Navy Gin Tasting for Trafalgar Day

As part of my recent trip to New York, I arranged a Navy Strength Gin tasting, which was kindly hosted by New York Distilling. Upon our return to the UK, we decided to hold a second tasting in London, which also coincided with the UK launch of FEW Spirits by Ginuine Spirits.

The Navy Gin Tasting in New York (note Master of Malt had not yet released theirs at this time)

Navy Strength Gin dates back to the days of Empire and British naval superiority. At this time, gin for ships (the drink of naval officers) was bottled at 100 Proof (on a scale developed using the Bartholomew Sikes hydrometer), which is the modern equivalent of 57%ABV.* At this strength, if the gin was spilt on gunpowder (they were often stored together), the powder would still ignite.

In the 19th Century, Plymouth was home to Britain’s naval fleet and the distillery on the quayside (Blackfriars Distillery, the modern home of Plymouth Gin) was the supplier for much of the fleet. Subsequently, for many years, Plymouth Gin 100 Proof was made on and off, as required.

When Plymouth 100 Proof became a permanent feature of the distillery’s portfolio in 1993, the term “Navy Strength” was used over “100 Proof” as it was easier to understand and more clearly illustrated that the gin was stronger. It also seems a particularly fitting title, given the distillery’s historic naval connections.

The (Blind) Tasting at Graphic Bar in London

Fast forward to 2010 and the start of the current gin boom. The global availability of Plymouth Navy Strength was limited and US demand for stronger gin led to some distillers coming up with their own varieties of Navy Strength Gin.

So what’s the current definition of Navy Strength Gin?

Navy Strength Gin = Gin at 100 Proof (57-58%ABV)

Anything below this strength is “under-proof”, whilst anything above is “over-proof”. Thus, gins such as Old Raj Blue (55%ABV) and Finsbury 60 and Blackwoods 60 (both of which are bottled at 60%ABV) are not Navy Strength Gins.**

All of the gins that we tasted were 57%ABV and were tasted blind (even I didn’t know which was which). Here are our notes in the order in which the gins were tasted.

#1 – FEW Standard Issue (57%ABV)

Made by FEW Spirits at their distillery in Illinois, USA and recently arriving on British shores this gin has a different base and a different botanical mix to their American Gin.

Nose: Quite fragrant, with some vegetal notes, perhaps luscious tomato. There’s also some piney juniper, a fair bit of coriander, and some flowery notes, too.

Taste: With some maltiness and creaminess, everyone in the panel agreed that this had plenty of flavour. The grain elements came across as notes of toasted cornflakes. There was also plenty of coriander and other floral notes, such as honeysuckle, followed by a leafy herbalness and sweet pepper toward the end. The finish was pleasant and dry.

FEW Standard Issue is available for around £38 for 75cl from Master of Malt.

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#2 – Plymouth Navy Strength (57%ABV)

This is the original Navy Strength Gin and a long-time favourite of mine. It dates from the days of the Distillery’s origins in the naval town, although, for many years, it was not made on a regular basis. In 1993 (Plymouth Gin’s bicentenary), the Navy Strength became a regular in their product assortment. For Plymouth Gin, the term “Navy Strength” is simply an alternative to using 100 degrees proof; no more, no less. Plymouth Navy Strength is a higher strength version of their standard gin or, simply put, “The 42.4, but with less water”.

Nose: Juniper up-front, followed by citrus, coriander, earthy notes and a touch of cardamom.

Taste: This had a strong and intense flavour; almost a little peppery. It was very classic in style, with piney juniper, fresh and zingy citrus, and a slight sweetness towards the end, which was slightly reminiscent of caramelized orange peel.

Gin & Tonic: A very classic style of Gin & Tonic, this was very crisp, with juniper, some sweetness and a bitter finish. Quite a lot of citrus, too.

Martini: Flavourful and powerful, with juniper, some sweet citrus and spicy coriander. This cocktail had a long finish with plenty of cardamom, which I love. It had a real “wow” factor; simply superb. A textbook drink, worthy of the name “Silver Bullet”.

Negroni: Superb; perfect bitter/sweet balance, sweet jammy citrus, and hints of dark chocolate. Bold, intense, and delicious. My favourite.

Plymouth Navy Strength Gin is available for around £28 for 70cl from The Whisky Exchange.

#3 – Perry’s Tot by New York Distilling (57%ABV)
Made by NY Distilling based in Brooklyn, New York, this is a mix of 10 botanicals, including cinnamon, cardamom and star anise. It named after Matthew Calbraith Perry who served as Commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard from 1841-43.

