Jimi Hendrix and our Hills & Harbour Distilled Gin Cocktail?
“It’s like that scene from Back to the Future, when no-one’s even heard of Rock & Roll yet, and Marty McFly starts playing his electric guitar like Jimi Hendrix.”
It all began in a Michelin star restaurant when a colourless dessert had been placed before Craig Rankin, Crafty Distillery’s master distiller. The dessert was like no other he had seen before – a bowl of clear liquid adorned with floating transparent jellies and tuile. However, this uninspiring yet curious bowl of water would have a far-reaching impact.
“When I dived into it, the taste of strawberries, raspberries and fruits of the forest simply exploded with a buoyancy of flavour that really excited me.”
Being the must-know-how-things-work type, Craig asked the waiter if he could see how the chef creates this wondrous sensation that looked so reserved yet packed so much taste. Not letting the answer of “no” stand in the way of curiosity, Craig took the chance to pop his head into the kitchen anyway, where before him was the head chef who fortunately was not wielding a cleaver. Instead he was using a small vacuum still to extract the full flavour from the fruits, but with zero colour.
I understand why nobody has done this before!
Although this blue bolt of inspiration marked the start of something special, we need to turn back the wheels of time a little further to find the true beginning. Through welcoming guests on tours at the distillery, it became apparent that lots of drinkers were not big fans of the traditional London dry gin style because it was… too dry for their taste. Guests began asking us to make a sweetened fruity gin like a sloe gin. But as Craig explained:
“Adding food colouring, concentrates and sugar to a gin isn’t what we’re about.”
However, we live by our pledge "to create tasty honest craft spirits for everyone who likes a tipple", so it sparked a question that Craig felt compelled to answer.
“Can we make something that is big, fruity and full of flavour, but is also high quality and pure rather being flavoured with E numbers and syrups.”
The answer may appear simple, just add more fruit to the distillation right? However, there is a reason why all of the intense, fruity gins on the market are made by adding concentrated syrups and sugars after the distillation process. To gain such intensity of fruit in the spirit through distillation alone obviously requires vast quantities of fruit, but therein lies the problem...
“When you add a lot more botanicals you also extract too many oils, which is a bit of an issue, out the other side. Too many oils creates louching, a clouding of spirit, and in our case this was severe due to the crazy increase in botanicals. The difficult question is how to reduce the oils but keep the big flavour? I now understand why nobody has done it before.”
To every problem there is a solution
Moving ahead in time to the chance encounter with a transparent bowl of water in a Michelin star restaurant, the aforementioned blue bolt of inspiration was bubbling away in Craig’s head and he still wasn’t taking no for an answer. Searching for the yes answer, Craig began tinkering with flame-burning the fruit, based on the principle that mixologists employ to burn off citrus oils over a cocktail. The idea is that the oils can be reduced yet intensify using fire prior to the distillation. But...
“The shear quantity of fruit wasn’t creating balance, it was a major projection of sweetness with not enough complexity, and I wanted to create a spirit that reminded me of the speak-easy cocktail bars in Berlin. Cocktails that had complex flavours to balance the sweetness, and were not just fruit juice with alcohol splashed in. That’s when I started playing around with smoking the fruit over wood chips”
The concept was to create a clear and pure spirit that had the complexity of a speak-easy cocktail, with the buoyancy and ease of drinking with a mixer like a gin liqueur, but without adding any syrups or flavour additives or any nonsense, just pure crystal clear spirit. It was through smoking the fruit that Craig began to gain glimpses of the balance he was looking for, but specifically using fresh oranges and pineapples.
“We trialled different flavours on thousands of visitors at the distillery, and ended up with orange and pineapple. Ultimately the smoking and burning processes really started to work, we tried everything from red wine cask oak chips to whisky cask oak chips to find just the right balance of smokiness. The oranges, went through many a different char level with our flame thrower to get the balance and oil content just right.”
It required bending a lot of science to retain the fresh taste of the fruit without the intensity of the oils, and with enough complexity and balance to stand up to some of the most iconic cocktails in the world. This task of taking pure fruit and transforming it into a clear and clean spirit with the qualities a complete cocktail is a hands-on, labour intensive job that for us anyway, embodies what craft distillation is all about.
