How Norfolk is leading the way when it comes to gin
18:40 03 March 2016
Copyright Archant Norfolk 2015
One of the joys of writing about food is that you tend to get invited to product launches by local artisan producers.
I find little more exciting than seeing a new foodstuff or drink being unveiled by someone who has very obviously invested much passion into the product.
I’m not sure whether it’s coincidence, but just recently a certain theme has emerged in these launches: let’s call it a ‘Norfolk Spirit’. In a county which has a very long beer-brewing heritage, and which now boasts nearly 50 small-scale breweries, we suddenly seem to be nurturing a number of artisan gin and vodka makers.
Gin, of course, is the trendy drink of our time, but it has a long history in this country. Made in London from the 17th century, its popularity had risen so much that a ‘Gin Act’ was introduced in 1736, taxing the spirit at such a rate as to make it prohibitively expensive.
The new law was met with riots, and was broken so widely that in six years, production actually rose by 50 per cent, to a staggering 16 million gallons – 21 gallons for each adult male in the country.
Ironically, it was the rise of beer, and with it the great British pub, which led to gin’s decline. Pubs replaced gin palaces as places to gather, and during the second half of the 19th century, gin became a drink for high society.
London Gin became the new benchmark for the drink, with production limited to a few large distillers.
So three cheers for two Norwich producers who are breaking that mould.
I was first made aware of Norfolk Gin, in its distinctive stone bottle, by Brian Sullivan at Harper wells in Eaton, which has championed this truly small-scale operation.
Run single-handedly by former army major Jonathan Redding, it took 14 months and 55 different trial recipes before he hit upon the unique combination of botanicals to create his gin.
He volunteers that juniper is the main flavouring (as it has to be in gin), and that cardamom is also a major player, but Jonathan is coy about what else is in the mix, keeping up the tradition of secrecy practised by gin-makers everywhere.
What I can tell you is that it has a mellow rather than a fiery taste – this is one of very few gins I would drink on its own, although when I met Jonathan to try his gin in Platform 12, the bar on St Benedict’s, he mixed me a perfect G&T with Fevertree tonic.
And then last month I found myself at another foodie event (I know, the sacrifices I make so that you have something to read on this page) listening to Peter Smith, head distiller at the Ten Bells pub, where another city-based gin, Bullards Norwich Dry Gin, is made. One of two gins made at the pub, the secret ingredient here is the tonka bean, a central and south American native which imparts hints of vanilla and marzipan.
Another day, another pub, another tasting: this time the Rosebery in the north of the city, where a couple from Beachamwell are launching another Norfolk spirit – this time a vodka. Wild Knight Vodka is the brainchild of Matt and Steph Brown, who both work in marketing, and after helping various food clients achieve success of the supermarket shelves, are now putting their own reputation on the line by doing it for themselves.
Avoiding the temptation to go down the novelty flavoured route, this is straightforward premium grain vodka. With its main ingredient being Norfolk barley, this, like Norfolk Gin, veers towards the mellow end of the spectrum, avoiding the harshness which puts me off so many commercial brands of vodka.
I know you are feeling sorry for me now, having to do all this tasting on your behalf. The good news is that this new wave of Norfolk spirit is out there on the shelves, yet another way of supporting our county’s wonderful food and drink producers.
Now, if someone would just start making a Norfolk amaretto, I reckon we’d have the whole thing sewn up...
• Andy Newman is passionate about food and drink, a champion of Norfolk’s wonderful produce, and is on a mission to persuade everyone to eat and drink better.