I say “Master of Malt Origin”, but their full title it “Master of Malt Origin Single Estate Cold Distilled Juniper” – grand but a little unwieldy for a title.
The story is a simple but sensible one. Ben Ellefsen, Sales Director of Master of Malt, had a notion that the origin of juniper in many gins played a smaller part in the botanical list than the origins of the other ingredients, in spite of it being the main ingredient. You can read the full account on the Master of Malt blog, here.
I won’t go into too much detail, as it’s all in that blog post but, in-short, Ben appealed to MoM blog readers for samples of Juniper from all over the world. After chasing down dozens of samples, around ten were selected as potential prospects and, as far as I know, four initial samples were selected for maceration and cold-distillation in a rotary vacuum still. Another three were added later to make seven.
This range of single estate origin juniper distillates are now available from Master of Malt for the somewhat princely sum of £34.95 per bottle. Each is bottled at 46% ABV and comes with a small vial of other gin botanical distillates so you can convert the bottle into a fully-fledged gin with a complex suite of botanicals. The full range can be found here.
A little while ago, a small box arrived at my door containing little sample bottles of four of these distillates. Tonight I tried them.
Each one comes in wax-sealed 30ml sample bottle. The wax is slightly rubbery and plasticy; an odd texture and not at all what I was expecting. Still, it sheared nicely when I applied brute force and unscrewed the cap with the wax still on.
In preparation for this little voyage of discovery, I had a G&T with a fairly simple gin and then cleansed my palate with unadulterated tonic water. I opened a new pack of shot glasses that we have had kicking around for an age and sat down with my notepad, far away from distractions like the TV, cats and my wife.
I then, excitedly, poured and sampled.
First-up was from Arezzo, Italy.
Nose: On the nose this distillate was soft and slightly creamy with a gentle resinous pine freshness with generic but gentle woody undertones.
Taste: In the mouth it had a sweet, creamy building attack. The middle-to-end palate has a nice bite of juniper but still remains soft and warming with a slight soapiness to it.
This was certainly the gentlest and smoothest of the four and would make a great Scottish-style gin.
Nose: The Valbonian distillate was the mildest on the nose and the juniper notes were definitely harsher and raspy, but subdued.
Taste: This was a work of contradictions to me; it was definitely the mildest of the four in flavour but it was also the harshest – it caught the back of the throat with spicy pepper/chili heat that lingered. The sweetness of the attack is very short-lived and it quickly gives-way to biting ferocity.
Meppel, The Netherlands
There’s a pleasing symmetry here in that the juniper for this origin distillate came from The Netherlands, the birthplace of gin. I like symmetry (on a tangent, why is the word symmetry not palindromic?).
Nose: Sniffing this one rewarded the nose with a gentle earthiness and a deep, rich pine resin.
Taste: There is a characteristic sweet, creamy attack with a great underpinning warmth. This slowly gives way to a building crescendo of tart, biting juniper pine notes. After peaking, this slowly trails off into a long peppery finish that tingles and burns on the tongue for a long, long time.
This would make a staggering backbone to a big-juniper, forthright gin.
Veliki Preslav, Bulgaria
Nose: The aroma of this distillate was very fresh and turpentine-like. There’s a vegetative quality to it that is hard to pin down to specific plants – just a greenness, maybe cut grass (from a lawn with plenty of dandelions and other weeds).
Taste: This is a fresh juniper – it reminded me of the freshness of No.3 Gin. It’s a big, big juniper. It was the most alcoholic tasting of the four (odd seeing that they are all the same strength) and the sweetness of the attack was slight but it sustained throughout. There was a prickly, almost stabbing mouth-tingle at the end.
In all, very fresh and clean.
Thoughts and conclusions
These are all very different; they are all Juniperus communis and it’s only the soil and climate that differs – and what a difference that makes.
Some distilleries make a lot of the fact that they travel the World looking for the best juniper and I have always wondered how much of this was just marketing hype. However, these four juniper distillates have such different characters and qualities and it’s no wonder that gin can vary so much even when there is little difference in the botanicals.
This has been a real eye-opener; a true education and a privilege.
If I were to pick a favourite, I think it would have to be the Arezzo from Italy; I love the gentle smoothness of it, but Meppel is a very close second. However, without trying each one, made-up with its other botanicals to make a full-blown gin, it’s going to be difficult to make a concrete choice.
There are three that I have yet to try, so watch this space – I may be adding to this in the coming weeks/months.
Finally, a map
For the academically interested (or, like me, the geographically retarded) below is a map with markers of the general locations of each juniper. I was struck by the latitudinal similarity of three of these but I suspect this is as much coincidence as anything significant. Saying that, Juniper likes well-drained, mountainous terrain and there is a lot of that in South-Europe.