Review: Sipsmith V.J.O.P. Gin and Sloe Gin

sipsmith (2)

Sipsmith isn’t content to just make a single gin in its garage of an operation in London, England. It actually produces a range of artisan spirits and fortified wines — including the two reviewed below, which are exported to the U.S.

Sipsmith co-founder Sam Galsworthy (pictured) was recently in my neck of the woods, and we sat down with the Sipsmith portfolio for tasting and exploration. (After the meeting he sent me home with the two below bottles, which I reviewed later on my own.)

sipsmith (1)The highlight of the meeting had nothing to do with the company’s commercially available products, though. Rather, it was a trio of samples that Galsworthy had brought in unmarked bottles. These bottles represented in-progress Sipsmith London Dry gin at three different stages off the still. After the heads portion is cut, it takes about three hours for the gin to complete its distillation (until the tails arrive). Galsworthy presented the evolution of Sipsmith London Dry, one hour at a time. After the first hour, the gin showcases clear citrus notes, almost like an orange vodka. It isn’t until the second hour that the juniper really starts to show, with earthier notes coming to the fore during hour three. I didn’t write up any significant notes on these samples since they aren’t actual products for sale, but it was a lot of fun to see how a spirit evolves over a short amount of time during the distillation process. (Click on the chart above for a little more detail.)

Fun stuff, but let’s look at two commercially available Sipsmith bottlings.

Sipsmith Signature Edition Series V.J.O.P. Gin – This is the same botanical mix as standard Sipsmith London Dry — but with three times the juniper and a three day maceration instead of one day. The results are as expected — palpably piney. Juniper is overwhelming on the nose, to the exclusion of nearly anything else in the botanical bill. On the palate, it’s crushingly juniper-forward and very hot (just look at that proof). Water coaxes out more notes — though the juniper dominates from front to back, it features fresh orange, some brown sugar, licorice, and a touch of cinnamon. While it’s an overwhelming experience, it’s not an unsatisfying one — the juniper finishing on a clean and refreshing note. While I’m not normally fond of juniper-heavy gins, Sipsmith’s V.J.O.P. (“Very Junipery Over Proof”) is quite a compelling beast that lets you know from the get-go what its intentions are, and follows through with style. 115.4 proof. A- / $52

Sipsmith Sloe Gin Special Edition 2013 – Sipsmith only makes a sloe gin on an occasional basis (the photo on its website is a 2010 bottling), so I have no idea if this is the current edition. Why vintage? Because sloe berries are an annual harvest, and these are picked in the wild of West Country, UK, in the autumn. The London Dry gin is rested on these berries for 3 to 4 months before bottling. The company says each vintage does indeed taste different, but 2013 is “noteworthy.” Sloe gin often has a cough syrup character to it — it’s really not meant for straight sipping — and Sipsmith’s offers a powerful and pungent character that grabs you by the throat right away. The nose features aromas of dense raspberry and melted Jolly Ranchers, but the body is extremely tart, the hallmark of sloe gin. It comes on strong with an intense herbal overtone, notes of bitter chocolate, and orange rind. All in all, it’s pretty much exactly what you want a good sloe gin to be — sweet and sour in solid balance, with a distinct weirdness you can’t quite place. 58 proof. A- / $43

Review: Spirit Works Gin, Barrel Gin, and Sloe Gin

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Sebastapol, California is in the heart of Northern California’s winemaking operations, and it’s here where Spirit Works can be found, cranking out a variety of gin, vodka, and white whiskey products. They even make an authentic sloe gin here — and we were lucky enough to try it, along with the company’s standard gin and a barrel-aged variety. All are made with California botanicals and hand-labeled with batch information. Thoughts on the gin, barrel-aged gin, and sloe gin all follow.

Spirit Works Gin – Distilled from red winter wheat grown in California, infused with juniper berries, orris root, angelica root, cardamom, coriander, orange and lemon zest, and hibiscus. The nose is hefty with grain, initially coming across almost like a white whiskey. Heavy on earth tones, the body is surprisingly un-gin-like. Juniper is present, but just barely. Instead you’ll find it dense with notes of mushroom, Eastern spices, and eucalyptus. The finish is touched just a bit with some citrus peel, but all told it could really use more of a punch to push it more squarely into gin territory rather than this curious middle ground it currently occupies. 86 proof. Reviewed: Batch #010. B / $35

