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Gin Judging for The Peoples Drink Awards in London

After seeing catching a glimpse of newsletter tittle mentioning Gin Judging, whilst scrolling through my 300 odd emails I get every day, I clicked through to find out more.

The peoples choice drinks awards were back for a second year, and looking for judges to help crown this year’s favourite. You had to submit an application detailing why you think you would be suitable so I thought what the hell.

I forgot all about it to be honest, but a few months later I had an email inviting me to the judging at a venue in Camden in London. It was a half day affair, requiring me to taste my way through up to 30 gins with the chance to take home some surplus supplies for the hardship too. RESULT!!

As luck would have it, the judging day happened to fall on the weekend of Albert Adria’s Cake and Bubbles opening in London too and I managed to get a table.

The Judging

After arriving in Camden and finding the venue by 10.30am on a Saturday from Cardiff, I was feeling quite impressed with myself. I wasn’t alone and was joined by my partner (in crime) and fellow Cardiff Gin Club organiser to help prop me up, if I overindulged on the bountiful supply of potent aqua vitae.

 

Peoples Drink Awards in London

 

There were around 20 of us tasked with finding today’s winner of the Peoples Choice Drinks award for the gin category. I would have been the only guy had one fellow judge not brought her husband on the trip to London and was squeezed in due to a no show. Not that I was that bothered.

We were divided into about 6 tables, given scoring cards and had a run through what was expected of us. There were two rounds of the scoring, one was the gin with the taste and what we thought of the actual liquid. The second round of scoring was based on the branding, bottle and back story.

Round 1 of gin judging

After being shown how to score the gin based on taste, mouthfeel, smell, clarity and mixabilty we dived straight in. Armed with a spitting device, we were told that we didn’t need to swallow the gin and should be able to taste and score just from swilling it around the mouth. The organisers were gin judges for a number of awards and said they sometimes go through over 100 gins in a day. Ok, that might be a challenge even for me, but 30, I’m sure I’ll be fine I thought.

 

Peoples drink awards gin judging sheet

 

We weren’t served full shots anyway, just tasters of about 1/4 of a shot. Also at our disposal were bottles of tonic to open up the flavours after the initial neat taste of the liquid and plain crackers to help neutralise the taste in our mouth between gins.

The pace was fast, with the first 6 coming in quick succession. We were sat with a couple from Brighton who we got on really well with and discussed what we thought of the gin’s and what we could taste. As fast as we could taste and decide on a score for each of the scoring area’s another one or another two gin’s appeared from nowhere.

After getting to about half way through and swallowing basically everything in sight, I started to get a head on and it started to hit me. Luckily we had a short 15 minute break in between to save my legs from going underneath me when we broke for the first part. After the quick pause in the sprint through the 30 gin’s, it was back at it at full speed.

 

 

The majority of the gin’s presented to us were more than palatable, there were only a handful of less desirable and one just downright nasty that came in a rose tinted colour. I swear it wasn’t just my distaste for fake pink gin, none of the table enjoyed it.

I was quite surprised how quickly a table of 4 would smash through a packet of plain crackers too. By the last 5 we were on 3mm x 3mm crumb ration each, but we all made it to the finishing line in one piece.

Breaking for lunch after the tasting was a very good idea to help soak up the juniper laced spirit and of course I noticed the pie, mash and jellied eels old school cafe on the trek from the underground to the venue.

 

 

Full up on meat pies, mash potato and liquor, I was ready to take on the second round of judging head on. Back at the venue, I only then realised they had none other than a Tiny Rebel tap take over going on. Well i’ll be damned! You can take the boy out of Cardiff but… Pint please bar tender.

Round 2 of gin judging

Everyone was definitely a bit more chatty after the first round of scoring that’s for sure. Next we were handed 4 bottles at a time so we could look at the branding on the bottles and a blurb on each of the distilleries about their back story including who they were, how they started, unique selling point and a bit about some of the key botanicals.

Again it was a bit fast paced and we weren’t given too much time to read over the back story before swapping with other tables. We did notice that some distilleries had submitted several varieties of their gin, in hope of one of them winning.

 

Dublin City Gin

 

I was surprised having such a decent selection at home that we didn’t have more of the gin’s on show today. I had 3 of the masons gin’s but there was a new pear variety, which I was keen to try. I found flavour wise they were all quite high up on my scoring but for me on the day, my favourite gin was the Dublin City Gin.

We eventually found out that the nasty, chemical tasting and rose tinted gin was a new variety of one of our most popular Cardiff Gin Club pop up event gin’s. Bloom jasmine and rose. Uch a fi, sorry but I would not recommend that gin to anyone even if I’m not allowed to say. I cannot be held responsible for people wasting their money on that bunk.

