I was reading David Driscoll’s blog one evening, and came upon a reference to the world’s oldest gin recipe.
Then I sent David an email “We’re fucking doing this.” And so, it started.
Looking up Tristan Stephenson’s excellent book, The Curious Bartender’s Gin Palace, and reading the original full reference quote;
“In 1495, a wealthy merchant from a region known as the Duchy of Guelders (now part of the Netherlands, near Arnhem*) decided it would be a good idea to have a book written for him. Being a household guide, the book documented some of the lavish recipes he and his family were enjoying at the time. Included was a brandy recipe made from ‘10 quarts of wine thinned with clear Hamburg beer.’ After distillation, the liquid would be redistilled with ‘two handfuls of dried sage, 1Lb of cloves, 12 whole nutmegs, cardamom, cinnamon, galangal, ginger, grains of paradise’ and – crucially – ‘juniper berries.’ The spices were placed in a cloth sack and suspended above the distillate, allowing the vapors, to extract their flavor. Grinding diamonds over white truffle is as close a comparison as I can imagine to expressing the extravagance of such a recipe during that period. It’s for this reason that it’s highly unlikely that the drink was intended for anything other than sinful pleasures.”
* The Duchy Of Guelders, named for the town of Geldern (now in present day Germany) sits at a historically fluid confluence with much territory interchanging constantly through war, marriage of convenience, alliances and such. Our (very) amateur historical archival research (AKA Wikipedia & Google) suggests that Guelders in 1495 sat within what we now know as Germany.
So why would we want to distill the world’s oldest gin recipe?
We like to do cool shit. We are inveterate explorers, with curious hearts and wandering minds (maybe too much of the latter).
We love distilling. We like distilling gin. We make great double-distilled gins with a brandy base, using no neutral spirits, chill-filtration or post-distillation addition of flavors or essences. Conceptually this was well within our wheelhouse.
But we also distill a lot of finished craft beer under our Brewskey™ platform (whisky from brews), so now not only were we in the game, but we could get some big-time playing minutes too.
We read about the excellent Gin1495 project with Phillip Duff, Dave Wondrich, Dave Broom and gaz regan completed in 2015.
This post about Gin1495 has some interesting Tasting Notes and individual product detail.
Our ambition was to be as close to the described recipe as we could be without torturing ourselves to death over unknown minutiae. We were going to do our best, and do our best to make a delicious gin true to the spirit of the recipe.
We started by trying to investigate what a “clear Hamburg beer” from 1495 would be. Our research suggested that the beer style, Mumme, a malty wheat beer aromatized with herbs was the most likely candidate with appropriate regional provenance and medieval heritage.
We went to our friends at the Monnik Beer Co. to reconstruct a medieval beer, and use that Mumme as the beer for the base low wine/ beer to distill.
The beer is NOT “clear”! Malty, caramel, wheaty, dark brown ale. Which was fine by us. We think that what they called clear was probably relative ….
Anyway for those interested in the detail; Horst Dornbusch’s account is of a fairly simple, though big, hopped, sweet, brown ale. Other accounts of Mumme indicate something similar but more of a pre-hop era gruit with a bunch of odd botanicals for flavor using an unusual malt bill, with an enormous amount of grain. So the beer style we are likely more stylistically in tune with is a Keut (or Koyt), not a 100% true Mumme ale.
385 lbs | Pale Malt (2 Row) (2.0 SRM) | Grain | 43.8 %
220 lbs | Carawheat (Weyermann) (50.0 SRM) | Grain | 25.0 %
110 lbs | Munich 2 (9.0 SRM) | Grain | 12.5 %
55 lbs | Brown Malt (65.0 SRM) | Grain | 6.3 %
55 lbs | Oats, Golden Naked (Simpsons) (10.0 SRM) | Grain | 6.3 %
55 lbs | Special W (115.0 SRM) | Grain | 6.3 %
32.0 oz | Challenger [7.50 %] – Boil 60.0 min | Hops | 17.2 IBUs
The brandy low-wine (first distillation – the “stripping” concentration run) is our classic Muscat/Colombard/Chenin Blanc blend. So likely not the obvious Riesling, or even Muller-Thurgaü, although Muscat is an official legislated varietal in Gelderland (Guelders), so we will hang our hat on that…)
We did two 50 Gallon pilot distillations on Sara.
