Monthly Archives: March 2018

Civilization distilled – Bristol Method Gin

‘Civilization’, said the American novelist, William Faulkner, ‘is distillation’. His own contribution to distillation was the brewing of bathtub gin during Prohibition – raw spirit smuggled in from Cuba cut with juniper essence but we will pass rapidly on from that.


William Faulkner, novelist and gin maker

Although the term gin first came into use in the early eighteenth century in Britain, it had a long antecedent history in the ‘geneva’ (named after juniper rather than the Swiss city) of the Low Countries. As Bernard Mandeville eloquently put it in 1714, gin was:

the infamous Liquor, the name of which derived from juniper berries in Dutch, is now by frequent use and the Laconick spirit of the nation, from a word of middling length shrunk into a Monosyllable.

To reinforce its infamy, Mandeville added a concise but far from cheerful description:

Intoxicating Gin, that charms the unactive, the desperate, and crazy of either Sex […] It is a fiery Lake that sets the Brain in flame, burns up the Entrails, and scorches every Part within; and at the same time a Lethe of Oblivion, in which the Wretch immers’d drowns his most pinching Cares.’

In other words, it was probably pretty similar to Faulkner’s bathtub gin – and to the drink of the ‘Gin Craze’ of eighteenth-century London (as depicted by Hogarth), which was cut with turpentine, vitriol and other noxious substances.

Hogarth gin lane_210318

Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ – courtesy of

In the unprohibited British market, gin started to improve towards the end of the 1830s with Aeneas Coffey’s refinement of the continuous still. This produced a clearer, purer spirit with far fewer impurities. The only problem was that, as William Loftus’s 1850 Mixing and Reducing Book for the Use of Publicans makes abundantly clear, the spirit that came out of the still underwent a fair amount of, shall we say, ‘further work’ in the interests of both customers’ tastes and publicans’ profits.

Though Loftus claimed that ‘purity and wholesomeness have come to be regarded as of high importance’ he also noted that ‘coarse and injurious stuff is still consumed in many quarters’. His survey of 24 London pubs suggested that the alcohol content ranged from 14 to 61 ‘under proof’. Full proof gin we now know as 100% proof. That was the Navy standard, so that if you spilled gin on the gunpowder it would still explode. The sugar content in the gins sampled by Loftus ranged from entirely unsweetened to a sugar content of over 13 ozs per gallon. Those with low alcohol content had, he suggested, almost certainly been cut with the addition of Cayenne pepper to mimic the burn of higher alcohol.

Cayenne pepper was not one of Loftus’ recommended flavourings (though ‘chilies’ were). His taste ran to the classic botanicals, but he also pointed to the considerable differences between the ‘palates’ of the different gins. The difference, he said, ‘between Liverpool and Bristol gin, or between that prepared at Bristol and at Plymouth is as remarkable as the difference between Dublin and London stout, or Scotch and Irish malt whiskey’.

It’s noticeable that Bristol – in both these comparisons – is the odd one out. What was Bristol gin and how did it differ from standard gin?

We now have an answer. And it’s not just a report from an old text but a real drink. Michael Palij MW has turned from wine to gin and recreated Bristol gin from ingredients lists and a recipe found in the Bristol archives. In most gins the botanicals (flavourings such as juniper, orris root, angelica, orange peel and so on) are macerated or distilled together with the consequence that the flavours blend together. In Bristol gin they are not only distilled separately but distilled only when each is in season, giving fresher and more distinctive flavours. The botanicals – including Tuscan juniper and hand-cut Valencia oranges – that go into Smeaton’s Bristol Method Dry Gin are individually distilled in traditional copper pot stills.

Smeatons gin

Smeaton’s Bristol Method Dry Gin

Smeaton's recipe_210318

Smeaton’s – the recipe and the botanicals

Dry Gin, by the way, was the taste of the upper classes. The poorer the district the more sugar in the recipe. In the Victorian view of the world to appreciate dry champagne you had to start early and drink often. Was the same true of gin? Well yes, according to Loftus. Only the ‘respectable and monied classes’ preferred dry gin. Perhaps they too started young and drank often.


The battle of the bubbles: Prosecco (It) v Prosecco (Aus)

In 2009, the Italian Consorzio renamed the grape used to make Prosecco. It used to be just ‘Prosecco’; it became ‘Glera’. This name – probably of Slovenian origin (like the wine itself) – was adopted by the Italians as a protective ploy. By changing the grape name, the Italians freed up ‘Prosecco’ to become a Geographical Indicator (or GI). GIs are protected under European law and by changing its status Prosecco was trying to emulate Champagne (which is rigorously protected around the world).

But the Italian Consorzio had not reckoned with the Australia in general and Australian-Italians in particular. The Prosecco grape (as it was then known) had become established and commercially successful in the King Valley to the north-east of Melbourne around the turn of the century.

King Valley_Tacitus

The Alpine landscape of the King Valley, courtesy of Tacitus

The wonderfully named Otto Dal Zotto was the first mover and though to begin with the family spent most of their time explaining just what it was and where it came from, that’s far from the case today. The Australian market is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and Dal Zotto is now the market leader among the many producers on Australia’s ‘Prosecco Road’ who are determined to keep Prosecco in the Australian market. (It should perhaps be noted that the Italians had a ‘Strada del Prosecco’ in 1966…)

Dal Zotto cellar door

The Dal Zotto cellar door

A first attempt by the Italians was fought off in 2013 when the Australian Trade Mark registry refused to consider the Italians’ application for GI registration. The Registrar cited the worldwide confusion over Prosecco (a grape or a style of wine), the long-term use of the Prosecco name as a grape variety since 1994 and the fact that registering the Prosecco GI would mean that Australians could no longer use the name Prosecco as the name of a grape variety.

Australian Prosecco is hard to come by in the UK. The Dal Zotto family’s ‘Pucino Col Fondo’ is available here through Red Squirrel Wine ( and I tried a bottle last week. Bottled under a crown cap, it’s a cloudy lemon yellow with a lemon cheesecake nose and a beautifully bitter finish. Very good indeed!


Dal Zotto Pucino Col Fondo – note absence of ‘Prosecco’ on the label

The name ‘Pucino Col Fondo’ has historical resonances of its own. Pliny the Elder, writing in AD 77 or thereabouts, recorded that the wine of ‘Pucinum’ that was produced near the Adriatic in the province of Friuli was the finest available for ‘medicinal purposes’.

Image result for pliny the elder natural history

Pliny the Elder, courtesy of AJS Gems

Livia Augusta, the wife of the Emperor Augustus, apparently ‘attributed her longevity’ to this wine. That wine was probably not sparkling. It’s only in the mid nineteenth century that the first claims for sparkling Prosecco surface in Italy though the wine was well known for centuries before that date.

‘Col Fondo’ takes us back to the sparkling origins of prosecco. Prosecco is made by the tank method – rather than in bottle fermentation like Champagne – and the Dal Zotto wine is bottled without filtering out the lees that drift to the bottle of the fermentation tank. Hence the cloudy appearance. It slowly settles out in the glass with time.

The battle over grape names is not confined to Prosecco. The GI battle over Prosecco is about to be re-fought in Australia. The Croatian dessert wine known as ‘Prosek’ has already gone under; Australian winemakers can’t use the Prosecco name on wines sold in the UK.


Can Prosek survive an attack of Prosecco?

There are Australian fears that if Prosecco is prohibited as a name for wine in Australia then others will follow. Moscato perhaps. Watch this space … and, if you get a chance, whether in the UK or in Australia, do try the King Valley wines. They’re very good.