Chicken noodle soup, and how it became gin
“Everything was on the table and anything could be explored. It was beautiful to have no restrictions and a completely free reign to create, that’s when magic can happen.”
If a good friend came to you one day and said, “How would you like to make a gin?”, where would you start? Juniper of course. Some citrus. Coriander probably. It would be an easier route just to follow the tried-and-tested recipes, or easier still just to employ another distiller to create it for you. How about if that friend added that you would be making it 100% from scratch and starting with a completely blank canvas? Literally anything would be possible.
When Graham Taylor (Crafty Distillery founder) approached long time friend Craig Rankin (Crafty master distiller), it was with a similar proposal – total creative freedom. The only boundaries were to add to Scotland’s innovative spirits (rather than take from it), and to create a gin that was at the pinnacle of craft distilling, but at the same time being accessible to all. To an experienced distiller it would have been like landing in heaven. But Craig was not a distiller. Neither was Graham for that matter.
However, Graham on coming from a design background, brought an inquisitive nature that was not afraid to throw away the rule book embrace approaches from entirely new directions. Craig had a huge amount of experience in many areas of the food and drinks sector. So he knew a thing or two about bringing classical flavours together and had a professional insight into how to layer ingredients on top of one another. This did not mean turning their backs on tradition however, especially as when it came to flavour.
“In my opinion there is a commonality between anyone producing the finest products whether it be food or drink. There are few key components we are all looking for. Firstly a respect and understanding of traditions, where something stems from and what that means, secondly, a sense of where you are making it - respecting provenance, third a respect for the science of how flavours work.”
And lastly explained Craig, “a high standard of production, making things from scratch whilst using the highest quality ingredients.”
The uncommon angle that Graham and Craig brought to creating a gin became the backbone of Hills & Harbour. Rather than following a traditional approach for creating gin, they had the freedom to think differently and treat it as if it was a plate of food. Drink is often an accompaniment to food rather than being the pièce de résistance, so to speak. But what happens when you begin combining layers in a drink in the same way that a chef combines flavours in a dish, rather than just approaching it as a distilled spirit?
This is the point when Craig finds his own blue bolt of inspiration on a trip to South East Asia. The point when the story crosses paths with a bowl of chicken noodle soup.
“At a roadside cafe I discovered a magical concept when I ordered a bowl of chicken noodle soup. The soup itself was not all that exciting. However, it came with these wee dishes of sugar, tamarind, lime, chillies and fish sauce. Upon asking the auntie, what is this? She replied with – just try, it’s to make it more sweet, sour, salty bitter or savoury. When I added some of the accompaniments... it turned the chicken noodle soup into something that completely blew my mind!”
A bolt of inspiration often comes along when you least expect it, and this particular example highlights how sometimes looking beyond your normal sphere of experience can be just what is required. Craig had realised how impactful the 5 tastes can be when they are combined, and more importantly he began to question if he could create the same impact from a gin.
“The accompaniments provided by the Auntie, worked well but why? I began looking into the science behind it and realised that we really only had 5 flavour receptors on the pallet all capable receiving taste independently. If we can hit them all this is where we perceive maximum vibrancy. To explain, You can mix 100 different sweet things in a blender and it will just taste of one flavour and mixture of sweet. However, when we taste all 5 ingredients that hit each receptor, we taste five flavours all at once… that’s what makes something really vibrant.”
So a plan was forming to combine the 5 tastes but whilst respecting tradition, incorporating provenance and utilising the technical ability of building flavours. Oh… and making it all from scratch of course. Not too much too ask! But there was also one other key component… making it accessible.
“The big issue with gin is that it’s generally dry and bitter. And while some people love that, not everyone likes it. So to make a gin that had the widest appeal would require perfectly balancing the dryness with the sweetness.”
Back in Newton Stewart in Galloway, Craig began experimenting to see how he could find the sweet balance that he was looking for. It had to be a natural sweetness, so he began looking at strawberries and vanilla, but they were not quite the perfect marriage. Then he stumbled across mango.
“Believe it or not mango matches the flavour profile of juniper perfectly, with mango sharing more of the same flavour compounds with juniper than any other fruit in the world. They share the same flavour projection in essence, but mango being sweet and juniper being bitter, we could still project the same flavour and respect the traditions of gin whilst finding perfect balance”
However, any self-respecting mango aficionado will understand that not all mangos are equal! Craig found himself rapidly falling down a rabbit hole of edible stone fruits. Mangos from South East Asia, the West Indies, Indian sour mangos, African mangos… he trialled everything in search of the perfect balance. In much the same way as the juniper itself… should we use Italian juniper, Macedonian juniper, Albanian juniper? Let’s just try them all to see which one works the best.
“Each ingredient was pulled apart to find the best quality sources that delivered the perfect balance, including all the traditional ingredients.”
