It was perhaps the most hipster-ish location and occasion I have ever attended, in Tobacco Docks in East London, with bare brick archways, tables made from reclaimed pallets, and not a clean-shaven man in sight.
It also had a LOT of gin. And I'm not talking about any run-of-the-mill gin here. I'm not even talking about Slightly Posh Gin here. You can forget your Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire and Hendricks. You can even forget my gorgeously pretentious Christmas gin. These were gins that were seriously small-batch, artisanal, hipster-heaven. There were gins with honey, gins with lavender, gins with quince, with strawberries, with liquorice, with wormwood, with salt, with oranges, with sloes. There was a man who'd started his own distillery 8 months ago after being caught by his boss bringing his home-distilled experiments to work for his colleagues to try. Fortunately he worked in a brewery and his boss saw this as a new market to explore, and not dangerously intoxicated employees loose on the shop floor.
At the entrance to the tasting rooms, there were piles of tasting cards - one per distillery often, rather than one per gin. A nice picture of the bottle on one side, and some notes on the back. We each picked up a deck of cards, and I slid mine into my back left pocket. As I tried a gin, I'd find the card and slip it into my back right pocket.
Before you become horrified at how many gins I tried, I should point out that... some of those distilleries offered more than one gin, and I did indeed try them. Twenty-two in all. I think. Now you can be horrified.
If you want to be really impressed, you should see how many I didn't try:
Perhaps one of the most entertaining aspects (and there were many - after the first 10 gins, most things were entertaining) was the delightful range of national stereotypes exhibited...
- there was a Swiss distillery, offering four different gins. And the lady in charge made us line up and hold our glasses out in a row. We were only allowed to try the gins in the correct order and only after we'd listened to what she had to tell us first.
- there was a Swedish distillery, also offering four different gins. The man in charge there just poured four glasses and let us try them in whichever order we wanted, adding tonic when we wanted, not when we were instructed it was permissible.
- there was a Spanish distillery, whose representative couldn't understand why anyone would want to add tonic to perfectly good gin, and who admitted they only sold their gin from one shop in Cardiff.
- there was a British distillery, proud of the fact that their new gin is being aged in wood taken from the HMS Victory. That's right, the British are taking artefacts from one of the most important ships of our entire naval history and using it to make booze.
Rather as you'd expect from a tasting of a huge range of drinks, there were some that I thought were glorious, and some that I wouldn't touch with a barge-pole. Salted, smoked gin is definitely Not My Thing. I also got a bit tired of the number of gins which were trying to lob extra, and strange, flavours in to make them stand out from the crowd. There's a reason juniper is the dominant flavour in gin. It's because it's gin. So please leave the honey at home, and the dodgy fruits, and (for me) the lavender. At the other end of the spectrum, there were a lot of competent, general-purpose gins. They tasted of gin. They were smooth and unsurprising. And they probably suffered from being compared to so many other gins. Each one alone would probably have been a delight, and a drink to wallow in, had it not been standing in comparison to a dozen others, just as good.
I did discover further ramifications on my peculiarly malfunctioning sense of smell. Despite the fact that I have witnessed a return of my ability to detect my son's flatulence by aroma alone, my sense of smell is clearly still deficient. For example, while others ooohed and aahed over heady aromas and subtle bouquets, I was limited to the more pungent ingredients when breathing deeply from the neck of the glass. There was at least one gin that smelled like little more than rubbing alcohol to me*. And, in my bête noire, I couldn't smell the lavender at all. But when I tasted it? The more subtle flavours exploded and caught me by surprise. It was most disconcerting. And I really didn't like the lavender.
I returned home calm, mellow and relaxed. And it wasn't just the gin. Having an hour on the train in each direction to drink a cup of tea and read my book was almost as big a treat.
And then LittleBear was scared of Unspecified Things in the night, and after an hour spent trying to persuade him that his room and his bed really were a lovely place to sleep, I ended up with a small body pressed against me in my bed, had rather too few hours sleep, and spent Monday exhausted and crabby. So much for a restorative day out...
* And it didn't taste much better. But then, it was the twenty-first gin I tried and my palate was a little, shall we say, weary, by then.