Keeping the hard graft in craft
To put into perspective what it takes to create our Distilled Gin Cocktail, each batch requires wheelbarrow loads of pineapples and oranges, pineapples being smoked in our home made smoker over a 24 hour period and the oranges that are hand-scorched with a large crafty flame thrower. This is after we chop the lot by hand with a cleaver without any machines being used whatsoever.
The fruit is then macerated overnight in our spirit that we make at the distillery ourselves from local wheat, in a process that itself takes around 2 weeks. But that’s a story for another day. This is all before it gets pressed in our 6 tonne cider press to clean up the juice. A manual task that takes a full day’s work in its own right.
All this hard graft is to create just 200 pure litres of spirit, with the perfect balance of flavours, although Craig does admit that he wouldn’t mind a wee bit more smoke personally, but is always adamant that this was developed for the wider pallet. The final step is to marry the spirit with our own Hills & Harbour gin to deliver complementary nuances to the palate. So from the raw ingredients it takes us nearly 3 weeks to craft just a single batch of Distilled Gin Cocktail.
Who is a Hills & Harbour Distilled Gin Cocktail drinker?
“We wanted to create a clean spirit that speaks of provenance in a different way, one that tips the cap and respects Scotland great heritage of innovation. We created the Distilled Gin Cocktail for people who seek a big and pure spirit without consuming a bunch of E numbers and additives and sugar. We wanted to combine innovation and craft with science to compose a little magic that taps into not only your connoisseur but also the everyday drinker”
The Distilled Gin Cocktail is therefore a versatile all-rounder that will appeal to everyone from the most serious and traditional cocktail drinkers to people who prefer a more modern and light experience. Craig’s favourite serve is iced and enjoyed straight as a Martini, because the crystal clear spirit perfectly displays beautiful fruity flavours with subtle sweetness and balanced complexity. For a sweeter serve, lemonade is a popular mixer. It creates a refreshingly juicy tipple without the need to add syrups and flavourings. For me personally, it brings a wonderful dimension to a forward-thinking Bloody Mary as it lifts the tomato juice and spice to a new level.
But what about Jimi Hendrix?
In case you thought we had forgotten, this brings us back to Back to the Future (or back to the start at least!):
“It’s like that scene from Back to the Future, when no-one’s even heard of Rock & Roll yet, and Marty McFly starts playing his electric guitar like Jimi Hendrix.” remarked Craig.
In this famous movie scene both the audience and the band are left in a stunned silence as Marty McFly goes hell-for-leather on his electric guitar in his maverick interpretation of Johnny B. Goode, having been transported back in time to 1955.
"I guess you guys aren't ready for that yet." Marty explains in the movie amidst a fading backdrop of humming electronic feedback.
When we first launched the Distilled Gin Cocktail we could empathise with Marty McFly. Much like listening to Rock & Roll music before it had been invented, people didn’t know what to make of it because it hadn’t been done before, it didn’t neatly fit into a category and it wasn’t just a gimmick. People naturally assume that it is just another gin sweetened with syrup and imbibed with concentrated flavourings. But it couldn’t be further removed.
“We set out to create an innovative spirit, that respects the height of cocktail making, is crystal clear and pure like a Martini, but also provides a quality option for the gin liqueur style of drinker. Standing by our approach of creating spirit for everyone that likes a tipple”
Our Hills & Harbour Distilled Gin Cocktail is one of those things you need to try for yourself to be able to truly understand it. It’s versatility will help you to discover your own innovative spirit through fabulously creative cocktails and serves, because there’s life beyond a London Dry G & T. In words alone it’s hard to express this versatility, its vibrancy and the nothing-else-added purity. It’s the perfect match for those who appreciate authenticity and the most natural flavours. It’s for those who respect hard graft, effort and passion. But most importantly it’s for those who understand, that much like the innovative watery dessert that Craig discovered in the restaurant on that day… the proof is in the pudding!