How Sussex came to the forefront of the gin revolution
PUBLISHED: 10:10 18 July 2017 | UPDATED: 16:52 17 August 2017
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Gin has left the back of the drinks cabinet to become one of the most popular spirits in the country. Sussex has been in the forefront of the revolution, as Duncan Hall finds out
Last month Hove’s Old Albion pub launched its new rebrand as a gin palace with its own craft gin. Old Hove Gin is made by West Sussex distillers Blackdown, using a recipe for Old Tom’s gin taken from recipes found in The British Library. It adds to Brighton’s tally as home to gin specialists The Plotting Parlour and The Gin Tub, as well as the distillers and brands based across the county.
Eliot Rogers, co-founder of mobile bar Mama Gin has seen the rise of the spirit from behind the bar at Hove’s Libation Bar and Eatery in Victoria Grove, off Second Avenue. “On a Friday or Saturday we get through bottle after bottle of gin,” he says from the Marram Trading café in his Hurstpierpoint home. “It has given me more confidence that we are going down the right route.” With co-director Amelia Taylor, 21-year-old Eliot has launched the converted horsebox bar this summer – having already appeared at Steyning Fair and a Hove street party in Second Avenue. The former estate agent will be bringing the bar to Hurstpierpoint’s St Lawrence Fair and Hotham Park County Fair in Bognor as well as weddings and birthday parties.
“There was a stigma around gin,” he says pointing to a lack of available brands other than market-leaders Gordon’s and Bombay Sapphire in the past. “Now there are so many different flavours. You can play off the different botanicals they have used within them in the distilling process. If you have a bottle containing ten different botanicals there are so many things you can play with – chilli or lime, elderflower with thyme. I get a kick out of seeing someone enjoying something I’ve made. The stigma of gin being a slightly older person’s drink has gone away.” The bar’s name Mama Gin was a playful poke at the idea of Mother’s Ruin.
James and Anita Thompson, owners of the self-styled “gin pub” The George at Eartham, have seen there is no age bracket when it comes to gin lovers. “We have 20-somethings to 80-somethings,” says James who is considering a summer gin festival following their St George’s Day beer festival earlier this year.
He admits their focus on gin came almost by accident when they took on the pub five years ago. “We wanted to offer something really English rather than having a whisky selection. We phoned up our suppliers and asked for a selection of 15 premium gins – and they laughed at us.” So James and Anita took to the internet and started buying gins from independent suppliers. There are now 30 behind the bar, with a selection of Sussex gins sitting alongside creations from the Lake District, Plymouth, the Netherlands, Canada and the US.
James is continuing to educate his customers both in the variety of gins available and its history in the UK. It started out as a herbal medicine and became popular in the 17th century during the 30 Years War when English soldiers saw their Dutch counterparts drinking Jenever (gin) to boost their morale before battle – or getting some Dutch courage. The gin and tonic cocktail dates back to British troops in India being treated for malaria using the bark of the Cinchona tree – a source of quinine. “Quinine is so bitter to make it palatable they would mix it with soda water, lime juice and sugar, and would add gin as a painkiller,” says James.
James serves his gin cocktails in balloon glasses rather than straight glasses to add a sense of occasion. And he has ditched the standard Schweppes Tonic Water in favour of mixers from Bottle Green, Fever Tree and Fentimans. Among those set up on the bar for Sussex Life’s visit were Brighton Gin with minty Brighton rock, Warner Edwards Rhubarb Gin with pink tonic and the more savoury Aviation with Fever Tree tonic, fresh thyme and lime. He has even sourced a teetotal G&T from Skipton’s Temperance Spirit Company which is surprisingly tasty. “We are a country pub, so if you have to drive you don’t want an alcoholic gin and tonic,” says James. “We have one price for all our premium gins purely because we want to educate our customers in what is available. You can go into a town centre pub and pay £9 for a premium gin. In London and Brighton there are gin bars popping up everywhere. I don’t know what their longevity will be, but this was a trend we were doing before it was a trend, and we will continue after it stops being a trend.”
A distinctive wine bottle on The George’s gin bar stands out from among the rest. The burgundy bottle is the trademark of Bolney-based Foxhole Gin, which launched last September. It reflects the spirit’s origins, using the leftover grape material, known as pomace, from the Bolney Wine Estate as the base for their spirit instead of grain spirit. It was managing director James Oag-Cooper who first came up with the idea while working on the wine estate as he studied at Plumpton College. “I saw all this grape material going to waste,” he says. “I just thought it was a bit crazy so I had a conversation with head winemaker Sam Lister, who is now my business partner, about what to do with them.” Pomace is the basis for Italian grappa, and the French use their waste product to make spirits and ethanol. Initially James considered creating an eau de vie or brandy, but then hit upon the idea of gin. “I wondered if it could be done,” he says. “It turns out 400 years ago gin was always made from grapes. Now everything is grain spirit-based – it’s a little bit more economical to make. There are a few grape-based gins around now, but we were the first to use English grapes.” The grapes provide too much flavour in its natural spirit form so the decision was made to cut it using grain spirit rather than lose the flavour with repeat distillations. “I would like to release a very small limited run of grape spirit,” says James. “It is amazing – and quite powerful.” It took more than a year-and-a-half to come up with a winning recipe mixing traditional botanicals with the grape spirit. “Every year the grape spirit we distil from has different characteristics,” says James. “With every new batch we have to revisit how we want the flavour profile to be. No two batches are the same. The challenge is to look at consistency and quality.” The first 960-bottle batch of gin came from 2014 vintage grapes, the current batch of 1,920 bottles used 2015 vintage grapes.
The best way to drink Foxhole Gin is 50ml of gin with 150ml of premium tonic over ice with a slice of pink grapefruit as garnish. “Bitter orange brings out the citrus-y sweetness,” says James. “It has an amazing texture on the mouth, it feels slightly viscous or oily, so it works well with Martinis and Aviators as well as long drinks like Tom Collins. It’s a pretty versatile gin.” Although Foxhole is sold as far north as Manchester and Nottingham, James sees its core market as the south – especially Sussex and Brighton. At present it is distilled in Albury in Surrey, but James hopes to bring this to Bolney. “It’s really important to us that we are able to bring production in-house,” he says. “We want to start looking at other products we can make and do some experimentation.”
But why has Sussex become such a centre for gin production? At the last count there were seven or eight producers in the county, including the now fairly well-known Blackdown, Brighton and Chilgrove gins, to the smaller artisan companies such as Tom Cat Dry Sussex Gin in Palehouse Common near Uckfield, or Slake Spirits in Shoreham. “Gin has become a really creative product,” says James. “There are so many different ways people can make different styles of gin. It taps into that creative aspect of Sussex. And we have a really great market for it.”
That market might even be a reaction to the post-Brexit climate, according to Eliot. “It’s such a part of British history – even though it originally came from the Dutch. I suppose it’s like curry being our national dish.”
For more information visit mamagin.co.uk; thegeorgeeartham.com; oldalbion.pub and www.foxholespirits.com
Take a look at the winning drink from Foxhole’s Gin Cocktail Competition 2017