- Food & Drink
There was a time when the only question a gin drinker faced in the pub was: “Ice and a slice?” You could have your gin and tonic (which would be Gordon’s) warm and unadulterated or with the chink of ice cubes and a slither of lemon. This changed midway through the 1990s, and I think it was my heart’s ease Bombay Sapphire that built the barricades around the nation’s bars until publicans allowed people a choice of citrus fruits in their G&Ts. Anyone who’d been within glancing distance of the metropolitan elite knew that lemon was the mark of a provincial hick and the only acceptable garnish was lime.
Then Hendrick’s Gin appeared and suggested that we slip a chunk of cucumber into our drinks. Cucumber! That’s not even a fruit! (Well, it is a fruit. But I invoke the David Mitchell Would You Put A Tomato In A Fruit Salad? defence and say it’s a vegetable). The salad drawer was open, the fruit bowl gaped wide and barmen ran wild.
Wedges of grapefruit have been jammed into tumblers, lime leaves tucked around lumps of ice and a hedgerow’s worth of apples, berries and bits of bark deployed like pastoral practical jokes. A gin and tonic is no longer an elegant way to get decorously drunk at 3 in the afternoon, but an obstacle course of garnishes and artisanal flourishes.
Last week a PR sent me a bottle of Opihr Gin, a London Dry gin that’s made with botanicals from the spice route. It arrived in a hessian sack filled with a few of the 10 botanicals, which include cubeb berries, coriander, cardamom, juniper, orange and grapefruit zest and ginger. The serving suggestions for an Opihr and tonic is a double measure of gin, Fentimans Tonic Water (natch) and a slice of red chilli. It’s practically a meal.
While I’m staying in the East End it made sense to settle down with this bottle filled with Eastern spices (you see the loose connection I’ve made there) and subject it to a thorough reviewing.
Day or night gin? At 40% ABV, Opihr is at home in the twilight world of early evening drinking. I imagine it wears sequins and sits on a terrace with a lovely view.
What does it smell of? My spice cupboard. It barely smells of gin at all, which confuses my grain spirit obsessed brain. There’s a touch of cool pine forest from the juniper, but mostly it smells like the steam room in a Turkish bathhouse. A fug of aromatics that’s heavy on the cardamom and coriander.
What does it taste of? Not of gin. A silken mix of citrus brights, green cardamom and hot pepper. I want to put it in a balloon glass, light a cigar and settle down in an armchair in my Club, my waistcoat popping open and a copy of the Times ready to cover my face should I feel the need to rest my eyes.
Mix it with tonic and ice, however, and it tastes far too strongly of cardamom. As if there was a terrible cardamom-related accident in the still that everyone is trying to ignore, even though their eyes water and there’s green paper skins everywhere. But make the G&T with a slice of chilli in it and the drink is transformed. The red fruit ripeness of the chilli knits all the spices together and smoothes them out. The person who suggested capsicum would be the perfect compliment to Opihr hadn’t gone completely garnish mad.
Buy it? Opihr is priced £23-27 and looks to be mostly available from fancy specialists at the moment. I’m not sure I would buy Opihr for straightforward gin and tonics. Interesting as it is with ice and spice, I’d prefer to drink it in cocktails in bars or straight up in the winter, curled up on the sofa and remembering the heat of summers past.