8 Best British spirits, tried and tested!
It’s something of an understatement to say that gin, once associated with William Hogarth prints and ruined mothers, has had a makeover in the past decade. But nowhere is this more evident than with Sipsmith: three beardy blokes—OK, so one is clean-shaven—who run a microdistillery in Hammersmith, west London.
Established in 2009, Sipsmith has the capital’s first new copper still for 200 years (it’s called Prudence) and its dry gin is made using water from Lydwell Spring, one of the sources of the Thames.
The result is a spirit of “painstaking integrity”, says Fraser Allen, publisher of drinks magazine Hot Rum Cow, with Sipsmith right to claim that it’s “the quintessential expression of a classic London dry gin”.
The company also makes a sloe gin that, according to Susanna Forbes of the website Drink Britain, has a complexity of flavours with notes of cherry, plums, and Seville orange. Better still, at this time of year it can be drunk mulled with apple juice and spices. Yum.
Sipsmith London Dry Gin, £29.45 for 70cl; Sipsmith Sloe Gin, £24.25 for 50cl. For more, including information about distillery tours, see sipsmith.com
Adnams Morello Cherry Liqueur
Adnams is well known to beer-drinkers all over Britain for its brewery in Southwold, Suffolk. Less famously, though, it has the Copper House distillery too.
Adnams First Rate Gin is described by the Guardian as “really classy with bags of fresh juniper and orange”—but the company also produces this: a deep red morello cherry liqueur with punchy fruity layers of ripe cherry, made from its own vodka. “I love it because of the freshness of the fruit,” says Susanna Forbes.
You can drink it solo as a digestif; with sparkling wine as a Kir; or as an ingredient in cocktails. Oh yes, and Adnams also distils a Winter Spiced Liqueur—beautifully warming at this time of year
Cherry Liqueur, £15.49 for 35cl; Winter Spiced Liqueur, £15.49 for 35cl. For more, including ideas for cocktails, see adnams.co.uk
Lagavulin 16-Year Old Whisky
If smoky, peaty whisky is your bag, there’s really only one Hebridean island to head for. “Islay is the place for smoky whisky,” Roddy Graham, Drink Britain’s whisky editor, says firmly.
In fact, there are three similar whiskies from south Islay: Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin, whose distilleries are within five minutes of each other. These, according to Graham, are whisky’s “Holy Trinity”, and you could visit all three in an afternoon. (Actually, he says, you could visit all eight of the island’s distilleries in a day but you’d “be a bit tired by the end of it”.) Even so, he still believes that Lagavulin stands out—and that the “insanely smoky” 16-year-old is the one you want.
Distilled slowly, it has an intense peat rush, says Ian Buxton, author of 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, followed by sweet oranges and toffee. It’s not cheap but the quality is undisputed. Johnny Depp, apparently, orders it just for the smell.
Lagavulin 16-Year-Old, £43.23 for 70cl
Bushmills Original Irish Whiskey
The Irish have been knocking back Bushmills for more than 400 years. 1608, the date on the label, is when King James I gave the Bushmills region an official licence to distil, although it’s known that Bushmills’ origins stretch back centuries earlier.
Today the company is owned by multinational giant Diageo, but it still has the oldest operating distillery in the world, with the entire shebang—from “grain to glass”—taking place on the Antrim coast near the Giant’s Causeway.
It’s an indication of just how deep the affection for this drink runs that in 2008 an illustration of the Bushmills distillery was used on Northern Irish banknotes. (It replaced Queen’s University Belfast.) Bushmills produces blends and single malts, both distilled three times. (This is typical for Irish whiskeys; in Scotland, where whisky comes without the “e”, it’s normally twice.)
Taste the stuff and you’ll be in good company: Bushmills has oiled the throats of everyone from Seamus Heaney to James Joyce, who even gave it a mention it in Ulysses. Purists have it neat, often as a Guinness chaser (“a pint and a wee one”).
Those less traditional can try a Burning Bush—basically a hot toddy. Or, Roddy Graham points out, it’s exceedingly good in a Manhattan.
