In the midst of that general stress that always seems to gather just before Christmas as a strange parallel to the holiday anticipation, it was a great pleasure to see this bottle slip through the letterbox. The Portobello Road Distillery Special Reserve 101, to give it its full name, is an interesting bundle of ideas smoothed out and executed as a celebration of Portobello Road Distillery’s first decade, and an object lesson in what they’ve learnt.
The concept behind the bottle is that, while strictly adhering to the regulations that define what spirits can be called “London Dry Gin”, this anniversary edition tweaks, subverts or otherwise toys with the drinker’s expectations of the style. The distillers have switched from their usual wheat base spirit to a potato-derived one. Where aging the gin in wood is disallowed as it would add colour or flavour, nothing is said about the preceding base spirit, so onto some oak it goes. The botanicals are both larger in quantity and infused for longer. A narrower section of the distillate is kept than for their standard gin. Finally and – for me – most unexpectedly, they’ve taken the stipulation that only spirit and water can be added post-distillation rather laterally, going with the famously mineralised Vichy Catalan water to cut it down to 50.5% abv (your “101 proof” in the USA, hence the name). Given how critical water composition is in brewing, I really wanted to see what would carry through here.
It comes under that familiar etching-styled label in a very pleasing restrained grey glass bottle, which has nothing to do with the drink within, but I hope they stick with. Ahem, anyhow – on the nose, there’s a big initial whack, with lots of juniper, then citrus oils and after that a warm spiciness growing out. At the end, hints of a flinty minerality, almost gunpowder-like, pokes up. Sipped neat, that 50.5% ABV makes itself felt, but very much in combination with an impressively full mouthfeel, and smooth for the strength. As with the nose, you get layered juniper in profusion, the citrus resolving first lemon and then a slightly sweeter orange note, the spices show more nutmeg and a touch of vanilla. That minerality intertwines lightly peppery amongst the prickle of the alcohol as the finish runs on and on, settling down to a slightly saline twinge. As this all suggests, there’s a great intensity to the Special Reserve, but it’s focused and balanced, with the unexpected elements still harmonious. As odd as minerality and salinity on the tasting notes might sound, both lend themselves to an excellent Dry Martini. Also, you’re unlikely to be buying this bottle to drink it neat.
To digress rather from “what is it, how does it taste”, this is a perfect example of a release that does a few different things at once and will likely be received by the interested public in varying ways because of that. It is, primarily, a very well-made gin – with the higher ABV lending a strong platform for a delightful mix of the familiar and the unexpected. Secondly, for those who are fond of the distillery, you’ve got a handsome (and drinkable!) memento of Portobello marking a decade, which is not an achievement to be taken for granted. Thirdly, you’ve the thrill of novelty and invention in a category that, while it’s seen a recent explosion of choice, is necessarily fairly conservative if it wants to remain recognisably a London Dry. All of that is to say that this is a gin with a beautiful continuity and yet still catches you on the hop. It feels almost too good for a G&T, but still makes one marvellously. I don’t have any Antica Formula to hand, much to my shame, but this feels like the exception that proves the rule regarding my prejudice that it’s too robust a vermouth for Negroni. And, obviously, it makes for an outrageously up-front Martini. On that note, I might go and knock another one together…