Olivier Ward Editor & Co-founder of Gin Foundry
Oilvier oversees the content on the website as well as the creative direction of its projects. With years of experience building drinks brands, distilling Gin and writing about it he is well placed to comment on the category and does his best to cast a positive light on the spirit and those making it.
Olivier also delivers consultancy work for those seeking to open their own distilleries and hosts frequent ‘how to open a distillery’ workshops at Gin Foundry HQ. He is shortlisted as IWSC’s Communicator of the Year 2017 and has been named by USA Today as one of the foremost specialist authorities on Gin. Outside of his work on Gin Foundry’s platforms, Olivier is Channel 4’s resident Gin Expert on Sunday Brunch, has presented sections on gin cocktails for ITV This Morning and features regularly talking about the category on BBC radio. In the past 18 months, he has also contributed articles about Gin to Olive Magazine, BA Highlife, N by Norwegian, The Gentlemen’s Journal and Ask Men.
Stacked one on top of the other like a hedonistic, boozy rainbow sit the colourful spoils of Black Powder Gin co-founders Anthony Dalnas and John Loftus’ labour. And boy, are there a lot of spoils.
Though it only launched in July 2017, the Black Powder Gin range is vast. In fact, it might be one of the biggest ranges from a startup that we’ve ever encountered… There’s Wild Elderflower Gin, Wild Cherry Gin, Wild Blueberry Gin, Sloe Gin, Salted Caramel Gin, Rhubarb Gin, Rhubarb & Italian Quince Gin, Redcurrant & Pomegranate Gin, Raspberry Gin, Quince Gin, Pink Elderflower Gin, Gooseberry Gin, Damson Gin, Citrus Japonica Gin, Black Plum Gin and Blackcurrant Gin. Today, though, we’re delving into the flagship, Sidelock and the Navy Strength, Flintlock.
Before we explore the botanicals behind the gins, it’s probably pertinent to trace a little of Black Powder Gin's history. While the brand as we know it is the result of a year of hard work, the inspiration behind it stems back much, much further.
Preese Hall Farm has been in the Loftus family for a century. John Loftus is a distinguished cattle breeder with 300 acres to his name, two of which are dedicated to orchards. For years, he would pluck the goods growing on the land and infuse them into gins, sharing the fruity liqueurs with fellow hunters on an annual country shoot held in association with a neighbouring farm. What began with damson and Sloe Gin soon evolved into a myriad of flavours, but it wasn’t until last year, when his son-in-law, Anthony Dalnas, suggested that they start selling the infusions on a commercial scale, that they started to think about making a straight up gin.
There was always the option to keep buying it in, of course, but something about outsourcing an integral part of the process felt remiss, especially for Dalnas, who has since assumed the role of distiller. “We really wanted to be known and respected for actually making pretty much most of what goes into our produce, and although very happy with our fruit infused gins, it didn’t seem right somehow that we weren’t making our own gin base,” he said.
The duo spent long days and longer nights researching distilling techniques, talking to other makers and learning everything they could about the art of gin making, very much learning on the job. “Starting with hardly any knowledge was obviously the first major obstacle, and the prospect of actually making gin was somewhere way in the distance given all the legal hoops we initially needed to jump through,” Dalnas said.
Once all the paperwork was out of the way and it came time to get distilling, Loftus and Dalnas were suddenly gripped by fear and, eventually, disappointment. “We were so full of anticipation and excitement that we expected far, far too much from our initial run. Effectively, after many months of waiting, the future of our venture was now resting on the first three litres of hearts that came out of our still and yep, you guessed it, it was pretty dire,” recalled Dalnas.
Distilling is a mad mixture of art and science, but once mastered, there’s no end to what a maker can do. This was a lesson hard earned by Dalnas, who revealed that learning the ropes was a mixed bag. Frustrating at time, exciting too and punctuated with frequent bouts of both wonderment and disillusionment. “I’ve made lots and lots of mistakes on this journey so far, but all have been useful to some degree in helping me get on the right course, and to be honest I’m very happy with the products that I’ve produced so far – it’s been a long journey, but very worthwhile,” he said.
With 25 botanicals in the line-up, cranberries, kaffir lime leaves, lemon balm, chamomile, hibiscus, elderflower, rose petals, cloves, calamus, fennel and, of course, juniper amongst them, Black Powder Gin: Sidelock promises to be a complex and floral affair. Explaining the chock-full recipe, Dalnas revealed: “I wanted to create gins full of favour rather than creating simple, generic gins which would have been too easy to do. I’ve sampled too many gins and personally find only a few which really stand out and are easily distinguishable. We are all about flavour – our fruit gins are testament to that! So it was important to me that I create distilled gins which feel like they are from the same stable.”
