JUNIPER berries have been the core ingredient of gin for centuries, but the spirit’s popularity slowly waned until a few years ago – and now it’s the trendiest of alco-beverages.
Just ask Perth master distiller Warren Fish, who can barely keep up with demand for his hand-crafted Grumpy Fish brand.
“We are one of the few craft distilleries to create our own base spirit and all-organic botanicals, resulting in a smoother product with much more complexity and depth than mass-produced brands that use commercial alcohol.” he said.
In fact, distilleries in Britain have more than doubled in the past five years to about 320 and the demand for interesting gins, made by small scale craft and artisan producers, much like Western Australia’s Grumpy Fish, has driven sales of the spirit up 20 per cent.
Now it’s being viewed as an ‘on-trend’ drink as its revival takes hold and bartenders and connoisseurs alike realise how many of the classic cocktails, such as martinis and tom collins, were gin-based.
“Also, since we produce only 70 bottles per run from our 300 litre still, and use fresh botanicals each time, no two runs have identical tastes,” Warren said.
“One might be a tad more juniper bite in one than another. Each has its individual character, and rounds out with hints of lavender and geranium.”
South African-born Warren grew up in the fabled wine-growing region of Constantia and studied archaeology at the University of Cape Town.
The link between archaeology and gin distilling?
“Misspent youth with my mates around Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschoek wine estates, learning about good wine and distilling,” he said.
However, the arrival of Grumpy Fish dispels the notion of his time being misspent.
The 49-year-old moved to Australia 18 years ago.
The genealogy — or should it be ginealogy — of the spirit goes a very long way back.
In 70 AD Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides published a a detailed description of the use of juniper berries steeped in wine, supposedly to combat chest ailments, but no doubt in a very pleasant way.
And in 1055, the Benedictine Monks of Solerno used a recipe for tonic wine infused with juniper berries.
In the 1500s, the Dutch began producing a spirit called jenever, a wine with a heavy infusion of juniper berries which also claimed to fix many an ailment.
It went to the UK with King William III, who was Dutch, but the Brits had difficulty pronouncing jenever, (say it ‘yenee-ver’) so it became jen-eever, which was a bit too close to the popular Jennifer girls’ name, then ended up in the short form of gin.
It’s long been the national drink of Holland and Belgium and European Union regulations now specify that only liquor made in those countries, two regions in France and two in Germany, are entitled to use the name jenever, genever or genièvre.
However old William III next introduced the Corn Laws which minimised taxes on the production of spirits, resulting in the so-called ‘gin craze,’ with unscrupulous and unlicensed folk using sulphuric acid and turpentine in the mix and filtering it through sawdust.
Soon, a bottle of gin was cheaper than a pint of beer.
But while it remained a fashionable drink among royalty and high society, it led to huge consumption and related degeneration among England’s poorer classes – until King Billy intervened with the Gin Act of 1751, which slapped a very expensive distiller’s license on the industry. Only two licences were granted in the next seven years.
He also put an effective stop to illicit brewing via a handsome reward to anyone who dobbed in a crooked gin operation.
It took some 80 years before Aeneas Coffey, who, despite his Irish name was actually born in France, introduced a new still that produced a much cleaner, purer spirit than ever before.
These days, gin is fast creating a whole new industry and has already overtaken vodka as the most popular spirit in Britain.
The Grumpy Fish Distillery began with Warren Fish and a friend creating a high quality small-batch gin from selected ingredients, using a small still tailor-made to Warren’s specifications.
The result was so pleasing that a bigger still was ordered, one employing both a column and a Carter head, which purify the alcohol and then pass the vapour through a basket containing the hand-picked botanicals.
“We maintain absolute control over the crafting of our product from start to finish,” Warren said.
“We source organic botanicals from various parts of the world and distil the spirit slowly in small batches, to time-honoured traditions.
“We got some wonderful juniper berries from Croatia that produced a brilliant result and among the other 18 botanicals we use are orris and angelica root, cardamom, lavender, geranium, orange, lemon, lime, cinnamon, star anise, cloves and ginger.
“We don’t steep or macerate botanicals like the volume producers. We know the Carter head process leads to a softer, more sophisticated spirit.
“The outcome is an impeccably balanced, bespoke drink.”
Grumpy Fish Distillery operates from a leased corner of Paul Conti premises, a third generation family winery in Woodvale, 20km north of Perth.
“Not all fruit will make a great wine,” Warren said.
“The fruit that would otherwise go to waste at the winery makes for an excellent spirit base. Hence our distillery contributes to reduce the wastage and also makes our product sustainable.”
While his process lowers our yield and increases cost, his mantra is to never compromise on quality.
Why is the product called Grumpy Fish?
Wife Susan thought it was apt, and the genial Warren hates to argue with her.
Daughters Emily and Erin also help at the distillery when they can spare time from their studies.
Gin, Warren says, is a fragrant, versatile drink that can be enjoyed in many ways. It’s great with tonic and a slice of citrus or cucumber over ice, though connoisseurs prefer to have it neat.
Swirl it in a balloon glass, enjoy the perfume, taste the botanicals – relax and you’ll be in spiritual heaven.
Premium products cost more than run-of-the-mill stuff, and Grumpy Fish is decidedly in the premium category.
Your $95 will get you 700ml of the crystal clear spirit, beautifully housed in a bottle imported from France.
Overseas gin geeks will also soon be able to sample the Western Australian product. Warren expects to start filling export orders by early 2019.
Meanwhile the gin culture has led to a flurry of sayings and signs around the world, among them ‘gin and bear it,’ ‘when life hands you a lemon, crack open a gin,’ ‘let the evening be-gin’ and ‘home is where the gin is.’
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