It is fairly common for a new distillery to start making gin before moving onto whisky. Gin, which can be sold as soon as it is made, offers a relatively quick financial return in comparison with whisky which (due to legal requirement) must be aged before it is commercially viable. This helps to explain why approximately 70% of the gin produced in the UK is made in Scotland. What is much less common is for a gin to have its origins in whisky production, but this is the case in the story of Welsh distillery Dà Mhìle.
In 1992 John Savage-Onstwedder, one of the founders of the Teifi Farmhouse Cheese and an organic farmer in West Wales, commissioned the famous Springbank Distillery in Campbeltown, Scotland to produce the world’s first organic whisky of the modern era. Distilled and bottled to mark the millennium the whisky was named Dà Mhìle (pronounced da-vee-lay) meaning 2000 in Gaelic.
Fast-forward to 2010 and John was in the process of applying for a distiller’s license to run a 350 litre copper pot-still on his organic family farm. At the time the smallest pot-still for which a license could be obtained was a massive 1,500 litres. But, with Sipsmith and Chase attempting to jump through similar hoops at HMRC, a sympathetic officer who recognised that change was imminent encouraged John to persevere saying: “Those guidelines were written when custom’s officers were still roaming the hills with muskets to flush out the illegal stills, so as to make it more difficult to hide them”!
A few months later John had one of the first, if not the very first, distiller’s license issued for a 350 litre still in UK history. Many more months of building and bureaucracy followed before the Dà Mhìle farmhouse distillery in Ceredigion finally opened in 2012. The distillery is run by John’s eldest son, John-James, who trained at the Kilchoman distillery in Scotland, alongside distiller Mike Melrose. The first product made on the farm was Dà Mhìle Orange 33 an organic orange liqueur that won a True Taste Award for its very first test batch!
The origins of the liqueur lay in an old family recipe from Savage-Onstwedder’s homeland Holland which had been designed for production in a domestic kitchen. John and John-James experimented with the original recipe and scaled it up for production in their new still. Firstly, oranges are fermented in a mash tank before being distilled into a spirit which is diluted with spring water from the farm. The spirit is then transferred to oak casks, alongside quartered oranges and whole coffee beans, where it is aged for 3 months. Finally the liqueur is watered down again, to 25% ABV, before being double filtered and bottled on site.
The liqueur is slightly cloudy, retaining some evidence of the oranges in which it aged, but has a deep golden colour to it which radiates from the clear bottle. On the nose the liqueur has a strong, zesty orange aroma; there is absolutely no doubting what is the key ingredient. To taste Orange 33 is incredibly smooth and, despite the powerful hit of orange, is far more delicate than the aroma first suggests. The liqueur has delicate floral and honey notes initially, alongside the fresh zesty oranges, which give way to a rich, warming, depth of flavour on the finish coming from the addition of the coffee beans. This is a light, quaffable and refreshing after-dinner drink which complements dark chocolate or can be served mixed with coffee. I also suspect this would make a wonderful addition to a wealth of cocktails and look forward to trying it in a glass of prosecco or champagne.
The first gin, and next product, to be released by the Dà Mhìle distillery was their Organic Farmhouse Botanical Gin featuring twenty botanicals ranging from the usual juniper, angelica and coriander to the less common chamomile, elderflower, red and white clover and gorse which are grown on-site on the farm. This was swiftly followed by their Seaweed Gin which was appropriately launched on St David’s Day in March 2014.
Having been delighted with the success of the seaweed cheese made on-site at Teifi Cheese, the team were looking for other uses for the Welsh ingredient and began experimenting with gin. The gin was designed to complement seafood and, to that end, the team at Dà Mhìle cut down the number of botanicals from their original farmhouse gin but introduced other soft herbs and spices to better achieve their desired flavour profile. Finally, the gin is infused with the eponymous seaweed, handpicked from the Newquay coast, for three weeks before being triple-filtered and bottled at 42% ABV.
The seaweed lends the gin a delicate green hue which is accentuated by the beautiful teal label. On opening, this gin has a strong, powerful aroma which is reminiscent of salty sea air. On the nose there is juniper alongside floral and herbal notes; most distinctively lavender and pine. To taste neat, this gin is incredibly bold and complex. Initially there is an explosion of flavours in the mouth alongside a strange, tingly sensation on the tongue. This is a dry, savoury gin with a warmth that hits the back of the throat. The more distinctive flavours are those of mint, eucalyptus and fennel which give way to a long, more delicate and floral finish with a hint of saltiness.
Does it taste of seaweed you ask? I ask, do you know what seaweed tastes like?! I was inspired to crack open the Itsu Crispy Seaweed Thins I received with my microbarbox when tasting this gin and there is a likeness, although the crisps are both saltier and fishier than the gin. The gin does have an air of the sea and a hint of saltiness from the seaweed but the gin is so varied and multi-layered in flavour that the seaweed doesn’t dominate the flavour profile.
As a G&T the most dominant flavours are, obviously, diminished but this gin still retains something distinctive. I found that the tonic, with a kiwi garnish, accentuated the sweet, floral notes although there was still a savoury finish. The suggested serve is to decadently drink this straight from an oyster shell but I’m advised that it also makes a rather delicious dirty martini!
Not ones to stray too far from their roots, the team at Dà Mhìle remain focused on producing whisky alongside more gin; their Organic Oak Aged Gin, aged in one of their 2013 single grain whisky barrels, has sold out but they are now taking orders for their Organic Sloe Gin which will ship in December 2016 and, judging by their current offerings, promises to be something rather special indeed.
The entire range is available to purchase from Dà Mhìle. Dà Mhìle Seaweed Gin costs £30 for 70cl and Dà Mhìle Orange 33 costs £28 for 70cl (other size bottles also available).
With thanks to Dà Mhìle Distillery for sending me samples of Orange 33 and Seaweed Gin.