This November marked a decade of distilling for Portobello Road. 2021 has been an important one for us anyway, as for the first time, we extended our range outside of juniper spirits.
Over the last 10 years, we’ve had a little time to ponder about what gin could be, and experiment with the parameters laid out in the various regulations. The result is a decennial expression, created to mark this period, a gin that is the consequence of 10 years of pushing the envelope.. introducing our Special Reserve 101.
As is our way, with this limited edition, we have stretched the regulations surrounding London Dry Gin to their limit - but all in the name of making a gin which is still true to the intentions of those rules, and which honours the history of the category. It’s still Portobello, it’s just Portobello with bells on... just in time for Christmas!
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
You might already know that London Dry Gin doesn't have to be made in London, however, it does have to be a lot of other things, and this is where we've flirted a little with the rules with a number of our distillation decisions for Special Reserve 101.
Are we allowed to call this a London Dry Gin? In all honesty, we don't know. We think it ticks a lot more of the regulations than some of our rival London Dry Gins do, but if we get told we can't call it that then, so be it...
Step 1: Potato Spirit
The first thing we have changed from our classic gin is the base spirit, instead of the usual English wheat Neutral Grain Spirit used in our classic collection of gins for the Special Reserve 101 we have used the same rich British potato spirit that we use in our family of Portobello Road Vodkas.
What does this do? It gives us a distinctly viscous gin, a more creamy mouthfeel, an oiliness, a weight on the palate.
Step 2: Reverse Ageing
The next innovation? Before we convert this into gin we rest the spirit on oak. We have called this process Reverse Ageing (we made that up though, its not a real thing).
Some people have made barrel aged gins before, resting their gin on oak after distillation, but if we do this we cannot call it London Dry Gin because the regulations don’t permit us to add any flavour or colour after distillation.
And oak definitely does add flavour, and colour.
For this product, during the distillation process all that colour imparted by the oak is removed, but a great deal of the flavour survives - we have essentially used the oak as a botanical.
Step 3: 48 hours instead of 24
We then steep seven of our classic, more traditional, botanicals in the spirit (juniper, coriander seed, angelica root, orris root, liquorice root, cassia bark, nutmeg) but... and here's the twist, we do this for longer than usual (48 hours as opposed to 24)
For that innovation we are indebted to one of the classic London Dry Gins who, like Portobello generally leave their botanicals steeping for 24 hours - that is except for the batch that gets steeped on Friday afternoon - this batch doesn’t get distilled till Monday morning.
Their Master Distillery once confided to our Master Distiller Jake, in an unguarded moment, that he enjoys the “Friday Gin” more than the other batches.
So this is our attempt to mimic those conditions, and tip our hat to one of our distilling idols.
Our experiments showed us that the citrus peels don’t really benefit from that extra steeping time, so we don’t add the orange and the lemon peel till halfway through the steeping process, meaning it gets just the standard 24 hours like in our classic London Dry recipe.
Step 4: 50% more juniper
We also really wanted to make this an intensely “ginny gin” - for want of a better word - so we have dialled up the juniper content of the recipe by a whole 50%.
This dominates the palate before giving way to the lemon, orange and eventually the festive flavour of cassia and nutmeg, and at 50.5%, it also mens that the juniper lingers, still being abundantly apparently even thirty/forty/fifty seconds after the initial sip.
Step 5: 75% of the heart
Other than our first four steps, the recipe remains unchanged from the Portobello you know and love. We then, very slowly, distill the gin on our copper pot gin still, King Henry.
We capture the resulting distillate in three different sections, only taking the middle 75% of the distillation, the very heart.
Thats a much bigger proportion of the “heads and tails” than one would usually take out - not the most efficient way to make gin - but we think that for this product that is the best bit!
Step 6: The most impure water in the world
The final stage of production is where we are perhaps flirting with the wording of the London Dry Gin rules the most…
The regulations state that after distillation the only things that can be added are more neutral spirit (of the same quality and unflavoured) - to balance the intensity of the botanical flavour - and “water” - to bring the gin down to the desired bottling strength.