The first with a 60/40 low-wine to beer ratio and a pretty literal interpretation of the recipe to hand, as we could understand and translate it, including a pretty short maceration (winging it on that one – we felt that the original distillers probably didn’t interrogate distillation as heavily as we do, and put stuff in the pot, heated and stirred for a few hours then boiled up and started distilling).
3-hour maceration @ 140 degrees Fahrenheit, in Low Wine @ 82 proof and Beer @ 7.5 % ABV.
Way too much clove and cinnamon. Light on Nutmeg/Cardamom. Juniper and Sage pretty balanced. Ginger and Galangal probably needed more maceration and base wine/beer contact.
This came out OK. Not malty enough, and the clove & cinnamon too over-bearing and dominant. Strong essence of pine, nutmeg riding on the back end. But underneath that, sat a lovely, soft and silky gin, and an obvious gin. But overall quite medicinal, overtly Christmassy, almost designed for hot-toddies, and whilst interesting a little raw, not something we wanted to bottle.
With the second pilot, we evened out the low-wine/beer ratio to 50/50 and backed off the clove & cinnamon.
We lengthened the maceration in the pot-still to 18 hours at 140F.
This also came out OK. But not very distinctive, kind of a bit too familiar and not that transcendent. Still very soft and silky, and quite bright, although it slightly disappeared in the mid-palate.
But it felt out of place with the concept that we were trying to interpret. The spirit need a few rough edges, a little more of an earthy vocabulary and sensibility. Something less polished in terms of tonality. We felt that we had lost the savory aspects too much, too light on the clove in particular, but also the cinnamon.
That’s why you do pilots. To learn stuff. To make mistakes.
There’s no show unless you go. We moved to a full distillation on Magadalena our 750 gallon potstill for a full blown distillation.
18 hour maceration at 140F.
50/50 low wine/beer split.
Low wine at 82 proof, and beer at 7.5% ABV.
VERY INTERESTING distillation. Very layered with flavors coming over more, or less in singularity, one at a time.
Extremely oily, almost lava lamp oils coming over with condensation. The spirit went completely white, louching at 96 proof (which still tasted and smelled delicious). Took the tails cut at 96 proof.
The spirit is savory and earthy, very soft and pleasant. Overt clove & cinnamon, but in (relative) balance. Piney, savory clove and sage, nutmeg. Quite “spearminty” – a little front end tingle on tongue and lips. Cinammon more balanced and less in your face.
We don’t see this as a barrel aged spirit, but that storage was very likely to have been in an oak barrel of some sort. We don’t envisage a lot of time in the barrel.
But we did put in barrels to “store” it pre-bottling.
We combined Pilot 1 and Pilot 2 in to one ex- Wild Turkey Bourbon barrel. 40 gallons at 126 Proof. A little less than our typical batch proof ceiling, and typical barrel entry proof, of +/-135 Proof.
We then filled 3 ex Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrels with the hearts of the master distillation – 40 gallons in each 53 Gallon barrel.
We also felt that distilling process in 1495 would probably not have been as refined as today, and that the Heads, Hearts and Tails cut regimen was likely not as rigorous. So we took the “Hearts” of the Tails and used that to top up the barrels to full volume.
We had cut off distillation during the Tails cut early as the aroma was becoming not that pleasant, and the flavor not very palatable. Milky in color, and soupy in character. The “hearts” of the tails were however, actually very nice.
Final barrel entry proof is 121 Proof.
One of the more striking spirit characteristics is that it louches on impact with water, almost absinthe in nature. It’s beautiful actually.
Proofing is going to be complex, saponification is pretty much guaranteed with such an oily spirit. But that’s part of the charm and sense of discovery.
We are bottling at 94 Proof. We are not sure how high distillation proof levels were reached in 1495 with what we assume were rudimentary tools, but also the gin is delicious at this proof, with a lot of sharp edges smoothed off, and the botanicals shine brightly.
We enjoyed this. It is an adventure. And makes this job so worthwhile.
For more images visit this dropbox link.