Sunday, 29 January 2017

I just want to start off by saying a MASSIVE Thank You to HOTH for THE BEST CHRISTMAS PRESENT EVER!! No, not socks, not hankies, not The Best Of Peter Andre (with matching calendar - tempting though that may be). No. This year's genius gift from my wonderful husband was........


I know! Never was a gift so perfect, right? Think pigs & muck, I was THAT happy. So, on a freezing, damp & miserable day in January I was whisked away to one of the best days I have ever experienced (and I'm counting a certain former Dr Who accidentally touching my bum in Asda among those days).

I arrived with a little trepidation at Manchester Three Rivers Gin - not surprisingly based in Manchester (The Green Quarter to be exact). An unassuming and blink-and-you'd-miss-it establishment tucked into the arches. Don't let looks fool you. Manchester Three Rivers is an absolute gem of a place. A bit cold, but what do expect for a former railway arch? Never mind. I'd soon warm up.

The group - eleven of us in all (I was the only one on my own) met by the bar at 1pm for our experience, that was to last just over three hours. Our host and tour guide Ryan invited us to all take a seat at the bar itself, which was mounted with iPads. More of that later. This is when my interest really started to pique. Not so much the tech - more the fact that Ryan was pouring us all a double Three Rivers gin and tonic (Double Dutch tonic if you're interested) with a garnish of rosemary and a gin-steeped apricot - all the better to bring out the best in the gin. Oh. My. Goodness. They don't call this a 'perfect pour' for nothing. I won't give too much away about Three Rivers Gin or spend ages waffling on about its taste, smell, warmth and all that. I'll let you make your own minds up if you ever see it in a bar or shop. Suffice to say it was bloody lovely and a very nice way to start a Saturday afternoon.

Swallying Delicately sipping our G&Ts we were shown a short but really interesting video about the history of Manchester - its role in the revolutions its gone through, its revelations and inventions, its renaissance and continued growth. It may have been the gin, but if Ryan had asked us to sign up for a Manchester Army I'd probably have given it serious thought - and I'm not even from the city!

Lights up, and Ryan pours us all another double gin and tonic. Just to keep us all entertained. Well, it would be rude to say no, wouldn't it? This is about 1:30pm and the world is already going slightly fuzzy at the edges and my toes have warmed up a few degrees. Everyone is getting more friendly and chatting to each other, consonants are starting to soften and slur. (Tip - DO NOT go on an empty stomach!)

Now we're all nicely on our way, Ryan starts his talk on the history of gin. It's actually really interesting. Maybe if they'd have served us booze with the history lessons at school I'd have paid more attention (and it was already one of my favourite subjects). Again, no spoilers. Or maybe I don't remember a lot. This is where the iPads come in as we swipe through historical pictures, cartoons and diagrams. We're encouraged to ask questions and - tongues suitably loosened - we certainly do. Everything from asking where Ryan is from, through what his favourite gin is (other than Three Rivers, of course) to why gin makes some people miserable - apparently, it doesn't. It's a psychological effect / some people already prone to maudlin personality that turns gin into mascara thinner.

Anyway...I digress. Much like we did yesterday. Ryan eventually drags us back on track and tells us that gin developed from 'Genever' - originally a 90 per cent plus proof spirit flavoured with juniper and originating in Holland. We're poured a neat shot of a thankfully much lower proof version to try. It still tastes like turps and takes at least two layers of enamel off my teeth (and about four years off my life expectancy). I'm suddenly much warmer and can hear colours. I start wondering how much being a professional gin taster would pay and if my liver could take it....

Ryan now invites us on a tour of the gin-making process. We carefully slide off our stools and totter downstairs to meet Angel, the company's still. A vision of aluminium and copper, Angel (we're told) can make 600 x 70cl bottles per run. I begin to calculate how much room that would take up in the under stairs cupboard and where to relocate the hoover. Manchester Three Rivers are currently doing two runs a week, and are looking to increase to three to meet demand for their product. I may have to clear out the spare room, as well.

The REAL Angel of the North!

The process is surprisingly simple and soon we're weaving our way back upstairs to Gin School. Ryan pours us a single shot of Manchester Three Rivers to demonstrate what a smooth, delicious 'sipping gin' it is. He's right. You could easily drink it neat over a few cubes of ice - like a decent malt whisky or bourbon. Just to keep us in the mood, he pours us another double gin & tonic to keep our (forgive the pun) spirits up.

And then comes the best bit of the day. Make Your Very Own Bottle Of Gin time. Yes, really. You get to make and take home your very own bottle, to your own unique recipe! We troop over to the miniature stills set along the back wall - a bit like  the chemistry lab at school. Ryan has supplied the 96 percent proof base alcohol (no, we didn't drink that), the distilled water, the juniper berries (gin cannot legally be called gin in the UK unless at least 51% of its botanical ingredients are juniper berries) and the 'flavour fixing' seeds and herbs.

