How Irish craft gin has become a global success
When Brian McGinn, one of the producers of the award-winning Netflix series Chef's Table, was visiting Ireland in search of new stories two weeks ago, Ballyvolane House was one of the places he visited. Co-incidentally, two days later, Bertha's Revenge, the small batch Irish milk gin that is distilled at Ballyvolane House by owner Justin Green and his business partner Antony Jackson, was awarded a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the most influential in the industry.
Irish craft gin is a global success. Also bagging gold medals at the competition were ShortCross Gin, which is distilled in Co Down, and Glendalough Gin from Co Wicklow, which produces four different gins each year to reflect the seasons. While there were only five craft gin distilleries in Ireland when Justin and Anthony launched Bertha's Revenge in 2015, there are now approximately 30.
What makes Bertha's Revenge unique is their use of whey alcohol from the local dairy farmers in Cork; the spirit used for most gins is made from either grain or molasses. And after that, it comes down to their unique blend of botanicals. Justin and Antony spent nine months tweaking the recipe and this year they also won the Irish Food Writers' Guild 'Drink Award'. "We went through 19 iterations before we were happy with our recipe. On batch 19 we decided 'this is it'," says Justin.
"For gin to be defined as gin there has to be a preponderance of juniper; that gives it the resonance, that sort of piney flavour that gin is known for," says Justin. "Coriander is the next most important ingredient, that gives it freshness and a sort of citrus note. Then you have the roots that combine the whole thing together and make all the other botanicals work. We have a lot of spice in our gin, it's quite rich and has a sort of luscious mouth feel that carries all of our spice botanicals incredibly well."
The botanicals used in Bertha's Revenge include cumin, cardamom, clove, cinnamon and Alexanders as well as florals like elderflower, sweet woodruff, lemon, lime, and grapefruit. In the distillery, Justin has the various botanicals in dishes. You can smell and chew on the seeds of Alexanders which have been foraged on Bull Island in Dublin, to get a sense of the many layers of flavour in the gin. "The Alexanders have a lovely peppery note, it gives our gin a very complex taste," he explains as I taste an Alexander seed for the first time. "It's important to get the right balance of botanicals. Liquorice, for example, is very strong. It doesn't make the gin taste like liquorice, but brings a sweetness to it, but you have to use it pretty sparingly. If you have too much of one botanical it can throw the balance out of kilter, so getting that balance right is extremely important.
"The sweet woodruff smells of almond, there's a nice sort of marzipan smell. We forage that in the woods, we do all of our foraging ourselves, you have to, you can't buy it," he says. "When I'm in Dublin, I'll spend four hours on Bull Island, listening to a food programme on podcast and happy as you know what. I really enjoy it, connecting with nature, and I love the fact that we get full ownership, we're doing everything ourselves, foraging, distilling, bottling. It's a very authentic product and that's important to customers, they like to know who's making it and why you're making it. And it's huge fun!" World Gin Day is next Saturday, so why not try a few different gins?