Last week I got an invitation I couldn’t refuse – from Bath’s patron saint herself, Gin Austen. The home of the lady in question, the Canary Gin Bar (run by The Bath Gin Company) has been a fixture on Bath’s drinking scene for a few years now, but until recently they were producing the majority of their gin in London (setting up a new gin distillery, it seems, is a red tape nightmare). Now, hidden away in the vaults beneath Queen St, they finally have their own Bath Gin distillery and laboratory, and they kindly invited me to check out their Distillery Tour & Gin Making experience. It would have been rude to decline…
The Canary is spread over several floors in a beautiful old house, on one of Bath’s most picturesque little streets, Queen St, set with worn cobbles and hung with old-fashioned wooden signs for its shops, bars and pubs. Inside, the décor is gloomy, eclectic, full of enigmatic details – a place for intrigue. Behind the bar are 250 different gins, and the expert staff know every single one of them backwards. Pretty much every night, the place is packed with revellers – but I must admit, I’d never been there on a Wednesday afternoon before. Still, what’s a Wednesday without a cocktail?
|Tom in full flow|
The tour (which does normally take place on a Saturday, I should say) starts in the narrow ground-floor bar, with a classic Bath Gin & Tonic (BGT) and a quick history lesson from manager Tom, taking in the evolution of gin from medicinal remedy to Mother’s Ruin to trendy tipple. A BGT, in case you’re unlucky enough not to have tried one, mixes the house gin with striking red Nevaisha tonic, so that it’s a beautiful raspberry pink, and is garnished with kaffir lime leaves to echo one of the ten botanicals that go into Bath Gin. Next, gin and tonics in hand, we descended a steep wooden staircase to the distillery, which is tucked into the cellars under the street, and the laboratory, which has a fabulous old apothecary feel to it. Spices were stacked up in great hessian sacks, as if delivered from the other side of the world by the East India Company, and ranged along the walls in carefully labelled jars were smaller quantities of all sorts of interesting ingredients – fragrant fir tips, gorgeous pink peppercorns, juniper berries of different terroir and flavour. Smaller stills for exploratory work were arranged along one workbench, and all along the top shelf were hand-labelled bottles full of the latest flavour experiments. And at one end of the room, in polished wood and copper, was Jane herself: Bath Gin’s main still, looking like a fantastical steampunk time machine.
|The Bath Gin Co still, affectionately known as Jane – I love the polished copper and the dials, which make it look like an incredible contraption from a Jules Verne novel|
Having learnt all the secrets of the gin distiller’s art (I can’t tell you or I’d have to kill you), we moved upstairs to the Distiller’s Bar, a beautiful light and airy room on the first floor, with a snug horseshoe-shaped bar stacked up with different gins, softly lit from below to make the bottles glow. Here, Tom mixed me another gin cocktail (a lovely cucumber-y one this time), and we set about working on my very own gin creation. Adding carefully measured drops from a bouquet of different distillates (that’s gin infused with flavours through the distilling process) to small quantities of Bath gin, I mixed a couple of options – a cosy, wintry gin with orange, rosemary and juniper, and a lighter, more summery gin with lavender and jasmine. Having chosen the second (well, I’m not going to save it for Christmas, am I), Tom presented me with a much larger bottle of gin and opened a tall glass-fronted cupboard next to the bar, filled with fat-belled jars each bearing a hand-written label and each containing a different flavour. We measured out precisely the right combination to recreate my summery gin (not easy when you’ve been drinking all afternoon – luckily, as a veteran barman, Tom has a constitution of iron), capped the bottle and ceremoniously labelled it Pride & Prejudice, for my favourite Jane Austen novel. I can’t help feeling that Lizzy Bennet would be proud.
|My creation: it lives!|
Although a couple of gin & tonics will naturally put most people in a cheerful mood, I have to say that I thought this whole experience was brilliant, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. The tour and gin-making takes just under two hours and costs £110 per person, but so much is packed in that you get a huge amount for your money; Tom is a fascinating raconteur and guide, and creating your own gin is marvellous fun. Tours take place on Saturdays for up to six people, so booking ahead is strongly advised – don’t miss this one.