Nose: Complex, with overriding characteristics of pine and coriander and some other, deeper herbal notes.

Taste: This was a departure from the classic style of gin, with an immediate POW! of flavour that’s invigorating and exciting. Notes of citrus and coriander were quite powerful, with some sweet liquorice root, too.

Gin & Tonic: Refreshing, complex and herbal, with a big dose of coriander. Whilst this drink sets itself apart, it’s not one for traditionalists.

Martini: Sappy and piney juniper, this cocktail was quite spicy with coriander, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Negroni: Slightly sweeter and spicier than a typical Negroni, with notes of juniper and milk and dark chocolate. Very tasty.

Perry’s Tot is available for around $33 for 75cl from Park Avenue Liquor of New York City (US only)

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#4 – Master of Malt’s Bathtub Gin Navy strength (57%ABV)

A stronger version of their revolutionary Bathtub Gin, which show that, mere “GIN” (by the EU definition) could be mighty tasty. The use of crushed botanicals (a difference to the Original Bathtub) means that the gin is not only BIG in terms of alcoholic strength but flavour intensity too.

Nose: Juniper, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Taste: Soft to start, followed by a huge burst of flavour: cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg and cloves. All in all, this was very christmassy and had quite a lot of warmth from the alcohol (but not burn). I think it will work wonders in autumnal and wintery cocktails; it’ll really warm the cockles.

Gin & Tonic: A cloudy mix, with nutmeg and cinnamon and some ginger, too. Quite refreshing, with quite a distinct, savoury side to it, too. Another lovely drink that would be good for Autumn and Winter.

Martini: Flavourful and intense, with lots of coriander, as well as sweet Winter spice. Very powerful, in terms of both alcohol and flavour.

Negroni: This could very well be called a Christmas Negroni; there’s a sweetness upfront, with notes of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, as well some juniper and more sweetness towards the end.

Master of Malt Bathtub Navy Strength Gin is available for around £42 for 70cl from Master of Malt

#5 – Royal Dock Navy Strength Gin (57%ABV)

Rebranded and repackaged in 2012, initially for the American market, Royal Dock is now available to us in the UK and beyond. The recipe for the gin itself has been made since 1863 and has been supplied to the Admiralty as well as the wider trade. Made by the Hayman family, it is named after the Royal Dock at Deptford, a one time contemporary of the likes of Plymouth and Gosport. It uses Neutral Grain Spirit and a blend of 9 classic botanicals.

Nose: Classic and fresh, with juniper, citrus and liquorice.

Taste: Again, very classic in flavour, being smooth, clean and crisp. It was well-liked by most of the panel. There was a good amount of juniper, but it wasn’t overly sappy, being freshened up with citrus peel, coriander and spicy herbal notes. Quite excellent. Strong, yet smooth; just what you want from a Navy Gin.

Gin & Tonic: This ticks all the boxes: zesty, refreshing and clean; very classic and solid, with no outlandish characteristics. A real pleasure to drink. My favourite.

Martini: More flavourful than Plymouth, with greater flavours of spice, black pepper and coriander. Delicious and rather dry, in the classic Martini style. A really good, crisp and intense Martini.

Negroni: A clean, crisp and classic cocktail; no Negroni fan would be disappointed with this.

Royal Dock Navy Strength Gin is available for around £26 for 70cl from The Whisky Exchange

#6 – Leopold’s Navy Strength (57%ABV)
Launched in the Autumn/Fall of 2011, this is made using a different botanical mix to their excellent Original Gin and was designed to be more botanically intense, using Bergamot rather than hand-zested pomelos. Like the Original, each botanical is distilled separately and then they are all blended together.

Nose: Plenty of juniper, which dominates the nose.

Taste: Sweet and very, very piney, this had plenty of herbal notes. It was very warming, with a  warmth that gradually builds over time.

Gin & Tonic: A very herbal drink, with plenty of pine and some juicy citrus, which also made this particularly refreshing. It had intense flavours, with the greater concentrations of botanicals being evident.

Martini: Thick and viscous, with intense green and piney juniper, spicy coriander and crisp citrus notes. This was easily the most intense Martini, flavour-wise, of all that we tried and was certainly memorable. Very tasty and great for a change.

Negroni: Wow! A very flavourful, lively, herbal and piney Negroni. Whilst not to everyone’s taste, many will love it.

* It is worth noting that the strength of the rum of Naval Tots was calculated differently.
**Sun Liquor of Seattle make a Gun Club “Navy Strength” Gin, but, as this is bottled at a mere 50%ABV, for the purposes of this tasting it is not classed as a Navy Strength Gin.