 

Brighton Gin

 

After the scores were all handed in there was a kind of raffle going on, where one organiser would pick up a bottle of surplus gin and the other would call a name and we got to keep the bottle to take home. I could just see me coming home with that pink garbage but I was in luck. I got to take home last year’s winner, Brighton gin. Much to the dissatisfaction of my fellow table members who had travelled up from said town of the same name.

Llio also managed to bag a bottle of the sea side inspired Whitby gin and a half bottle of Shetland Reel Fire.

The Verdict

All in all, a very productive Saturday in work.  A bit longer than my normal 1.5 mile bike journey to work, but all worth it in the end. I loved the experience of judging the gin’s and it was great to be involved in helping to promote some of the very good craft gin coming onto the market at the moment. I’m not sure if the awards is going to happen again this year, but if it does then I’d recommend it to anyone. Just take an extra packet of crackers, in case you run out half way through like us.

Then it was off to taste some cakes from the a pastry chef, voted the best in the world Albert Adria at Hotel Cafe Royal, before lugging our haul of gin back to the motherland.

 

Nikka Whisky and Gin Tasting and Cocktail Judging at Lab22 Cardiff

The Nikka brand and distillery is responsible for my recent obsession with Japanese spirits and alcohol. It was the first Japanese whisky I tried and subsequently the only whisky that isn’t Welsh in my home bar with the entry but delicious level Nikka from the Barrel.

I’m not sure whether it’s the resemblance of the brand name to my actual name or the story of the founder Masataka Taketsuru. Taketsuru, born in Hiroshima to a family of sake producers. He rebelled against already written future as a sake producer, upped sticks and traveled to Scotland, not knowing a word of English, to learn the art of distilling.

With his new found skill in distilling Scotland’s most famous export after deep fried Mars bars, he returned to Japan. With a Scottish wife in tow, he went to work for the Japanese distillery Suntory, which is still one of the most famous to this day.

After creative differences, he decided to go it alone and setup his own distillery Nikka. You probably wouldn’t have guessed, but certain areas of Japan closely resemble the climate, humidity and altitude famed by the Scottish distilleries. These sorts of variables can have a huge impact to the final product and it’s taste.

Nikka Distillery has now been producing highly awarded as sought after Japanese Whisky from their distilleries all around Japan, using a variety of different techniques from pot stills, multi column Coffey Stills and they even still use coal fired stills on some of the batches.

Not only whisky, but Nikka have also more recently added white spirits to their arsenal in the form of gin and vodka. Using the Coffey still (not coffee) to produce the neutral grain spirit of vodka. They then use this base spirit, which is distilled with Japanese botanicals to create a spicy, citrus forward gin with the help of yuzu, amanatsu, kabosu, shikuwasa and the sansho pepper, which is a member of the sizchuan pepper.

They call this Nikka Coffey Gin. I’ve got a bottle of this in the house too, and it’s bloody lush!

Nikka Whisky, Gin and Vodka Tasting at Lab22

Luckily for me, Lab 22, one of my favourite Cardiff bars and the one where i’ve tried most of the Japanese whiskys I’ve sampled in my time, were having an industry tasting day with Nikka brand ambassador one afternoon recently. That was more than enough reason to book the afternoon off work for in my eyes.

We got to learn about the history of Nikka, the story of Masataka Taketsuru and how he grew his company over 50 years ago to be one of the most recognised Japanese Whisky brands on the planet.

Nikka Japanese whisky tasting in Cardiff

Then onto the most important part, tasting our way around the collection of Nikka spirits from blended, single cask, aged whisky to the recent coffey additions such as Nikka Coffey grain whisky, Malt whisky, Gin and Vodka.

I’d sampled a few drinks form the Nikka range lately, but there’s bloody loads of them, so I was more than happy to work my way through more of the back catalogue.

My favourite from the 8 varities we tried was between the Nikka Single malt Miyagikyo and the Taketsuru pure malt.

There weren’t any of the aged expresions, but I’m not suprised as the Japanese whisky drought that’s going on has sent them skyrocketing in price. I did manage to try the Nikka Taketsuru 17 year old recently at Pennyroyal mind. This is probably the last time as that is currently at £200 a bottle, so god knows how much the 21 year old is, and that’s bottle price so for a shot you’re looking £20+ no doubt.

Judging the Nikka cocktail competition

Nikka whisky and gin cocktail judging

Lab knows my love for Japanese Whisky and Gin, so asked me to judge for the Nikka cocktail comp after the tasting event. How could i refuse?

There were two heats to the comp with Japanese bar tendering skills in the form of hand carved ice to a stopwatch where they had a minute to carve a block of ice into a sphere to fit into a whisky tumbler.