Bushmills Original Irish Whiskey, £19.45 for 70cl. For more, including tours, see bushmills.com
Snatching the title of Best Vodka in the World three years ago from the Russians and Poles, Chase’s is made on a smallish farm in Hereford. Vodka is a neutral spirit, often distilled from say, wheat or barley—but one that can be made from almost anything.
Black Cow Pure Milk Vodka from Dorset, for example, does exactly what it says on the bottle—and Graham claims that one manufacturer even makes vodka out of lobsters! William Chase, who used to make Tyrrells crisps before selling the company in 2008, unsurprisingly had an attic full of surplus spuds on his farm—which may be why his main vodka is made out of potatoes, giving the drink a smooth natural sweetness.
It takes roughly 35lbs to make one bottle, with the bonus that it’s wheat-free. Chase now produces around 3,000 bottles a week. His more unusual varieties are the fruity Marmalade Vodka—with homemade Seville marmalade and good for cocktails—and Naked Apple Vodka, from organic apples.
Chase Vodka, £32.95; Chase Marmalade Vodka, £35.70; Naked Chase Apple Vodka, £39.99—all 70cl. For more, including tours, see chasedistillery.co.uk
There used to be many gins produced in Plymouth; today there’s just one. Plymouth Gin is made in the romantically named Black Friars Distillery, built as a Dominican monastery in the early 15th century—but associated with a rather more temporal spirit since 1793.
The Refectory Room is where the Pilgrim Fathers spent their last night in England in 1620 before sailing for the New World from the nearby docks. (Hence the picture of the Mayflower on the Plymouth label.)
The company’s website explains that “for almost two centuries, Her Majesty’s Naval Fleet was sustained by Plymouth Gin”; and that no ship left the port without stocking up on their Navy Strength 100% proof—a mind-blowing 57% ABV—which was tested by adding some to a small amount of gunpowder and seeing if the compound burned well. (If it didn’t, that meant the gin had been watered down.)
Shipped all over the globe from Plymouth docks and specified in the original recipe for dry Martini, Plymouth is a gin of great depth. It’s also the only gin in the world with Protected Designation of Origin status.
Plymouth Original Strength Gin, £24; Navy Strength (if you’re feeling brave), £34—both 70cl. For more, including tours, see plymouthgin.com
Merlyn Welsh Cream Liqueur
Creamy whisky liqueurs slip down a treat at Christmas. The most popular, of course, is Baileys Irish Cream, devised in 1971 from the old Irish tradition of mixing cream and whisky for those feeling, ahem, “slightly unwell” after the night before.
Today it shifts some seven million cases a year, and Baileys has now added a Chocolat Luxe version—far more delicious than it sounds. From the Penderyn distillery in the Brecon Beacons, though, comes a different tipple to offer the aunties.
Like a Baileys from Wales, it’s made from cream and Welsh malted barley spirit—and just one cask a day is produced, so it’s pretty special. It tastes like “a naughty coffee-infused ice cream,” says Susanna Forbes, with hazelnut and milk chocolate notes.
Perfect to sip over ice, or with a hazelnut or coffee pudding, or simply poured over ice cream. Penderyn do their own single malt whisky too, which has many fans.
Merlyn Welsh Cream Liqueur, £17.76; Penderyn Single Malt Welsh Whisky, £36—both 70cl. For more, including tours, see welsh-whisky.co.uk. (Bailey’s Chocolat Luxe, £16.99 for 50cl)
Lurgashall English Mead
Finally, although it isn’t technically a spirit, I can’t resist mentioning one of the great booze comebacks of recent times. Mead is among the oldest alcoholic drinks in the known universe, but for years it has had a big image problem—as if it belonged only to Merrie England.
But now mead-based cocktails have hit London bars and it’s suddenly become fashionable, even (whisper it) hip.
According to Susanna Forbes, Lurgashall winery in West Sussex makes a fresh-style mead with real zip that, in winter, is best drunk with spices and orange. It also goes well with cheese.
Lurgashall English Mead, £7.50 for 50cl. For more on other products, and on winery tastings, go to lurgashall.co.uk.
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