Philharmonia Gin - Creating a new gin

Philharmonia Gin - Creating a new gin

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Creating a new gin is always a joy and a pleasure...

This particular creation, the Philharmonia Seville Orange & Cassia Gin, has had a gestation for almost nine months. Finally we’ve reached the public launch – it’s exciting to say the least.

The Philharmonia Orchestra is something of a national treasure, and one with which I’ve hand first-hand experience over many years. Hereford is one of the three cities that host the Three Choirs Festival, the oldest music festival in the world, tracing its history back over 300 years. For a slightly shorter period the Philharmonia has been the resident orchestra at the festival. Hereford has also been my adopted home for the last 20 years as my husband Peter is organist of the cathedral. He regularly performs with the Philharmonia at these annual festivals, and as a former oboe/cor anglais player himself, working as part of such a fine ensemble is one of the highlights of his year. 

Our relationship with the Philharmonia deepened during the last Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester in 2019. Ludlow Gin hosted a gin bar in the cathedral close, frequented by concert goers and orchestral players alike. The music world is a small world, and by various close connections it wasn’t long before both parties saw a possible benefit in supporting each other. At a Philharmonia concert in the Royal Festival Hall, the orchestra’s London residence, the idea for a limited-edition gin first came to me.

Music has played an enormous role in my own life. I grew up in Bristol with a background where the arts and music weren’t readily accessible or available; you can read more about my story here. (Little-known fact – I once played with the Philharmonia at the Three Choirs Festival. Imagine the reserve bench – all the main organists were engaged elsewhere, I was next in line, my number came up. It was one of the most exciting and most enjoyable evenings of my musical life.)

Nothing replaces live music. It’s a visceral experience, something that takes us back to a primitive camp-fire collective experience; something we share together, often without needing to speak, but focussing instead on the sights and sounds we are witness to. Imagine now my joy at sitting in the concert at the Royal Festival Hall (RFH) in spring 2020, listening to the incredible ensemble of players, creating sublime music for a house full of punters. In case you didn’t know, I also had a long career in conservation of historic buildings, and British modernism is something of a private passion. The RFH is a remarkable space, recently restored, full of post-war confidence and a perfect backdrop for the enjoyment of music.

The music that evening was Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.2, a piece a dear friend studied and performed when I was reading music at university. During the slow movement, the combination of space, architecture, music, personal connection and sublime playing allowed me to experience something almost impossible to put into words. It was at this event that I realised I must do something to help support the work of this one of the UK’s finest ensembles.

Fast forward just a few weeks: lockdown had hit, concerts across the country were cancelled, our own business had changed dramatically, more so than any of us could have imagined. In times like these, there is only one thing to do: set your mind to the wind and sail into the storm. Our close bond with the orchestra had been made and it was therefore perfectly natural to say, the opportunity lies before us, let’s work together on a new gin, a gin for the orchestra, a chance to provide a small but vital contribution to their important work.

2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the orchestra and so it was very timely to work on an exciting project to celebrate all that is excellent in live music-making. My experience of concerts at the RFH meant that London was firmly in my mind when creating the new gin. The historic City of London lies just over the Thames from the concert hall, with endless historic church spires and of course the great dome of St Paul’s gazing at the Southbank Centre. Just to the north lies the historic home of London Dry gin – Clerkenwell, or the Clerk’s Well, a source of pure water in what was a busy and at times dirty city. It is around this district that my predecessor distillers gathered to make their gin.

As we all know gin had something of a bad reputation in the 18th century; all sorts of poor-quality ingredients were added to ‘stretch the goods’ and elevate profits. The term London Dry was created to establish a set quality, the purest spirit, the finest ingredients, all distilled above 80% and with only the addition of pure water thereafter. So, creating a London Dry has always been in my mind – I wanted a chance to feel the connection between those historic distillers and my own world. The Thames, that great artery into the city, was once the blood line that fed commerce, as one of the busiest docks in the world. Goods were imported from across the globe, and of course this included botanicals for gin, spices from the east and citrus from the Mediterranean. To find about more about how we created Ludlow Gin click here.

When creating a gin, I need to feel a connection, and a historic one makes for easy inspiration. The British connection with exotic fruits has many historic roots; Nell Gwynne, daughter of the Welsh Marches, was famous for selling her oranges in London theatres. As was a little Peruvian bear who enjoyed nothing better than a Seville marmalade sandwich: Paddington. The bronze statue of Paddington sits in Paddington station, and when I arrive in London on the GWR, I often give a nod to my fellow bear, from whom my own nickname Wardington Bear is derived.

Seville oranges were therefore a natural choice; my cousin Paddington would have been proud. I can imagine now the ships docking with the cargos of dried peels for the gin distillers of London. The docklands must have been an extremely interesting area, with fragrances of spices and commodities filling the air. The ‘big four’ botanicals, as they are known in the gin world, are juniper, coriander, angelica and orris. These form the backbone of all of our Ludlow gins, they’re like the four sections of the orchestra: strings, woodwind, brass and percussion.

But what of the soloists? Well, the imports of the spice trade would have provided exciting potential for the London distillers to give their individual gins something of an edge. For our own creation, we’ve added cassia bark – strong cinnamon-like notes; grains of paradise – a touch of heat; and liquorice – actually known as distillers’ sugar as it’s fifty times sweeter than cane sugar. The gentle aromatic spices and heat are the perfect partner to the bitter Seville orange, the liquorice adding just a touch of sweetness to achieve the perfect balance.

After months of thinking and meetings, I committed the botanicals to the still, to see what my idea would produce. In these lockdown times, a zoom gin tasting with three players from the orchestra was booked. As ever, I like to keep my own powder dry, but I was very proud of what I’d created – two contrasting versions were dispatched, one lighter, one more intense. Much fun was had that evening; both players and office staff joined us for an introduction into the world of distilling and then the blind tasting. The intense version was chosen, by an almost overwhelming majority, interestingly the one I felt was best too. And so the Philharmonia London Dry Gin was born. 

Music has an ability to change lives. From the very birth of time humans have gathered together made music, danced and felt a mutual bond. In our current difficult circumstances, the online presence of the Philharmonia brings much needed comfort and connection. If you’re a music aficionado you’ll need no invitation to join us during these next months for online performances. If you’re new to classical music, you’re very welcome – pour a gin, pull up a pew and welcome to a world that can soothe a troubled breast and cheer a broken heart. Chin, chin!

Find out more about the Philharmonia here

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