After that, it's all down to us. We're given free rein to choose our very own blend of herbs, spices, seeds and flavours - everything from coriander to coffee, wormwood to walnuts. The (gin) world is our oyster to put together a blend of ingredients that we feel will make the Perfect Gin. It's like Harry Potter meets Willy Wonka as we excitedly skip to the store, opening jars & sniffing, weighing and measuring, putting together things that we believe will taste delicious. Some early blends are disastrous and are binned in disgust. One lady (who will surely be played by Julie Walters if they ever decide to make a biopic of our day) mixed coffee, peppermint, chocolate, star anise and chilli. NOT a good combo no matter how much you've already had to drink.

I  'still' haven't found what I'm looking for

We start sniffing each others' concoctions, marvelling at the different mixes, being polite, being complimentary. Ryan comes round and has a good sniff as well. That guy knows his stuff. He could pick out the ingredients we'd stuck together, suggesting ideas where something was 'missing' or about what things go together well. Potions lesson - sorry, mix time, over it was time to start the actual brewing process off.

We poured all the liquids into the mini stills, added the dry ingredients, turned up the heat and set the process off. While we were waiting Ryan poured us some cocktails. Yes, more alcohol! First, a Negroni (gin, vermouth and Campari) - a slightly bitter drink to start with but it got smoother as it went on - a perfect aperitif. Next was an Aviator - a sweeter cocktail with gin, maraschino liqueur, violet liqueur and lemon juice. It tasted like Parma Violet sweets. Delicious. Cocktails are, of course, normally for sharing between couples. As I was on my own, I got the two cocktails to myself. My hair was starting to get drunk.

After a surprisingly short period of time our concoctions started to dribble out of the still and into our beakers. Of course, we can't wait until it's finished and start sipping teaspoonsful of each others' straight out of the beaker. Before it's been watered down again to more human-friendly percentages. As you do. By this point I could smell time and peoples' faces were looking like Picasso portraits.

Once we'd all filled our beakers to the 400ml mark (optimal levels for a good gin) we switched off the heat and Ryan added more distilled water to bring things up to 70cl - bottle sized measures. A good stir later and we were ready for the ABV (alcohol by volume) check. Anything between 39 and 45 per cent proof is a good measure. Ryan started taking samples. Anyone whose gin was over-proof had more water added. I was a little nervous as Ryan dipped is instrument into my offerings (oi, none of that!). I waited with bated breath. 42.9%!! Whooo. 'I'm not going to touch that. It's perfect as it is', he declared. Oh, yes. Get in!! Beginner's luck?

Then the taste test. Beakers were passed around and everyone had a swig sip of everyone else's. Moment of truth.......mine was declared the favourite, Ryan included!! I am a natural at this gin making lark. Go me!

All my own work!

We poured our lovingly brewed gins into our bottles, added labels (including the recipe on the back and our final ABV) and we were done. Where had the three hours gone? Ryan then told us we could phone them up at any time and reorder a bottle of what we'd made (we forgot to ask how much, though). There's everyone's Christmas present this year sorted.

One last trip to the bar, for a 'perfect pour' of our own special brew. I have to say, it was bloody lovely. Although, by this point, I could have been drinking Toilet Duck. We were given a lovely Three Rivers tote bag and bottle of Double Dutch to take home - and the opportunity to buy a bottle of Three Rivers at a discounted price. Something we all jumped at the chance to do, of course.

We said our final goodbyes and I wobbled, clinking, out to where HOTH was waiting in the car. I wafted in on a cloud of gin fumes, red faced and shiny eyed. It's a wonder he didn't get second-hand drunk. I waffled on during the journey home, declaring it the best day ever.Well, after we'd come home via the chippy with the best chips and gravy in the world, that is (I needed something to soak up all that booze).

At home HOTH had both a straight sip and a perfect pour or two and declared it delicious. It would have been churlish of me to let him drink alone....

And so merrily to bed. Very merrily. By some miracle I still managed to watch Denzel Washington in 'The Equalizer'. Anything more intellectual would have been much too far a reach. I woke up in the morning refreshed and hangover free. Now that's the sign of quality gin!

So. If you're ever up here in the north or you're stuck for a present for that hard-to-buy-for relative, I can heartily recommend the Manchester Three Rivers Gin Experience. You won't regret it - although your liver may not speak to you for a couple of days.

And to be all grown up - please drink responsibly and NEVER drink and drive. (But you don't need *me* to tell you that, do you?)

Until I next have something vaguely interesting to say....tatty bye!!

Manchester Three Rivers Gin