It’s hard to believe that Twelve Keys is not yet a year old. When they launched at Junipalooza in June 2018, founder Matthew Clifford, and his wife Alex, presented a polished product that was undoubtedly one of the stand-out spirits at the festival. Since then it has cropped up time and again in gin bloggers’ best gins of the year, including my own, and with very good reason.
Subconsciously or not, I usually look for three things in a gin: a solid story; a beautiful bottle; and fantastic flavour. Twelve Keys delivers on all counts with a strong brand identity and impressive website to boot. The story on this occasion is not the emotional one of gin-lovers longing to fulfil their lifetime ambition (though Matthew is no doubt incredibly driven and passionate), but a more intellectual and esoteric one.
Twelve Keys is inspired by the 1599 alchemical text The 12 Keys of Basil Valentine which describes the process of turning base metals into precious ones in twelve steps. Furthermore, the gin’s twelve botanicals have been selected to reflect different periods through the history of distillation; The Cult of Bacchus; The Birth of Alchemy; Early Medicine; and Ancient Rituals. It’s complicated, and not particularly accessible, but Matthew has clearly done his research and those who want to dig deeper will find a lot to savour.
If the story is a feast for the intellect, the bottle is likewise a feast for the eyes. Matthew talks about moving away from a stock bottle and working towards a full bespoke glass development project (one can’t help but think he is a true perfectionist) but even its first iteration – with rich textured deep blue label and stunning gold detailing – is better than many. No doubt thanks in part to Matthew’s past in product design.
With its unusual botanicals, the gin is a real treat too. Though the Cliffords like to call it a Norfolk gin, Twelve Keys is currently contract-distilled at Glasgow Distillery (they couldn’t afford to invest in the product as well as in a still) but they certainly work closely together. In Glasgow, Mike Hayward vapour infuses figs, apricot, quince and basil, and pot distills juniper, caraway, cinnamon, frankincense, orris, angelica and gentian root, finishing with honey from Clifford’s own Norfolk wildflower meadow. The first batch was very impressive but didn’t quite scale up as hoped, however the second batch, which I’ve also been lucky enough to try, is already greatly improved.
Batch one was dominated by fresh green juniper with a little honey sweetness on the finish. What’s not to like? But batch two is even better. On the nose, batch two is lighter and more complex with a touch of fruitiness. The complexity continues on the palate; the gin retains that juniper dryness we all love but there’s more going on too, with almonds joining the honey on the finish. A drop of water further exemplifies those differences which might appear subtle to some but result in a more complex and balanced gin allowing more of the other botanicals to shine alongside the juniper. And it’s important that juniper is still there, of course, because, as unusual as some of those botanicals are, this is a still a pretty classic gin at heart which should please even the most picky purist.
As you’d expect, Twelve Keys makes a cracking gin and tonic with plenty of depth of flavour. Their signature serve is with Indian tonic, fig and a coffee bean which has won over lots of fans but sadly isn’t really for me (not being a big fan of either). Luckily it also works really well with grapefruit or orange and thyme. And I can’t wait to try it in another of Matthew’s recommended serves; Franklin & Sons Rosemary and Black Olive tonic with an orange and basil garnish.
Twelve Keys is a tasty, indulgent thinkers’ gin which is already going from strength to strength. And of course, this is only the start of their journey. At the moment Matthew is already working on a rum and investigating mezcal in addition to perfecting this gin (and possibly planning another). His long-term ambition though is to hold the keys to his own distillery, and one senses he won’t let much get in his way.
Purchase Twelve Keys No. 33 Dry Gin here at £44 for 70cl (46% ABV).
With thanks to Matthew and Alex Clifford for the complimentary bottles of Twelve Keys.