Now people often talk about water in spirits production, there is one famous brand who take their gin to Iceland to add “the purest Icelandic water” to their gin, and very nice gin it is too we should add, and of course many whiskey producers never shut up about the purity of their water source.
Water purity is measured in parts per million dissolved solids, essentially how many of each million particles in the water isn’t actually water.
A very high number might indicate the presence of pathogens or bacteria, but the vast majority of the non water molecules in water are minerals - sodium, calcium etc,
The purest natural water in the world is found in the Patagonia region of Chile and allegedly has 0ppm dissolved solids - which seems incredible and unlikely but the world is an incredible and unlikely place - however most natural spring water will contain something like about 50ppm dissolved solids. Tap water on the other hand will range between 200-500 ppm dissolved solids.
Putting tap water through a purification process called “Reverse Osmosis Purification” - which is what we and most other gin producers do for our classic London Dry Gin - will get that number down below fifty, perhaps even down into single digits if you have a very good system. I’ll not bore you with the technicalities of how that process works but if you are ever struggling to sleep that wikipedia page should help you drop off.
What does all this mean? It means that with the exception of very few water sources in the world that most spring water is decidedly less pure than purified water is.
So here’s the thing - when companies claim their product tastes so good because of the purity of their water source, what they should really be claiming is that their product tastes so good because of the impurity of their water source - but that doesn’t sound so good in marketing materials.
What we have done here is take the most mineral heavy water in the world Vichy Catalan and use that to cut our gin down to its bottling strength.
Vichy Catalan has a whopping 3000 ppm dissolved solids and contains 27 different minerals (predominantly sodium, bicarbonates, sulfates and potassium).
But why is this flirting with the London Dry Regulations? Well the regulations just state that we can add “water” to our gin after distillation - there is no standard laid down for the purity of that water. So all good so far...
But the rules do also state that no flavour can be added after distillation - which is why we can’t for example put it in a barrel, or add a whole load of strawberry flavoured sugar to it like the pink gin makers do. And Vichy Catalan, as you might expect with that much minerality, distinctly does have flavour.
Step 7: Keep it punchy
The very last point of difference for Special Reserve 101 is the amount of water we add.
Our gin generally comes off the still at about 80 / 82% alcohol and we add water to bring that strength down to 42% which is what we think is right for the classic Portobello London Dry - we would actually be permitted to bring it all the way down to 37.5% alcohol but we feel that for our gin that is a little too weak.
With Special Reserve 101, we have only added water to bring it down to 50.5% alcohol by volume - or what our American cousins would call 101 Proof, and what our more traditional Bourbon drinking American cousins would call Kentucky Strength - that being the strength that many old classic bourbons like Wild Turkey were traditionally bottled at.
This is also the strength that it’s creator, Portobello Road Gin’s Jake Burger likes his liquor at, and after 10 years of distilling, we thought he deserved a little indulgence.
So are we allowed to call this a London Dry Gin or not? The truth is, we don’t know! We think it it ticks a lot more of the regulations than some of our rival London Dry Gins do, but if we get told we can’t call it that then so be it….
Special Reserve 101 Tasting Notes
Nose: Intense Juniper but still with that Portobello DNA running through it - like all our products do - with distinct notes of citrus and winter spice on the nose, and perhaps the gentlest suggestion of flowers and perfume.
Palate: The creaminess and the weight are immediately apparent, it coats the mouth and sticks to the tongue, the Juniper dominates at first but gives way to the lemon, orange and eventually to the festive flavour of cassia and nutmeg
Finish: As one might expect at 50.5% it is distinctly, erm noticable, as it goes down, warming the cockles of the heart like a good cast strength whiskey does, the long warmth in the chest is not the only thing that lingers though, the juniper and the spice still being abundantly apparent even thirty/forty/fifty seconds after the initial sip….
How should it be drunk?
It's so full and intense that it's going to make its presence felt in any mixed drink or cocktail, but like any great gin, it is most at home in a Martini.
We've created 1,000 bottles of our Special Reserve 1010, you can get your hands on a bottle here.