Special thanks to all our panel of tasters: Michael of Ginuine Spirits, Paul of FEW, Zack and the folks at Graphic Bar, Mr Justin of North Virginia, Aaron of TheGinIsIn (America’s Gin Reviewer), Sean of Plymouth, Emma Stokes of London Cocktail Society, Chris of GinJourney, Dave Hollander of The New Sheridan Club, Clayton Hartley of The Candlelight Club, Dickie the GinSage, Mrs. B., Clint of Imbibe, Kirsty Chant of Chant Communications, Paul of G-Vine, Wilkes of @wilkes888 (The London based food and drink-o-phile), Olivier of TheGinBlog, NY Distilling, MasterofMalt (including photography), Hayman’s, Leopold’s, FEW and TheWhiskyExchange.

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Cocktails with… FEW White Whiskey

As someone who is hugely fond of cask-aged spirits, I have to admit that I have, at points, been somewhat suspicious of white whiskey (also known as “white dog”). However, as more seem to be becoming available in the UK, I decided that now would be a good time to explore the potential of this “genre” of spirit.

The logical first choice for exploration was FEW White Whiskey, which is produced in Evanston, Illinois and is currently being imported by Ginuine Spirits. Bottled at 40%ABV, this spirit is produced from a mash of corn, wheat and malt.

1) On its own (chilled)
Nose: A rich, creamy nose of cornbread: kind of like a mixture of sweetcorn and sponge cake for those of us in the UK who have never tasted it.
Taste: Rich, sweet corn notes are at the fore, which made me expect the spirit to be creamy and viscous. In reality, it is remarkably crisp and refreshing, despite still being very rich in flavour. Notes of cornbread and yeast are still present, but the chill also emphasises a spiciness. The finish is more familiar; a creamy corn note lasts for a good few minutes. Although this is pleasant neat, I think it might be a bit rich in large volumes, but in a small, chilled glass straight from the freezer, it was delicious.

2) White Manhattan (Dry  Martini)
The nose is – predictably – of corn and a hint of malt, but the taste wasn’t what I was expecting at all. The Whiskey added a light sweetness to this “Dry” Martini, as well as bringing out the spiciness in the vermouth. The spiciness continues into your stomach, with herbal notes, cinnamon and something warmer – closer to chilli – that makes me think that this could be the perfect Martini for the upcoming winter months.

3) Old Fashioned
This cocktail starts with a little vanilla and what seems like light oak, which are followed by a short, but strong note of corn and then longer, more dominant notes of wood. What I really liked about this drink was that – unlike many Old Fashioneds – it was never overly sweet, but still smooth. The finish reminded me strongly of good quality bourbon, being rich in dark, more complex, and sappy-sweet wood notes. Masterful.

4) with Tonic Water
Just what you’d expect – light cornbread notes are lifted by the freshness of the tonic water. This is definitely the most refreshing way of drinking this whiskey; the dry finish of the tonic stops the creaminess from making the drink at all heavy.

5) with Ginger Ale
Beautiful – the same delicious lengthening of the cornbread notes as seen with tonic water, but the drink as a whole is ever-so-slightly sweeter and has a perfectly measured burst of fiery ginger in the middle. In my experience, some whiskies are so overly complex themselves that the ginger in ginger ale is completely lost; here, the White Whiskey seems to work with it and does so to great effect.

6) Manhattan
Intriguingly, this drink started out as a cloudy, vibrant yellow cocktail (like orange juice), but then gradually settled until it was the golden amber of a Scotch whisky. To taste, it was absolutely packed full of flavour and personality: the rich, corn notes of the whiskey take centre stage and are unapologetic. These vibrant notes are then cushioned by an extra woody sweetness, which fades to a spicy and herbal finish courtesy of the red vermouth. This was an absolutely perfect blend of strong, complex flavours and a lot of them at that!

In Conclusion
Few spirits (no pun intended) have surprised and impressed be as much as FEW White Whiskey. Other white whiskies that I have tried have seemed slightly sickly and overpowering, but, whilst nobody could say that this lacks flavour, it also works exceptionally well in a whole array of cocktails, not only adding new flavours to familiar drinks, but combining with the other ingredients in such a way as to show you new sides to them, too. For one thing, given that this whiskey hasn’t ever touched a cask, I was amazed at the complexity of some of the wood notes in these cocktails.

I honestly can’t choose one cocktail as a favourite (and I’m pretty fussy when it comes to cocktails; I think this is the only spirit that I’ve tried and enjoyed every drink), but the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Martini were all superb.

Very highly recommended.

– Mrs. B.

FEW White Whiskey is available for around £33 for 70cl from Master of Malt