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Below is an excerpt from the October 2015 edition of GINNED! Magazine about Blue Bottle Gin from Guernsey. Every month, Craft Gin Club Members receive a bottle of amazing small-batch gins and gin complements accompanied by GINNED! Magazine which is full of information about the gin, the distillery and loads of fascinating features.
Remember science class at school? The Periodic Table of Elements. The Bunsen burners. The posters of the solar system. Think a bit more and you’ll recall the microscope - that complex looking contraption scientists use to watch wee worlds - and its accompanying glass slides with the concave indent, the drop of solution teeming with Lilliputian life, the thin cover slip securing the solution.
Now, do you remember what you saw? You’re likely cringing as you think, “I see school work”, all those meticulous notes of what you observed jotted down for teacher assessment and exam studies. We certainly empathise with you!
But others see something we laymen and women wouldn’t normally find in the microscope lens: they see beauty.
Cells that beget cells. Bacterium gobbling nutrients. Carefully stacked, chlorophyll-hued plant cell walls. Beauty abounds in the building blocks of life! And beauty, as Blue Bottle Gin’s Master Distiller Matt Polli will tell you, can be found where you’d least expect it - even in bugs.
Look for beauty everywhere
In the run up to his PhD and post-doc studies in hematopoiesis (the formation of blood cell components from stem cells), Matt spent a summer at Cambridge University on a Royal Society internship studying bugs, specifically flies, and even more specifically, blue bottle flies. Under the microscope, he found the indigo wings of these household nuisances to shimmer intricate patterns of iridescence unique to the majesty of nature, patterns that people peeved by the pest do not perceive.
The beauty he found in closeup visions of the blue bottle fly led Matt to choose the name of his gin, a name that quickly became a double entendre as the bottle selected to house the gin is, like the fly, a beautiful blue. The bug’s beauty also directly influenced his choice of slogan for the isle of Guernsey’s first gin: “Look for beauty everywhere.”
Whereas Matt once found beauty in flies and blood cells, he found his passion in brewing. After leaving the world of academia behind and completing a Masters degree in Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, he cut his teeth Down Under at Australia’s second largest brewer, Lion Nathan, where he helped, amongst other tasks, to develop new products.
On his return from Oz, Matt ended up back in his native Guernsey, brewing up new recipes for one of its oldest companies, Randall’s. Founded in 1868, Randall’s is a Guernsey institution that has held a number of businesses with brewing always at its heart. Matt was brought on to modernise and expand the company’s brewing operations after the Randall family sold it to a group of private investors in 2006. Since then, Matt has come up with a number of recipes for ales and beers now produced by the 60-hectolitre facility and has also become the primary brewer of a renowned lager, Breda, originally made by a brewery in the Dutch town of the same name. In 2013, Matt’s Breda won a silver medal at the International Brewing Awards, also known as the “Oscars of Brewing.”
You may consider spirits harder than beer because of their alcohol content, but Matt would disagree - distilling spirits proves much easier than brewing beer. One of the key ingredients in beer is yeast, a living organism that essentially controls the fermentation process, creating the alcohol and the brew’s flavours. “If you don’t watch after the yeast, brewing can go horribly wrong,” explains Matt. “In distilling you can have complete control, especially when distilling gin. You decide which botanicals go in and the distillation process that will work best with those botanicals.”
Distilling proves a much faster process as well, especially when compared to the brewing process for lager, a German word that means “storeroom” which refers to the fact that the style of beer must be stored. Randall’s Breda lager, for instance, takes five weeks to ferment and mature whereas Matt can turn around an ale in about five days.
Technically, one could make gin in a matter of hours, but Blue Bottle settles in stainless steel for three weeks before bottling. According to Matt, “There’s some alchemy in storing the gin that I don’t completely understand. The flavours blend and develop much better in those tanks, not unlike a stew which usually tastes better the day after it’s made.”
Three fingers of gin
He learned some of this alchemy when researching gin before the establishment of the Three Fingers Distillery, the outfit that Randall’s investors helped fund as a logical expansion of the brewery. On a one-litre still, Matt tested the distilled qualities of 35 individual botanicals, immediately eliminating 15 of those and modifying the combinations and quantities of the remaining 20 to find the ultimate recipe for Three Fingers’ first spirit.
Although he finds distilling more straightforward than brewing, Matt still admits that finding the right percentages with his botanicals was the tricky part: “When you know the flavours of the individual botanicals before they’re distilled, they come out pretty much exactly how you would expect after distillation. But when blended, those distillates change. For instance, strong tasting botanicals can lose their forcefulness mixed amongst others.”
Blue Bottle’s recipe evolved as the individual distillates meshed into one spirit. What started as a concept to put citrus notes up front and scale back on the coriander seed element became just the opposite. The integration of locally-sourced gorse flowers - which Matt uses sparingly so as not to overpower other notes - add a rich, coconut vanilla aroma During the exploratory process, however, the Master Distiller always maintained juniper as the primary flavour, a flavour that came through most in what he describes as a “complex gin with a clean flavour.” “Really,” said Matt, “I just wanted to make a gin that I wanted to go out and drink.”
With the recipe ready, Matt scaled it up for the 500-litre still the distillery imported from Germany, a still he first saw at another Craft Gin Club Gin of the Month partner, the Warner Edwards Distillery. The copper pot still is heated by a steam jacket which Matt explains has a slight advantage over a bain marie-style heating system as it’s quicker to change temperatures. The Three Fingers Distillery’s still - which remains unnamed - allows for a lot of flexibility in the types of spirits distilled and Matt plans to make several such as brandy (the apples on the island and in neighbouring Normandy come to mind for Calvados-style brandies).
Chances are, the next spirits Matt has in mind will enjoy the same success Blue Bottle has when put under the microscope by experts around the world: Blue Botte Gin won the blue ribbon equivalent - a Gold Medal - at the prestigious San Francisco Spirits Competition this year. We’re certain that as you scrutinize Guernsey’s first gin under the microscope of your taste buds, dear Craft Gin Club Members, that you too will agree with the judges: Blue Bottle Gin has set the standard for beautiful gins everywhere.