Not long ago I was at D.C.’s New Columbia Distilleries, a young and ambitious gin mill, makers of the ascendant artisanal brand Green Hat gin.
Let me rush to admit I love the stuff — it’s an unapologetic powerhouse in the contemporary style, rich with botanicals, citrus, and florals.
Yet it’s very well-crafted. A distillation that in other hands might have become an idiot flavor riot lands in the glass as an intriguing, complex elixir.
With Fever Tree it makes a magnificent gin & tonic, and it diverts an Aviation delightfully from its flight plan.
An explosion in the glass
At my most recent visit I tasted a newer product, Green Hat Navy Strength gin.
There’s a wonderful story, possibly true, about British sailors fearing that the ship’s officers would water down the day’s ration of gin. When alcohol reaches 114 proof, it is said, will explode gunpowder. And so the sailors would attempt to ignite the gin. If it exploded it was cheers all around, and mutiny was put off for another day.
Speaking of exploding, that’s pretty much what happens when you drink Green Hat Navy Strength, which is indeed bottled at 114 proof. It’s got all the flavor complexity of the flagship product, plus more, plus — let’s be plain — a giant wave of ethyl at the snout.
But mellowed on a fat ice cube it opens wide, and you taste all kinds of spices and citrus, something sweet. Plus, I think, some pepper. Anise, maybe.
But as I was sipping I picked up something totally unexpected: The distinct malty, sweetish undertones of genever, the Dutch proto-gin made by Bols.
This is not a bad thing, but a surprise nonetheless. Genever is to gin what Neanderthal is to homo sapiens — a bit wobbly as a first go, but full of promise and destined to develop into greater things.
So I contacted Saul Mutchnick, co-owner of New Columbia Distillery, and reported my surprising observation.
Why would a contemporary-styled, thunderous Navy Strength born in 2015 resemble a mild Dutch distillation of maltwine derived from a recipe predating the Napoleonic Wars?
At first, Saul was diplomatic: “I always find it hard to comment on one specific flavor that someone picks out…because of how personal taste and tasting can be,” he wrote.
I took this to be a kind way of saying, Hey, I don’t care what you think you taste, rube, as long as you like it.
He elaborated generously: “Our wheat — we distill from grain, which is unusual, and use a local soft red winter wheat — gives us a lot of creamy texture, but I tend to find that shows itself a bit more in the lower proof options. It’s not an exact science, I guess.”
Seeking validation: The taste test
Still fearing I was suffering an olfactory hallucination, I invited over my neighbor, whom I will call “Clark,” largely because that’s his name. He drinks a lot of gin.
We tasted half a dozen gins, a mix of contemporaries, London Drys, and even some Old Tom, the bottles lined up on the kitchen counter like bowling pins.
Here I need to digress and explain that I am the proud owner of a genuine brown ceramic bottle of Bols Genever, which a friend kindly secreted out of Amsterdam for me.
The Bols Genever you buy in glass bottles in the U.S. is to the Amsterdam version what Piltdown Man is to Neanderthal, but that’s a story for another time.
So I had Clark blind-taste the gins. I snuck the Bols into the middle of the sequence. He immediately picked up the malty, wan, juniper-light flavor. “Is that even a gin?” he asked.
So far, so good.
So he tastes a few more. I serve him Green Hat Navy Strength last. He noses it.
“This one,” he says, gesturing with the glass of Green Hat Navy, “smells like that one tastes.” He points to the glass that held the Bols.
So I wrote back to Saul, reporting my new findings. What he wrote back about the nature of tasting spirits generally included some 114-proof insights.
On the ‘tasting is personal’ front–when I say that I mean it, not just for you, but for me, [world-class wine palate] Robert Parker, whomever.
When you or I taste something and say “this reminds me of X,” we’re relying on both sensory perception to isolate some sort of aromatic signature and also sensory memory to connect it to something that resonates with our brain. [emphasis mine]
I didn’t have any doubt (and certainly don’t have any now) that something about the NS reminded you of Bols Genever — I was just saying that I don’t know what that is from my associative memories.
The point here, I think, is that we think of tasting as a technical exercise: If you’re “good” you can identify the turmeric with pine mulch nose, the strong bamboo and southeast-Nebraska grain body, and a lingering finish of rutabaga and wool blanket soaked in Chanel #5, or whatever.
But it may be more about how the flavors resonate with the stuff already in your brain from what you’ve tasted before.
So: I’ve had Bols-in-the-ceramic-bottle and, as a gift and a rarity, it meant something to me. Motivated by emotion, the flavors imprinted in my forebrain. So when I tasted the Navy Strength, the groundwork was laid for me to make the association — one others may have missed.
So what I tasted indeed has as much to do with what I’ve sipped and enjoyed and experienced before as with the competence of my tongue, nasal passages, adenoids, esophagus, and so forth.
Yet as Clark’s observation showed, it wasn’t completely in my mind. There appears to be genuine similarities in composition or outcome between these two odd gin-fellows.
Yes, but what about those published tasting notes?
I worked in wine for a while before I joined the distillery and one of the things we liked to do was compare tasting notes for the same wine from two different publications.
Often there’d be some overlap on the core flavor(s), but then the associations the reviewers noted would spin off in completely different directions–and this from people who tasted wine for a living!
So we should not be surprised to read this review, by Aaron, from the excellent blog The Gin is In:
“The nose [on the Navy Strength] is signature Green Hat….a lovely, almost decadent melange of citrus including grapefruit and lemon, spice and juniper note, with hints of celery and caraway seed underneath it all. The palate is bold and thick with juniper at the fore, bursting with pine initially, before mellowing out with lemon rind, and a dry, spice speckled finish with intimations of black peppercorn, nut brittle, celery salt and a gentle hints of licorice/fennel beside at all, adding smoothness.”
- Aaron has an awesome palate.
- You gotta think that, somewhere along the way, he had a good experience with nut brittle. Whatever that is.
All a long way of saying: Taste is personal.
I’ve heard that for years.
Now I understand it.