Beer festivals have, seemingly, been around for ever with Oktoberfest, generally recognised as the world’s largest beer festival, originating way back in 1810. Nowadays there’s a festival to cater for all passions, from cheese to chicken wings, but as recently as 2012 there was no festival devoted to gin. Gin lovers, and husband and wife, Jym and Marie Harris decided to change all that and Gin Festival was born.
Now in its third year, Gin Festival host events for 4000 people from Brighton to Edinburgh and at another 25 venues in-between. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the first session of the London Gin Festival held at Tobacco Dock from Friday 26th to Sunday 28th August 2016. I attended Junipalooza at Tobacco Dock earlier this summer, which was held in the vaulted cellars, but Gin Festival took over the ground-floor galleries of this wonderful building. The generous venue proved ideal with distinct separate areas for the masterclasses, well away from the hustle and bustle of the main bars. Ideally for a warm summer’s evening there was also plenty of open-air and outdoor space, including a lovely little quayside space on the Ornamental Canal bedecked with striped deck chairs. Sadly this relaxed spot closed early (presumably so as not to disturb local residents) placing rather too much pressure on the other seating areas.
On arrival, and in return for your £12.50 ticket, guests receive a Gin Festival branded copa glass, for use during the event and to take home afterwards, and The Gin Book to introduce you to the extensive range of gins available at the event. Attendees are then required to purchase tokens to buy gin as the bars are (sensibly) cash free. Tokens are £5 each which you can exchange for your choice of gin, tonic and fresh garnish. Or, if you fancy a cocktail, these can be purchased for two tokens. Distributing all this did cause considerable queues to build up which resulted in some understandable frustration from the crowd eager to get their post-work tipple; perhaps if organisers handed out the gin books in the queue it would help whet the appetite and pass the time.
The heart of the festival consists of four bars: A & B are devoted to British gins; C to international gins; and D to fruit gins, liqueurs and jenevers. The Gin Book wisely categorises the gins by the bars at which they are served, and lists ideal garnishes and mixers, so you can just join the throng and order your gin, which is served on ice with the appropriate garnish. You are then free to drink it neat or add your choice of Fever-Tree mixer to your own taste. The bar staff were all friendly and helpful but, whereas some were quick to suggest which tonic you should add to your gin, others needed help identifying bottles on the bar. The room filled up quickly and, as the live music got going, so did the atmosphere. Everyone was clearly here to have a good time and try a few new gins; this was not a stuffy sensible tasting event for connoisseurs alone but neither did it seem as if people were here just to get drunk. It was clearly a fun-loving festival event for like minded gin lovers.
Alongside the four main bars, there’s a cocktail bar, a tuck shop serving snacks and beers (for the few reluctant gin drinkers!), a gin-and-food pairing bar and three food stalls (with predictably sizeable queues). In addition to this is an opportunity to meet a few select brands and, better still, try a few free samples! Pinkster were present with their unapologetically pink branding, alongside Whitley Neill who were also offering tastings of their fantastic JJ Whitley Elderflower Gin and also their London Dry Gin. I enjoyed trying the unusually sweet Brockmans’ Gin featuring blackberries and blueberries but was blown away by the delicate and light Sir Robin of Locksley Gin which lists dandelion and pink grapefruit among its botanicals. I loved meeting the chaps from Masons Gin too and really enjoyed sampling both their original and Tea Gin. My one regret of the evening is forgetting to try their new Slow Distilled Sloe Gin which promises to be something rather interesting as the sloes are distilled rather than infused, resulting in a full-bodied 42% gin.
Back at the main bars there are over 100 gins to try from some of the more familiar brands to some of the smallest and newest craft gins on the market. Gin Festival are also proud to present a few exclusive gins at their event, including Eccentric Citrus Overload from Wales, Addingham Cranberry and Orange Gin, and the delicious Ely Chocolate Orange Gin Liqueur. My stand-out gin was the exclusive limited edition Tarquin’s Single Estate Cornish Tea Gin from Southwestern Distillery. Inspired by the wild Atlantic Ocean this gin is made using locally grown Tregothnan tea Camellia sinensis with kaffir lime, ginger and bee pollen. Even more enticingly this gin is served with hibiscus flowers which slowly infuse the gin, turning it a beautiful deep-pink colour. I was also delighted to finally try the smooth and delicious Daffy’s Gin from Scotland.
With only The Gin Book to guide your journey (even the most knowledgeable bar staff are simply too busy to make recommendations) you are rather left to act on your own whims, which does have the possibility to backfire. I have long wanted to try Audemus‘ Pink Pepper Gin from France but the sweet and spiced flavours really didn’t suit my palate. Portugal’s herbaceous and fruity red Tinto Gin was just too far removed from a traditional gin for me too. But these little bumps are all part of the gin journey, part of finding the gins you like and the gins you love.
And when you find the gins you love, Gin Festival have an off licence on site so you can take them home with you or, cleverly, place an order to be delivered to your door for free. And if you haven’t quite found your perfect tipple yet, you can also sign up to Gin Festival’s monthly gin subscription Gin Explorer Club to continue your gin journey in the comfort of your own home. It’s well worth chatting to the folk at the Gin Explorer Club to find out more and also to have a sneaky little taste of Bimber London Dry Gin! Bimber Distillery only opened last year but already they have a large portfolio of spirits under their belt, including their incredibly well-balanced and smooth London Dry Gin; one of only two gins to be awarded a trophy at the 2016 International Spirits Challenge. It was a pleasure to meet Oscar from Bimber too and I look forward to visiting the distillery, and finding out even more about their gin, soon.
Gin Festival isn’t a meet-the-maker event like Junipalooza and doesn’t claim to be one, although I did enjoy meeting some of the people behind the brands. And while it has plenty to offer the gin connoisseurs among you, it really is perfect for those beginning their gin journey too. The event is light-hearted, relaxed and most importantly fun. It really does have something of a festival feel with the live music adding to the spirited atmosphere. And, as much as everyone was there to sample new and unusual gins, people were obviously there to just hang out with their friends on a Friday night too. I think considering the competitive cost of the gin and tonics and the number of free samples available, this event also offers good value for money and I for one will certainly be treasuring my Gin Festival copa glass for many more gin o’clocks to come!
Future Gin Festival events include:
Birmingham Friday 2nd September – Sunday 4th September 2016
Sheffield Friday 9th September – Sunday 11th September 2016
Burnley Saturday 17th September 2016
Guildford Thursday 22nd September – Saturday 24th September 2016
Edinburgh Friday 7th October – Sunday 9th October 2016
Rochdale Friday 14th October – Saturday 15th October 2016
Cardiff Thursday 20th October – Sunday 23rd October 2016
Brighton Friday 4th November – Saturday 5th November 2016
Leicester Friday 11th November – Saturday 12th November 2016
With thanks to Laura at Gin Festival for inviting me to attend Gin Festival London.