Friday, 23 February 2018

Gin Soaked Joy: The highs and lows of a day at the London Gin Festival

I made my annual pilgrimage to the London Gin Festival the other week because I love gin, and if someone's going to go to the trouble of holding a festival in honour of something I love then I feel it's my duty to pay my respects. I also feel it's my duty to spend waaaaaaayy too much money on the thing I love to prove that I love it more than everyone else, and that is an entirely healthy mindset with which to attend an event where you pretty much relinquish control of your judgement the moment you walk through the door and into an alcoholic fug of sweet junipery happy-fumes.

2018 marks the sixth year of Gin Festivals, and my third year of attendance at London's Tobacco Dock (they're actually held there twice a year, but I have to deny the existence of the summer event because neither my bank account nor my liver would survive the consequences). If you haven't been, it's essentially a chance to sample 25ml shots of a bewildering variety of gins from around the world, at the wallet-worrying price of a fiver a shot. Naturally if you fall in love with any there's the chance to buy a full bottle, and the aim of the game as far as I can tell is to come away with as many bottles of new gin as you can carry.
While avoiding the lightning-fast hipster bar staff, natch

Now the correct approach to this is to methodically scour the catalogue, cross-reference it with your spreadsheet of all the gins you've ever tried so that you don't waste money on something you've had before (don't pretend you don't have a gin spreadsheet), and basically plan your day with military precision to ensure maximum efficiency and minimum fun for your pals who mistakenly thought they were coming along to get tipsy and have a laugh. This is why I procured a catalogue months ago, exhaustively checking each gin in advance so that I knew exactly what I was after and wouldn't have to waste half an hour of precious festival time remembering if I'd already tasted, say, Braeckman Oud Jenever Kiekendief (I had, in 2016. According to the spreadsheet I thought it was fine).

So it was with an unprecedented sense of spine-chilling panic that, as I walked into this year's festival, I was cheerfully handed a new, updated and totally re-organised catalogue. I had already arrived about 17 minutes after the official start time due to a combination of the laissez-faire attitude of a café waitress that morning and the vagaries of Google Maps' navigational functionality, so to be faced with one more obstacle between me and the painstakingly-plotted consumption of injudicious quantities of gin was almost too much to bear. But what could I do?

Reader, I bore it.

I ushered my then-friends into a corner, told them all to sit down and shut up, and embarked upon the quickest cross-cross-referencing session you've ever seen at an event where most people are already too drunk to even say "spreadsheet". Within minutes I had reconceived my strategy for the day, and calculated that I had probably only used up the time it takes to sample one gin, so made a mental note to simply drink even more efficiently than usual.

Thanks to my unique skills as an intolerable fun-vacuum, then, I managed the arguably heroic feat of sampling no fewer than 28 individual gins in the space of three and a half hours. They weren't all 25ml shots, you understand; that would be dangerously ill-advised and also possibly too much fun. No, I insisted that my comrades and I all picked different gins and then shared each sample. There were four of us, so 28 gins meant just seven shots had been consumed by each of us at end of play - fewer alcoholic units than in a bottle of wine (on the offchance my doctor is reading this). Although I think I may have tagged an extra one on at the end because it was a lovely blue colour and smelled of bubble gum and by that point I was slightly less disciplined than earlier.

I feel like we could have done better, but the thing about the Gin Festival is that it's open to the general public - sadly, it kind of has to be - and if there's one thing the general public are absolutely on point at, it's getting right in the fucking way. Other things the general public do at gin festivals which are specifically designed to infuriate me include, but are not restricted to: loudly singing along with, and generally enjoying, the live band belting out Oasis' Champagne Supernova as if we're in a sticky-floored boozer in 1995; ordering the same gins within a group, apparently oblivious of the literally globe-spanning selection before them; drowning 25ml shots of precious, expensive gins with an entire 200ml bottle of tonic water so that each gin tastes exactly the same (i.e. like tonic water), and generally treating the entire event like some kind of relaxed, fun day out that can somehow magically be enjoyed without the aid of a spreadsheet.

Despite these hardships I was more or less satisfied with the day, and if you've been waiting patiently for any kind of discussion of the actual gin on offer, that patience is about to be rewarded, if only in a brief and dissatisfying way. I tended to stick to the European gins, because in all honestly most - but by no means all - of the gins on offer from the UK were London Dry gins which are virtually indistinguishable from each other. On the continent they tend to say bollocks to all that, and distil their gin with alpaca bladders, or vibranium, or a forward-thinking sense of unity and tolerance. As a result of this, Europe churns out shitloads of floral and fruity sweet gins which are lovely in and of themselves; the only downside is that after a few you do feel like you've spent a bit too long in the sweetie tin on Christmas Day.

I left the festival shop with two of these foreign fancies: Marula Gin from Belgium, which prides itself on tasting of the African fruit marula - "the forbidden fruit of the elephant tree" (if you've tried the Gin Festival organisers' own ludicrously delicious speciality, Tinker, it's not dissimilar), and Orkney Rhubarb Old Tom, which - as its name suggests - is an Old Tom (i.e. sweeter than London Dry) gin which tastes of rhubarb. And is distilled in Orkney. I needed something a bit serious and savoury to balance these two floozies out, so plumped for Norwich's St Giles, an enigmatic (i.e. I don't know how to describe the taste) gin which reminded me of another of my favourites - Willem Barentsz, which is unfathomably great - but with enough of a difference to warrant spunking 40 notes on a bottle.

(Side note: small-batch gin producers are producing such small batches these days that they often only sell 500ml bottles instead of the standard 700ml bottles, but the price - combined with the average punter's mental state at the end of a Gin Festival - convinces you you're getting more than you actually are. As I discovered when I got home.)
Other worthy offerings that I can recommend and will almost definitely consider when all these have gone (like tomorrow, right lads, weeeeyyyyy) include PJ Gin Elderflower (also from Belgium, does exactly what it says on the tin), Aduro Pink Passion (Italian, so fruity and sexy), Whitley Neill Quince (made in Liverpool and therefore well hard at 43% ABV) and Puerto de Indias Strawberry from Spain. On the savoury side I was intrigued by Aduro's Bell Pepper gin, which literally tastes of red pepper and is therefore nice but only a lunatic would want a whole bottle, and their Devil's Tail, the effects of which you could replicate by sticking eight of the world's hottest chilis in your mouth and swilling with gin. This was the only one we tried that we ended up chucking away, and everyone knows it's a sin to bin gin.

If any of this has somehow convinced you to attend a Gin Festival, then you're in luck - they're held right across the country all year round, and you can find the schedule here. One day I'll get round to announcing what are objectively and unquestionably The Best Gins, having done years of selfless, dispassionate research, but until then, get out there and have a bloody go on some gin. And don't forget your spreadsheet.

Non-disclaimer: I was not paid in cash or gin to mention or link to any of the products in this post, nor have I received any offers or discounts from Gin Festival, more's the pity. I'm @IncredibleSuit guys, just hit me up, it's so easy.

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