As the end, or the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning (depending on your outlook and/or weakness for overused Churchillianisms) of covid distancing measures hoves into view, I had the pleasure of being invited to attend a Zoom tasting of some of Portobello Road’s range of gins and pre-mixes.
Whilst the invite had a little apology for the continued necessity of video conferencing, it was an interesting and efficient sixty-minute tour led by their co-founder and general gin authority, Jake F. Burger. We had a very pleasant potted history of gin through the ages: its development as a British take on genever, the spirit of the Low Countries; the ignoble history of adulterants in gin’s early days; the gin craze and attendant moral panic; Old Tom’s rise to pre-eminence and then displacement by London Dry; the concomitant commercial ascendancy of column stills that allowed for lighter, cleaner and cheaper distillate than pot stills can achieve; the grand old distilleries known worldwide and recorded by Dickens, amongst others.
Still, this was a tasting, not a historical lecture, so we were happily encouraged to try some of Portobello’s offerings as we went. They wanted to highlight some new entrants to their bottled range, as well as their foray into the canned ready-to-drink market. As such, we started on their tinned G&T – possibly properly called the Portobello Road Gin and Franklin & Sons Tonic Ready To Drink Can – this is your classic Gin and Tonic, and hits the spot nicely. Clean, with everything balanced nicely, and avoiding over-sweetness. I would be very happy if every G&T premix available tasted this good.
Next up was their Old Tom, which is the only one I’m aware of having tasted that’s actually built on a pot-distilled spirit base. I may be doing other brands a disservice, but I’ve definitely had a few that are at heart just a sweeter version of their London Dry. Putting aside a discussion of authenticity that will be of limited interest to nearly anyone who isn’t me, let’s actually talk about what it’s like:
A clear spirit in the glass, though there’s a hint of yellow if you look for it. The nose is fuller and sweeter than a London Dry, with a delicate malt air and liquorice root pairing nicely with some emphatic juniper. Portobello Road describe it as having spent some time in a very old sherry barrel, and while there’s a hint of vanilla, this isn’t a barrel aging to look to for the character of the cask’s previous occupant. At 47% abv, this is a punchy spirit, but well-balanced for it, the body, botanicals and sweetness keeping that booze from overwhelming. Having been parsimonious with my tot at the tasting, I should have enough left to make a small Ampersand or a Martinez, both of which I’ve been eager to compare with the advantage of the heft and depth of an Old Tom. As and when I get myself a proper bottle, I’d love to see whether using in place of London Dry might be a bridge of sorts between a classic Negroni and fuller, sweeter edge a Boulevardier gets from bourbon.
Their flagship, the Portobello Road Gin London Dry No. 171, to give it its full and proper name, was up next. As hinted at by the premix, this is a pretty classic take on London Dry, underpinned by a smooth clean spirit base, utilising coriander seed to good effect and letting the citrus and peppery elements out without it ever ceasing to be juniper-forward. Hard to fault it at all, this would do sterling service as a go-to London Dry.
Lastly, we tried their Sloeberry & Blackcurrant Gin. A liqueur at 28% abv, Portobello Road have looked a little more widely for this, and the sloes, while still at the heart of this, are joined by a little crème de cassis and cherry liqueur. It’s a rich red in the glass, and the nose is delightful, giving you the fruity plum notes of the sloe, with almond from their kernels accentuating the cherry and a little sharp sweetness from the blackcurrant, whilst a suitably gin-y juniper note remains present all through. It drinks exactly how you’d hope from the aroma – layered fruits, lovely almond notes, a jammy sweetness, structure from a bit of acidity, and botanical elements standing up in the mix. Like the Old Tom, it gets some time aging on wood and, again, the effect this imparts is fairly subtle, but there is a little depth gained. I feel that blending sloe gin with cherry liqueur and cassis is cheating somehow, but at the same time, you really can’t argue with the results.
To go with the liqueur is a premix utilising it. Rather than a straight highball, this a canned spritz, with prosecco and Fever Tree’s Blood Orange soda. Like the G&T, this does exactly what you’d hope – the fruitiness of the liqueur gains a peachy dimension with the addition of the prosecco, and the blood orange adds interest without dominating. At 10% abv, it’s where you’d expect the alcohol levels to fall if you made this yourself. A lovely alternative for a summer picnic.