“We found a type of orange that provided the heart of the citric sour note we were seeking. It was vibrant with real sunshine flavour and by far the best for sour flavour projection for our gin.”
Besides juniper, the other classic ingredients in a London dry gin that Craig used were coriander, liquorice, angelica and orris roots. Orris root is useful as a binder, to hold the other flavours together. But there was component of the 5 tastes that proved to be exceptionally challenging.
“How can you introduce that salty-savoury-umami taste to a gin? Salt and Umami are the kings of creating a depth of flavour, It makes the flavour bigger and, much wider. So I knew it was an essential component that I had to get right.”
“Looking out over the Galloway countryside, all along the coastline we have a huge variety of seaweed possessing both components in spades. It didn’t make sense to search anywhere else. We proceeded to distil all of them, but bladder wrack just hit that savoury-salty note perfectly. We had managed to fill that gap that is so hard to fulfil in a drink.”
The flavours were starting to come together, and at the end of a long worm tub tunnel, there was finally light. But to respect the tradition of gin the sweetness could not take over, it needed to be balanced too with some bitterness. With the Galloway Forest on the doorstep and an abundance of beautiful aromas emanating when walking through it, Craig started to explore the conifer needles, with their bitter yet vibrant resin.
“We distilled every type of conifer in the entire forest! Douglas fir was too waxy and dank. Then we couldn’t believe that one of the most magical flavours was on our own doorstep. With rich Scottish citrus notes and bitter tones, reminiscent of pink grapefruit but more complex, it had a beautiful flavour.”
This perfect balance was found in Noble Fir. An abundant resource from the the hillside forests of Galloway. Any normal person would have been content at this stage, poured themselves a dram, and sat back to admire their achievements. But not Craig. For Craig there was still a missing element that niggled away at him.
“There was still one component missing. It was about sensation! Can we create feeling, and this time we had to turn to the nerve endings rather than the flavour receptors. Food is way ahead in this area, but it is much harder to convert in a distillation.”
So in terms of exciting the nerve endings of the tongue what’s the obvious choice? That’s right… peppers!
“I started to look at lots of different types of peppers. Cambodian, Indonesian, Chinese. To see what would happen if we distilled them. I found that the green Sichuan peppers became citrussy like lime and with a real subtle edge of numbing sensation that became really important. Also finding a second sensation that distilled well using bay leaf. It provided a lovely zing and sherbet tang, really complementing the vibrancy of the flavours.”
Craig had finally found a way to light up all of the taste receptors within the mouth, with sensation and balance whilst respecting traditions including a keen sense of Galloway into the profile. Making from scratch with such an intensive development, it was definitely honest and tasty, But was it really dialled in for everyone who likes a tipple? There was only one way to truly understand that.
“We actually created 3 separate styles from our recipe. One was sweeter, the other was a more, modern and light style, while the third one was more sophisticated and complex for the gin connoisseurs.”
Having taken the unheard of approach to send out samples to the community of gin drinkers, their feedback created yet another dilemma. It was a split decision between the modern and light style and the sophisticated and complex style, but these styles are worlds apart, how could they be brought together?
“The technique for distilling the ingredients became really important because it was the complex finish that some modern light style people struggled with. We needed a complex gin but with a light finish. So carefully treating nearly every botanical with a unique method, pre and during distillation, we devised a method to get the balance we needed. After every sip you got this big flavour and body but with a super clean finish. This finally brought the two worlds together”.
Do you recall the making it from scratch part? This wasn’t overlooked either. The base spirit that we use for our gins is made in-house too, from local Galloway wheat no less. It became apparent that buying-in neutral grain spirit would not achieve the quality that Craig and Graham were seeking. Craig understood the importance of each and every ingredient in food, and it should be no different for spirits. It takes a lot more work and costs a lot more money, which is why less than 2% of the world’s gin production is made in-house like this. But we are not prepared to cut any corners at any point in the process.
“By seeking feedback from a completely randomised selection process of gin fans, that were no gin tasting experts but certainly and importantly capable of being honest and straight-talking, we were able to create a gin for the people, that was shaped by the people. And that’s a rare thing. Why does the height of quality always have to be less accessible and more niche. We wanted to stick to our guns and create that magical mix - tasty honest craft spirits for everyone who likes a tipple.”
It took Craig over 100 recipes and 12 months to achieve the goal that Graham and himself set out. To create a gin that would have far-reaching appeal, was versatile, vibrant and at the pinnacle of craft distilling whilst also respecting tradition. With the wheat from the local fields, noble fir from the local forests and the bladder wrack from the local coast, it also captured a true sense of provenance in an honest and authentic manner.
Hills & Harbour is living proof that if you truly believe in your mission, and if you are passionate about what you do, there will always be a way to get there without having to abandon your values. So the next time your order Asian chicken noodle soup pour yourself a Hills & Harbour, and raise a glass to battling the odds to get to where you want to be.