We’ve got something a little unusual this week: a gin from Hungary which is flavoured with grapes normally used to make one of the world’s great sweet wines. It’s Seven Hills Tokaj Gin!
Central Europe has a long and proud tradition of small-scale distillation. All over the old Austro-Hungarian empire, farmers turn the bounty of autumn into brandies and liqueurs, just as we do with jams and chutneys.
The skills are there so it was only a matter of time before someone applied their distillation knowledge to a drink that’s still the spirit du jour: gin. Which is exactly what they have done at the Seven Hills distillery.
Tradition and innovation
It was founded in 2020 by Dénes Mészáros-Komáromy and it’s fair to say that their inaugural release, Seven Hill Tokaj Gin, has been a triumph. This year it won best contemporary gin at the World Gin Awards, a gold medal at the London Spirit Competition and a master gong at the Spirits Business Gin Masters awards in 2020.
The distillery is located in Tokaj by the Bodrog river. This region might traditionally be a spirits heartland but the set up at Seven Hills (not to be confused with Italian distillery VII Hills) mixes the traditional with the ultra-modern.
At the centre of the distillery is an Istill, a fully-automated distillation robot designed by Dutchman Dr Edwin van Eijk aka Odin. Fittingly, the idea for it came to him following a visit to Hungary, his wife is Hungarian. He tried numerous domestic brandies, most were pretty rough but one was sublime. The problem was the distiller could not explain how he made his so well. It was all anecdotal, no science.
So, Odin set about creating a still from scratch where every aspect of the process would be controlled and measured by computer.The result was the Istill – you can read the full story about it here.
Tokaji, Hungary’s legendary wine
As well as fruit brandies, this part of Hungary is also famous for it’s sweet wine: Tokaji. This is made from grapes that have been affected with botrytis aka noble rot, a fungus that dries grapes out and concentrates the sugar. It’s used to make the famous sweet wines of Sauternes in Bordeaux but for centuries Hungary’s wines were considered as fine, if not finer.
Tokaji was one of many wines known as vinum regnum, rex Vinorum, the king of wines, the wine of kings. But in this case, it was true. The Czar of Russia kept detachments of soldiers in Hungary purely to bring the latest vintage safely back to St Petersburg.
It’s made using a unique technique where the ultra-sweet grapes are made into a sugary paste known as aszu which is then added to a fully-fermented dry (ie. not sweet) wine which causes it to re-ferment. Wines are graded by puttonyos – buckets of aszu added.
The reputation of Tokaji collapsed after the Second World War. A wine made using painstaking techniques and requiring only the finest grapes, didn’t take well to collectivisation. But since the end of communism, producers both domestic and with foreign investment have reinvigorated the region. Tokaji is once again one of the world’s finest wines. As with most sweet wines, it’s underpriced considering the quality and the amount of work that goes into making it. Try this example if you want to know what all the fuss is about.
A gin with a sense of place
The two principal grape varieties used are Furmint and Harslevelu, which is translated as Linden Leaf. The latter is used by Seven Hills Distillery to flavour its gin. Other botanicals used include a mixture of the native and the more far-flung such as juniper, coriander seed, forest pine bud, cubeb, elderflower, orris root, pink grapefruit, blackcurrant, and local honey.
Truly this is a gin with a strong sense of place. Mészáros-Komáromy said: “We put together modern technology, traditions and the special microclimate of the Tokaj wine region, resulting in spirits that are unique and unrepeatable anywhere in the world.”
There’s also a Tokaji barrel-aged gin in the pipeline. Exciting. But that’s not all. The team has been quietly laying down both malt and rye whiskies which should be coming on to the market in 2023. Very exciting!
Tasting Note by The Chaps at Master of Malt
Softly earthy with piney juniper and leafy herbs, before a bright flash of elderflower and lemon develop, shortly followed by a hint of blackcurrant leaf and peppercorn.
Seven Hills Tokaj Gin is available from Master of Malt. Click here to buy.