We talk to the authors of a new book, The World Atlas of Gin, on switching showbiz for the drinks industry, bonding over Islay whiskies and when they think the gin boom will end.
Oh you know, those two funny bearded chaps off the telly. No, not the Hairy Bikers, we’re talking about the drinks people from Sunday Brunch on Channel 4. If you’re even slightly interested in booze, you will more than likely be familiar with Neil Ridley and Joel Harrison aka World’s Best Spirits. As well as Sunday Brunch, they give talks and masterclasses, contribute to magazines, websites and newspapers, write books and still have time to attend every spirits tasting in Britain. How do they do it? They must be the hardest working men in the drinks business.
Their latest book, The World Atlas of Gin, (amazingly Ridley had the time to contribute to another book this year) is a magnificent and thorough guide to a drink that is now truly global in scope. It’s a part of the Mitchell Beazley World Atlas series, anyone familiar with these books will know how what gorgeous objects they are. Without further ado, let’s hear from the toothsome twosome themselves.
Master of Malt: What did you do before you became drinks writers?
Harrison & Ridley: We both worked in the music business, as A&R Executives (discovering new talent, signing it and making records) which was an incredible job to do at the time. Neil worked for Warner Brothers and Joel was at Island Records. We both and some amazing artists on the roster at the time such as Muse and Amy Winehouse respectively. We got to see a lot of amazing new talent coming up, but also a lot of rubbish music too!
MoM: How did you become drinks writers?
H&R: We started a blog in 2007, which was one of the very first whisky-focused websites, to document all the drams we were enjoying at the time, and to take an irreverent look at what was – at the time – quite a serious ‘leather armchair’ product. From that we were asked to write for various magazines and newspapers, and in 2015 our debut book, Distilled was released. It won the Fortnum and Mason Food and Drink Drinks Book of the Year and is now the biggest selling book on pan-spirits globally, being translated into 15 languages along the way. We have similar hopes for The World Atlas of Gin, our third book together.
MoM: How did you meet? Was it love at first sight?
H&R: Funny story. Joel was going on holiday to Islay to visit some distilleries. At the back of a gig we got talking about it and shared our love of whisky. We ended up missing the gig, after heading to the bar for a dram or two. . . and the band was the Kaiser Chiefs who went on to sell over a million records. We probably should have stayed for the gig…!
MoM: Can you remember a certain drink, bottle or cocktail that started your drinks obsession?
H&R: I think it was different for both of us, but certainly the single malts from Islay were a major drive to our shared passion. We both loved them, but there was also a big mix of bottles across our shared collection, from rich Speyside, to light grain, to our beloved Islay malts.
MoM: How long did it take you to research The World Atlas of Gin?
H&R: We developed our writing from whisky into general spirits for our debut book Distilled, and this kicked off a love affair with a variety of spirits from Armagnac through to gin. However, whereas the word of Armagnac has stayed relatively stable, the world of gin has exploded, as a result it took about 18 months of research across all sections of the book, from the production, to the history, to the brands. And we only include brands who make their own product (no contract gins) so that was fun, sifting out those producers who actually make their own liquid.
MoM: How many countries did you visit for this book?
H&R: There are near 60 countries covered in the book and we have visited about 50 of them across our time writing about distilled drinks, much of which was for this book.
MoM: Did you notice certain regional or national styles?
H&R: Yes, the ’new world’ style of gin whereby, in countries such as the US, the base spirit can be slightly lower in abv, vs the EU. In the US it is 95% and in the EU 96%. The 1% doesn’t sound like much but it leaves in a lot of flavour and texture. Therefore, in the ’new world’ style gins, the base spirit is almost like an additional botanical and can add a huge amount of flavour influence.
MoM: What was the most unusual gin you tried?
H&R: I think the London-to-Lima is the most unusual and plays on the idea of a ’new world’ gin, bringing in base distilled from grapes, a la pisco and drawing on Peruvian expertise in that area.
MoM: Do you have a go-to gin?
H&R: We love a number of different gins depending on the drink it is going in to. For a Negroni, a nice bold spicy style gin works well. For a Martini, something with a clean and crisp, citrus-led flavour. And for a G&T, we love something a little juniper heavy. If we had to choose one that does all well, it would likely be No. 3, a great all rounder.
MoM: Some people get very upset by pink and flavoured drinks. Where do you stand on this divisive issue?
H&R: So long as there is a heart of juniper, we don’t mind them at all. They can act as a ‘gateway’ for people to get into the gin category and if helps people discover drinks like the Negroni and Gimlet, then brilliant. Warner’s Rhubarb Gin is a fine example of a properly-flavoured, well-made product in this field. It’s delicious.
MoM: What trends are we likely to see in gin (and indeed in other drinks) over the next two years?
H&R: We believe there will be no let up in the gin boom. In the UK we will see people drinking more and more local products, like they do with real ale. So long as gin brands focus on their local market, they’ll be fine. Not all will be world-dominating. Globally, gin will continue to grow as different consumers in different countries discover the gin and tonic (tonic in America, for example, has historically been awful but now with brands like Fever-Tree it is actually a quality product), made with a local gin, and of course amazing cocktails such as the Negroni, Gimlet, Gin Sour, Martini etc…!
MoM: What’s your favourite gin-based cocktail?
Harrison: Anything. But a Gimlet is one of my top drinks, and a more savoury-led Negroni made with a good vermouth and garnished with rosemary,
Ridley: You can’t go wrong with a clean and crips Martini (such as the one at Dukes or the Connaught Hotel), with a citrus twist. Or indeed just the classic G&T with lots (and lots) of ice.
MoM: What have you got coming up next? Books? TV? World tour?
H&R: We have our regular slot on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch which comes around every 5-6 weeks or so, and we are working on the next book. That’s always the best part of writing any book… the liquid research…