Second heat was all about the drinks. Each bartender had to create a cocktail with at least 50ml of any of the Nikka products we sampled during the day, whether that was Nikka Whisky, Gin or Vodka. Scoring was based on taste, appearance and story.

Nikka whisky cocktail entry at lab22 Cardiff

I’ll be honest, I wish this was my full time paid job as I was in my oils. Luckily there was no need for any bandages in the first heat from rogue stabs of the ice with the ice pick but we had a right good laugh at the effort the guys put in on the first round.

For the cocktails, nearly every entrant used Nikka Whisky from Nikka from the barrel to Yoichi and Taketsuru Pure Malt. With only Alex, mixologist and owner of Penny Royal opting for a mix of Nikka Whisky and Gin in his cocktail.

There were some mesmerising back stories and props thrown into the performances from some and some damn fine cocktails to match, but there could only be one winner. That happened to be Alex who went for a mix of the Nikka gin and whisky, with a short and punchy number with added Japanese ice ball to add a little bit more flair to the drink.

Nikka gin cocktail winner

Alex walked away with an enviable bottle of something a bit special from Nikka and sadly wasn’t open to requests to share it with me. Oh well.

A big thanks to Lab22 for letting me join in the tasting and cocktail judging and a big thanks to Nathan from Nikka for giving me the low down on the history of the distillery, which I always find fascinating.

Mulled Negroni Recipe – Christmas Cocktail Ideas

I usually knock up a batch of mulled wine or cider for Christmas dinner every year but I fancied trying something different this year.

Seeing that I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for gin, I thought I’d try mulling some of the juniper based spirit. As gin usually comes with tonic, which isn’t exactly Christmassy on it’s own I decided to go with a twist on one of gin’s most famous classic cocktails, the Negroni.

Negroni is usually equal measures of gin, sweet vermouth, which is a a fortified red wine with added botanicals and herbs and Campari, a bitter orange Italian aperitif.

To me that’s basically a grown up mulled wine in the making and what I think would make the perfect Christmas cocktail. You could have this with dinner for the main event or for a welcome drink that could be knocked up in a batch, in a slow cooker and given to guests when they arrive.

I’ve gone for a couple of alternative mulling spices below, but you can work with what you’ve got for your mulled Negroni if you don’t have the ones below, or don’t like them.

Mulled negroni recipe ingredients

Mulled Negroni Recipe

  • 4 cardamom pods
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 clementine, leaves and all
  • 1 bottle of Fentimans ginger ale
  • 50ml gin (I used Edinburgh)
  • 50ml Campari
  • 50ml Sweet vermouth
  • 1 tonka bean
  • 5 cloves
  • Squeeze of honey to taste
  • Squeeze of clementine juice

 

Mulled negroni making

Instructions

  1. Add the cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and half the rind of a small clementine to a hot dry pan and toast for a few minutes to get a bit of a char and to start releasing some of the flavours.
  2. Turn the heat down to a low-medium heat than add the rest of the ingredients and 3 slices of the clementine.
  3. Warm in the pan slowly to get the flavours to impart but without burning off the alcohol.
  4. Put a tea strainer over a clear glass cup and pour half of the liquid in each of the cups. Garnish with a slice of clementine and stick of cinnamon from the pan.

You could leave to cool and serve with a wedge of ice, but it’s winter and there’s nothing better than a nice warm, boozy cup.

A Christmas Gin Gift List

I thought I’d make a gin hit list for anyone looking for the best gin to buy for Christmas this year, whether you’re looking to purchase some new and exciting gin for your home bar or for a gin lover in your life, they would make the ideal gift this year.

My Christmas gin list includes gin’s I’ve got at home, some I’ve tried and loved on my travels and ones that I need in my life, like right now!

There’s gin’s close to home in the UK,more exotic ones like the Persian peach and from around the world including my favourite Japanese distillery Nikka, Scapegrace Gold from New Zealand, gin spiked or aged in with wine and barrels from Four Pillars.

That Boutiquey- Gin Company also do the craziest concoctions out there too. I’ve even got to bottle a blend of my own recently with them too at The Dead Canary in Cardiff.

The gin list will be growing as and when I find new epic gins that are worthy of the gin hit list, so if none of them take your fancy now, pop back in a little while to find some more.

I’ve not only added gin though, I’ve got a few items I have in my home bar for making some classic gin cocktails such as bitters and vermouths for Martini’s, Maraschino for Aviation’s and Chartreuse for The Last Word cocktail. Oh and a few recommendations such as the large ice mould’s that come in handy for Negroni’s and Old Fashioned’s (although not gin, but bloody good none the less)

Take a look at my ultimate gin gift list for Christmas. (Please note that gin is for life and not just for Christmas, unless you’ve drunk it all, in that case you will need another form the attached list)

Take a look at my ultimate Christmas Gin Gift List