Spirit Works Barrel Gin – The above gin, aged for several months in new American oak barrels. This is a far different animal, the nose coming across like — you guessed it — a young whiskey. Racy lumberyard notes meld with aromas of incense, roasted meats, and aftershave. The body sticks along these lines, folding in vanilla notes to a palate that features light evergreen, bitter lemon, and ground cardamom. The finish is a blessed release of sweet butterscotch pudding, ultimately making for one of the most decidedly weird gins ever. 90.1 proof. Reviewed: Batch #001. B / $38

Spirit Works Sloe Gin – A traditionally-made spirit infused with whole sloe berries, giving this crimson-hued sloe gin the sweet-and-sour flavor of liquefied cranberry sauce. Good sloe gin is hard to come by — and rarely used these days in cocktails — but the hints of mint, orange peel, rhubarb, and eucalyptus oil make this a standout in a truly niche industry. 54 proof. Reviewed: Batch #008. A / $40  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Greenhook Ginsmiths Beach Plum Gin Liqueur

GreenPoint GunWho knew they grew plums on the beach? This is the first commercial “beach plum gin” liqueur, and I have to imagine the reason for that is that making a liqueur out of beach plum gins didn’t occur to anyone. The beach plums in question hail from Long Island, and their juice is blended with Greenhook’s dry gin and organic turbinado sugar to create this strange curiosity.

I’m reminded immediately of sloe gin with this spirit, which Greenhook calls an inspiration. The color, a shade of cranberry cocktail, is a touch lighter than most sloe gin, but otherwise it’s a close approximation.

On the nose, things start to shift. If you didn’t know it was plum-based, you might guess at any number of ingredients based on the aromas coming forth from the glass. Watermelon, cassis, and cherry all have a home here, atop a gently sweet core. On the tongue, there’s sweet and sour in equal proportions. The initial rush is intensely cherry-like, almost akin to a kirsch. Sweet and tangy at first, you’re expecting things to stay sweet, but they quickly veer off-course. The finish is funky, almost with a cough syrup sourness to it, and a bitter edge. Mix away, but sipping straight probably isn’t in the cards.

What a curious little liqueur this is. While the balance seems off, there’s plenty going on that’s worth exploring. Try it in lieu of sloe gin, or any cherry flavored liqueur in your favorite cocktail recipe.

60 proof.


Tasting Report: Plymouth Sloe Gin

Sloe Gin Fizzes were the first cocktail I mastered, but it’s been years since I’ve had one. No reason why, really. Sloe gin, a liqueur flavored with sloe berries, the fruit of the blackthorn tree, has hardly seen the renaissance that other spirits have in recent years. There hasn’t exactly been a clamoring for the stuff in the market.

Well, Plymouth (which I’m on record as stating, unequivocally, makes the best gin on the market) is trying to change that by introducing a premium sloe gin, perhaps the first of its kind. Plymouth threw a swanky party for its new bottling last night at Bourbon & Branch here in San Francisco, and I was fortunate enough to try the spirit along with a number of cocktails made with it.

First, a bit more about sloe gin: It’s made by steeping sloe berries in gin (Plymouth gin, of course), and watered down to 52 proof. 26 percent alcohol makes it a pretty standard liqueur rather than a true gin, so plan accordingly. Served straight, it’s quite tart, really too sour to enjoy on its own, but in cocktails it really shines.

Sloe gin’s natural habitat is the Sloe Gin Fizz, and in its preparation here (with fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, fresh egg white, and a splash of club soda) it was a real delight, creamy, with a good mix of sweet and sour. In a good cocktail, sloe gin tastes a lot like cranberry, and in The Wibble (recipe below), you get the essence of sloe gin at its best. This concoction, which includes grapefruit juice and blackberry liqueur, is like a Cosmo on steroids. Really good.

Amazingly, the addition of sloe gin to gin and Campari made the “Sloegronie” impressively drinkable, still quite bitter, but much better than a real Negroni. Finally, I finished up the night with Plymouth’s Southside (pictured, because it was so cool looking), which actually didn’t include sloe gin at all. Essentially a Mojito with gin instead of rum, I was impressed with how much more interesting this now-tired drink could be. Sub in lemon for lime and add a shot of sloe gin and you’ve got a Sloe Gin Genie (pictured at top, next to the bottle). I’ll give it a try when I get a bottle of my own to play with.

Plymouth Sloe Gin isn’t quite yet available in the U.S. yet, but keep an eye out for it. (If it’s sold at the same price here as it is in Britain, it’ll run about $35 a bottle.)

The Wibble
1 oz. Plymouth Gin
1 oz. Plymouth Sloe Gin
1 oz. freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
1/4 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/8 oz. simple syrup
1/8 oz. Wild Blackberry Liqueur (Creme de Mure)

Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.