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Gin O’Clock

Northern Ireland comes through in spades, with some of the best gin tourism adventures off the drunken path…
 
I’m one of those people who always has a bottle of backup gin should the actual gin ever run dry. It’s the larger size, a two-litre bottle, which we call the Super Big Gulp. People laugh—but they’re more than happy to partake in said backup when the need arises, particularly my friend Sugar, who often shows up at the front door with a Slurpee, which I then top up with gin.
 
My interest in gin began years ago, when I mixed drinks at my parents’ card parties in the 1970s: gin fizzes, gimlets and rickeys. A martini for me is always gin-based unless otherwise specified—I’m that committed. Being invited to the opening of the new home of Bombay Sapphire Gin at Laverstoke Mill south of London a few years ago was like a reward, a pilgrimage—one I still talk about, especially when I’m trying to impress other gin aficionados. (This always works.)
 
But it turns out England doesn’t have the market cornered when it comes to gin, particularly small-batch gin: a trip to Ireland proved very much otherwise.
 
This truth comes out in Belfast, where I spent a full Saturday afternoon with Taste & Tour, a food and drink touring company that takes you “off the eaten track” to experience the top food and drink establishments in the city centre with a couple of walking tours, including a Whiskey Walk and a Gin Jaunt. Basically, they walk people around town getting them drunk. It’s a simple but fun business model—and they do well by it: the Gin Jaunts sell out weeks in advance. I soon see why.
 
“There’s a real fascination with gin at the moment,” says Taste & Tour founding director Phil Ervine. “Gin is a fascinating spirit category, as no two gins are the same. There are so many different styles to explore, from London Dry and Old Tom to New Western and Plymouth Gin.”
 
The tour takes us to five different locations, where we taste very generous pours of seven different gins in three hours, starting off in one of Belfast’s oldest pubs: the Victorian gin palace that is the Crown Liquor Saloon. We learn first about the pub (built in 1826 and restored to the tune of half-a-million pounds) and then embark on the gins, softening the first one with a Fever-Tree tonic, which I immediately dislike. The second tasting, a wet martini at Rita’s nightclub around the corner, provokes a few grimaces at the cocktail’s potency…but the noise volume coming from our group increases, something I see as a good thing. I’m shocked by how many people admit to never having tried a martini before, but I guess that’s the whole point of them signing up for this “lesson.”
 
“Gone are the days of a plain old gin and tonic,” Ervine says. “We now have a gin to suit everyone’s tastes, and bartenders are doing wonderful things with it.”
 
At the third stop, I wave away the tonic, and win kudos from Ervine for drinking the local Jawbox Gin on the rocks. It’s delicious, with fresh citrus notes balancing avours of juniper and pine. The founder of this Belfast distillery, Gerry White, is on hand to provide a bit of context for us, including some background on the gin’s name, which is taken from the old Belfast communal sinks in the poorer parts of town, around which neighbourhood gossip was readily shared.
 
Farther along our tour, Boatyard Double Gin from Enniskillen in the southwest corner of Northern Ireland lights up everyone’s eyes—mind you, we’re five in, so the lights were kinda already on and we are all really, really good friends by now. Boatyard has an even more pronounced juniper taste with a oral tinge. One of the organic botanicals is sweet gale, a type of wild myrtle that grows on the distillery property.
 

Another intriguing gin comes in a shelf-worthy blue-glass bottle. Distilled in Drumshanbo in the Republic of Ireland, Gunpowder Irish Gin has a citrusy, tea-like taste, with one of the more noticeable botanicals being something called gunpowder tea, a type of Chinese tea that is rolled into a tiny pellet.
 
Hours later, I toss back a Gunpowder martini before dinner at Eipic, one of Belfast’s finer restaurants, carrying on with the day’s gin theme, smug with myself for being so in-the-know.
 
Foraging the forest for gin
Taking a 30-minute drive from Belfast to a town called Crossgar in County Down, we then let the GPS lead us to the outskirts. When we find what looks like the right property, I lean out of the car as far as I can and start ringing doorbells at what turns out to be the gate of the grand Rademon Estate, one of the oldest in Ireland, dating from 1667. I mistakenly ring the house, but then manage to connect with someone from the on-site distillery, who buzzes us into beautiful grounds that we tour upon parking the car.
 
Opened in 2012, Rademon Estate Distillery is a small-scale family operation that markets its Shortcross Gin as Northern Ireland’s first premium craft gin. Founders Fiona and David Boyd-Armstrong draw inspiration from the land for the flavours of their award-winning gin, infusing the spirit with a taste of home—wild clover foraged from the nearby meadows, plus elder owers, elderberries and green apples. They have their own well that supplies soft, mineral-rich water—one of the ner ingredients, you could say.
 
David walks us through the distillation process, illustrating the local botanicals, murmuring quietly to their incredibly new-looking bespoke copper pot still. His passion is deep—these people clearly love what they do. This fervour translates into the product. I can really taste the juniper in Shortcross, with coriander creating a solid backbone peppered with notes of orange zest and cinnamon. It is beyond splendid! They pop a teeny tiny bottle of the gin into my pocket, with the prediction that it won’t make it home to Canada, insinuating that I will drink it long before the flight home. They are correct.
 
When the sad, sad time does come to head to the airport, we spend time in Duty Free deliberating what our 2.8 litres of alcohol will be, hashing it out rather loudly. A kind business traveller comes to our rescue, steering us towards Bertha’s Revenge Irish Milk Gin from Ballyvolane in County Cork. Whey alcohol is used as the base spirit (hence the name), but it’s the spicy cumin, coriander and peppery orange flavour that practically jumps out of the bottle. I decide on it plus a bottle of Gunpowder, which gets extra points for the nice bottle.
 
Though both of these prize bar possessions were opened within days of arriving home, they are strictly rationed, and continue to remind me of a week in the Emerald Isle, eating and drinking some of the best fruits of the land.
 
My partner often pulls a James Bond and mixes gin with vodka to create a Vesper Martini, which I think is just a cruel joke on the gin. I mean, make up your mind. He’ll come around.
 

 
DOUG WALLACE is the editor and publisher of travel resource TravelRight.Today.
 

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