To make both London Dry Navy Strength Black Powder Gin, Dalnas adds a handful of the hardier botanicals to some neutral spirit and macerates them in the still for 12 hours. The rest of the botanicals are added and the still is gently heated. Then, and this is a little out of the ordinary, the still is switched off and all of the botanicals are left to steep overnight. Once the still is turned on and the hearts are captured, the spirit is left to rest for a week before being cut down to bottling strength of 40% ABV.
SIDELOCK LONDON DRY TO TASTE…
Flowers fly up the nose like it’s the first day of spring, joined by a strikingly bright lemon balm and a flush of warming spices. There’s no harshness here at all, no sting or burn no matter how much you inhale. It’s an unusual blend – undeniably busy (what with the 25 botanicals) but never cacophonous. It’s calm, soft and well ordered, with a cooling pinch that reminds us of heather-heavy Scottish gins.
Black Powder Gin is so botanically intense that sipping it feels as though an entire flower orchard is wilting in your mouth. Soapy lemon balm and sweet chamomile petals coat the tongue, with a rooty, spicy calamus and clove jumping up to warm you from the inside out. This all gives way to an overwhelming green hit that tastes somewhere between watercress and rocket; not quite bitter, but not sweet either. Juniper, admittedly, is very shy here, a little overwhelmed by the ensemble and the calamus in particular.
The intensity remains with tonic, cutting right through the quinine to deliver a G&T that dives into the mouth all soft, sweet and floral, with lavender-like petals bursting on the tongue, transforming the flavour from flower-meadow-sweet to herb-garden green. There’s a real flavour journey involved here, and it’s one that is great fun to behold.
FLINTLOCK NAVY STRENGTH TO TASTE…
The Navy Strength Gin shares some similar ingredients to the flagship, though there are fewer (thus less complexity), with less of the sweet botanicals thrown into the mix. That floral, soft meadow bomb still explodes across the nose, though, this time joined by a thick, sappy juniper.
This is a far spicier affair than its partner in crime, with the calamus eating its way up the tongue until there’s nothing left but heat. That watercress finish comes through at the end, though, resulting in a finish that is almost identical to that of the London Dry.
The second you add tonic into the glass you see where the intensity comes from. Oils flourish up the liquid, clouding the glass with an opacity that makes it look as if it’s about to rain for days. A quick sip, and the flavour is stronger, somehow, than before it was diluted. The calamus claws at the throat, the herbal flower/juniper combination sits heavily on the tongue and the finish is as bitter as the last bit of rocket in the bag. It’s a real adventure of a gin, with so much going on it seems almost impossible.
It needs softening, for sure. We’re hardened, jaded drink hacks, and even we don’t quite have the capacity to handle this beast on its own. We’d garnish with a slice of fresh, super-sweet orange and a handful of red berries, or even pomegranates. Something that will sweeten it up and calm it down.
The bottles are inoffensive enough – clear glass with a clear sticker bearing the name and logo. The logo is a splatter of black ink, which may well allow Black Powder Gin to stand out on a back bar/supermarket shelf. We wouldn’t bet any money on it, though… Twitter may have extended its character limit, but for the most part, we’re still a people with a three second attention span. If we aren’t sold straight away, it’s onto the next bottle we go.
In defence of the brand however – the simple look and feel works very well when the liquid it contains has colour, so in the case of the Pink Elderflower Gin and Wild Cherry Gin the package pops! Moreover, given that at the time of writing makes this gin is less than 6 months old, the brand presence is more developed than many are in their opening year and shows the team have an understanding of the game and a capacity for great future potential.
The gins are unconventional, yes, but there are so many traditional, classic bottlings out there that there’s room for something a little out of the ordinary. These are gins that have been made for the sake of artistry. Dalnas and Loftus want to see their process through from start to finish, so making the gins from which their more established fruit liqueur range can evolve is a step that shows dedication.
The Black Powder Gin range is one that has, undeniably, been made for a specific palate. Louder than a reality TV auditionee and every bit as strange, this is a floral, spiced, herbal, sweet and everything in between collection of gins that will confound and thrill your taste buds in equal measure.