows if it tastes anything like the original. For me, it was nice but I would say the least memorable of all the gins I tried.
With the sudden increase of gins, gin lovers and gin distilleries at the moment, you might have realised that so many of the recipes are kept quiet. Gin isn’t expensive to make, therefore you don’t want to create the perfect gin and have someone steal it from you to sell cheaper. With so many alterations that can be made to the taste of gin, with various fruits, citrus peels, tonics and botanicals in the gin itself, the options are endless when choosing what to have.
For me gin is by far the most exciting drink on the menu in any bar, and the masterclass gave me a really good insight into the variety of flavours out there. During our experience we only tried five, but we definitely got a minimum of ten different tastes by making alterations to how we made our drinks.
Chris knew his stuff, and was able to answer a LOT of questions that we threw at him, as well as suggesting his own creations. I really enjoyed it, and learned a lot about gin that I will put into practice on a Friday and Saturday (and Monday – Thursday…) when I’m making my own.
The gin masterclass at The Botanist, including the 5 gins, tonic and an array of fruits costs £25 per person, and will be available all the time except a Friday and Saturday night. At £25 for 90 minutes of fun and flavours I thought it was excellent value for money, and the private room really meant that we could get creative away from the bustle of the busiest bar in toon!
Disclaimer: I was invited to try the Gin Masterclass at The Botanist free of charge, but would happily have paid the £25 for the experience and have since recommended it to everyone I know who likes gin!
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