Ever since it was first imported to Britain from the Netherlands in the late 17th century, gin has remained an alcoholic staple in this country. And in recent years it has even undergone a little gentrification, with balloon glasses and posh tonics becoming all the rage.
Gin distilled with odd ingredients such as seaweed and samphire have started to appear, and another twist on the classic spirit doing the rounds right now is grape gin, which is, in fact, nothing new. Records of its production as a derivative of wine can be traced to the Netherlands in the 1400s. The reason producers switched to grain was due to a wine shortage.
Today, there’s no shortage wine. And, what better way to use the surplus of grapes than to turn them into a fun ‘new’ spirit? Craft distiller Chilgrove, from Sussex, was the first in Britain, kicking off in 2014. Managing director Christopher Beaumont-Hutchings tells me: ‘By the time William of Orange brought his juniper-based spirit to our shores from Holland it was being made exclusively from cereal. The reason grape-distilled spirits are much rarer is because it’s far more expensive to produce. It’s also harder to work with, there’s extra effort.’
So why bother? Well, like many things, the effort and cost pay off. Not everyone gets on with gin. It can be harsh, but gins made from grapes are easier on the palette, says Beaumont-Hutchings. Herbs and berries are still at play, but the base spirit provides a cleaner foundation.
‘The real benefits are in the texture and structure of the spirit,’ he says. ‘It produces a far smoother gin with a softer mouth-feel. You also get a lot more length to the gin. We also found that the botanicals themselves interact in a very different way in grape-spirit as opposed to grain, this opens up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to crafting the flavour profile.’
Chilgrove gin uses three varieties of grape grown in Spain; Airen, Bobal and Tempranillo (The latter being ‘the real key to producing a high-quality, smooth neutral spirit,’ says Beaumont-Hutchings) Britain, itself an emerging power in the wine industry, has grapes in abundance – so why not utilise ours, too?
Foxhole Gin does. ‘As a company, we want to promote sustainability across the drinks industry and reduce industry waste,’ the distiller’s PR Donna Amato tells me. ‘Our process of pressing the unused juice from grapes – used in the English wine industry – helps to reduce wastage by using a sustainable raw material for the base spirit.’
Foxhole uses grapes grown at Bolney Wine Estate in Sussex. Where Chilgrove is bold and a little peppery, Foxhole is light and citrusy. Amato says that the ‘aromatic’ grapes grown in Britain work well.
She adds: ‘The wine we use is an assemblage of all the varieties planted on the estate ranging from Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Bacchus and many more. We are lucky here in the UK that we tend to grow aromatic grape varieties, which contribute hugely to the aromatic flavours in Foxhole.’
Both Beaumont-Hutchings and Amato see grape gin as an emerging trend here in Britain. They say other vineyards and distilleries are experimenting. France, too. G’Vine is made not far from the home of one of France’s most famous exports, Cognac. But is an altogether more modern drink, a grape gin infused with ten botanicals, one of which is vine flowers.
And grape spirits don’t stop there. In Devon, a British ‘grappa’ is being made. It’s called Dappa, and it’s delicious. Co-founder Kate Le Laux tells me that nothing else is added to it to make it, and says Dappa has a ‘mellow warmth, [is] rounded and smooth on the palette, yet powerful and complex.’ Dappa uses grapes from eight vineyards from across the UK, including Three Choirs, Denbies, Plumpton College, and Biddenden.
It’s true to say that Le Laux doesn’t have to try very hard to source spare grapes. Britain is full of vineyards. And now, pleasingly, before a bottle of English wine, we can enjoy an aperitif in the shape of a grapey gin and tonic.