Think of Switzerland and you probably think of chocolate, watches and cuckoo clocks. You probably don’t think of spirits. And yet Switzerland has a relationship with absinthe that rivals that of the UK’s with gin. Absinthe originated in Switzerland in the late 18th century and rapidly earned itself such a reputation for damaging public health that it was officially outlawed in 1910. The ban on the sale and production of absinthe wasn’t lifted until 1 March 2005, during which time the spirit had become the pride of local bootleggers!
A revival of absinthe began in Europe in the 1990s and, by the early 21st century, absinthe was once again being distilled and sold in its birthplace with new brands such as Kübler and La Clandestine Absinthe starting to appear. Similarly, the craft gin market boomed across the UK, and further afield, after Sipsmith emerged triumphant from their battle with HMRC in 2009. Inspired by the burgeoning gin renaissance across Europe, Oliver Ullrich and Ralph Villiger, who met during a Wine and Spirit Education Trust Diploma Course in London, and ran a wine and gin bar together in Zurich, decided to bring gin to Switzerland too. And not just any gin. Ullrich and Villiger (who sadly passed away last year) decided they would create the definitive Swiss Gin.
nginious! Gin was launched on 31 July 2014 with, true to their ambition, a Swiss Blended Gin. Keen to experiment and innovate, nginious! soon released the world’s first gin barrel-aged in a vermouth cask. A mere nine months later, in May 2015, nginious! introduced a completely new receipe in the form of their Summer Gin. And most recently they launched their wintery Smoked and Salted Gin in October 2015.
The distinctiveness of the nginious! range is matched by their stunning bottles. Both the miniatures and full-size (50cl) bottles are based on the hip flask concept and while the miniatures are eye-catching, the full-size bottles are breathtaking. The full-size Swiss Blended Gin bottle is clean and neat, reflecting the purity of the contents, but the other three each have a unique jacket: a blue bubble swim cap for the Summer Gin; a flamed-oak wood jacket for the Smoked and Salted Gin; and a leather design for the Cocchi Vermouth Cask Finished Gin. Rest assured, the contents won’t disappoint, with three of their gins having already won at least one silver medal each.
Swiss Blended Gin
After whittling a 100-strong list of botanicals down to 30, Ullrich and Villiger settled on a total of 18 botanicals for their Swiss Blended Gin. To achieve their desired “Swissness”, the pair selected herbs native to Switzerland including hay flowers, clover blossom, bee balm, verbena, hyssop, camomile, blackcurrant leaves, iris and carline thistle root. They then use the labour-intensive fractional distillation process, whereby they separate the 18 botanicals into four groups which are individually distilled before being blended together to achieve the final product. It’s a technique which Pothecary British Blended Gin have since adopted to great acclaim.
On the nose, Swiss Blended Gin is fresh and herbaceous. To taste it is outstandingly smooth, crisp and clean, almost belying its 45% ABV. It is also incredibly well balanced which is testament to how carefully they approached the fractional distillation process and then blended the four distillates. Alongside the juniper, Swiss Blended Gin is very herbaceous, almost medicinally so, with notes of aniseed, fennel and camomile. nginious! recommend serving their Swiss Blended Gin with dry tonic water, ice and strips of grapefruit zest, which add a lovely, gentle sweetness to the gin. Thanks to the high ABV, the gin is robust enough to hold its own against the tonic so the herbal notes still come through. A clean and pure gin, it does strike me as a truly Swiss Gin: imbued with the spirit and flavour of fresh alpine air.
Cocchi Vermouth Cask Finished Gin
With the intention of making a perfect martini gin, nginious! took their Swiss Blended Gin to fill vermouth casks supplied by the famous Piedmont producer Cocchi. This is no less a labour of love than their original gin as the cask is filled, not once, but twice before the two fillings are then blended and cut down to bottling strength.
nginious! Cocchi Vermouth Cask Finished Gin has a similar nose to the Swiss Blended Gin but a gentle golden hue that distinguishes it from its forebear. Now, I should admit that I’m not really a fan of cask-aged gins, nor of drinking gin neat. However, this gin is exceptional! It does taste like it’s been cask-aged but not overwhelmingly so. The Swiss Blended Gin has lost some of the definition of its herbal notes which have been replaced by a gentle spiciness. This is also an incredibly smooth and rounded gin; so much so, it’s hard to believe it is 43% ABV. I didn’t find this gin particularly bitter but it does, as intended, capture the essence of a martini and is immensely sippable. It also makes an exceptional G&T with Mediterranean tonic and orange zest.
Summer Gin is based on a completely different recipe to that of the Swiss Blended Gin and, in addition to juniper, it features plenty of fruit – blueberries, peach, limes and rhubarb – as well as jasmine blossom and white pepper.
The nose is quite subtle, but there are some sweet notes in there too. To taste, it has some of the herbal flavours of the Swiss Blended Gin but is considerably less dry. Neat, I can pick up some pepper and rhubarb but find it hard to distinguish which fruits are present. nginious! recommend serving their Summer Gin with Mediterranean tonic, ice and a slice of peach and basil leaves. Being December, I couldn’t obtain a ripe peach so tried it with basil alone, which was perfect! It makes an exceptionally light, fresh and summery G&T, with the Mediterranean tonic really enhancing those delicious sweet peach flavours.
Smoked and Salted Gin
Smoked and Salted Gin is nginious!’s more seasonal winter offering. In yet another lengthy and time-consuming process, chestnuts are cold-smoked for 40 hours prior to maceration. Following the separate distillation of the juniper and the bitter oranges, quinces, coriander and ginger, smoked Alpine salt, known as Sel À L’Ancienne, is finally added to enhance the different aromas.
I didn’t pick up much on the nose of the Smoked and Salted but, to taste, this is something else! This unusual and original gin is undeniably wintery and offers a complete contrast to the purity of the Swiss Blended Gin. The Smoked and Salted Gin is reminiscent of bonfires, with an almost acrid taste at the back of the throat, and a distinctive saltiness. I tried this gin both neat with ice and, as nginious! suggest, with ginger beer and, to be completely honest – good as it is – I didn’t think this gin was for me. But then I tried it in Gin Foundry’s Amuse Booze Swiss Army Knife cocktail, which was nothing short of a revelation! Complex and rounded, this cocktail has smokiness from the gin, warmth from the Calvados, and sugar from the maple syrup, achieving an incredible balance of acidity and sweetness. This is a cocktail I could, and might well, drink all Christmas! I cannot understate just how good this is; it can even be made in advance and kept in the fridge for up to a month – though I doubt it will last that long!
The existing nginious! range is exciting and experimental and there is undoubtedly lots more to come as nginious! are currently crowd-funding to open their own Liquid Spirit Distillery in Basel. With their own distillery offering them the flexibility and independence to be even more creative and innovative, there will no doubt be many more amazing additions to the nginious! core range. You’ll want to keep an eye on this one.
Full size 50cl bottles of the nginious! range are available from Gin Kiosk, Hammonds of Knutsford and Master of Malt. The Taste-Box (containing 4 x 10cl bottles) is currently only available via the Liquid Spirit Distillery crowd funding scheme for CHF99 (delivery June 2017).