The time was, not that long ago, that gin had fallen out of favour. Thankfully those days are long gone, and now bars, festivals and many a drinks cupboard are burning with beautiful bottles, packed with botanicals. Even within all that, Tappers Gin is something special.
A small independent family business producing 40 bottles per batch, from the shores in West Kirby. Each bottle is individually filled, labelled and wax sealed by hand.
It’s a labour of love for Steve and his team.
“For a good few years before I started making gin I used to spend a lot of my time obsessing over it,” he laughs.
“Ever since I discovered that there was more to gin than a Gordon’s G&T, with so many new products being released with all kinds of unusual botanicals, flavours and back stories, I spent my time tracking down the rare, quirky, weird and wonderful. I used to visit gin festivals, armed with notepad and pen to take notes, and had my own gin blog where I shared my opinions and was followed by some respectable industry names.
“I had a collection of about 60 different gins at one point.
“As I delved deeper, I discovered that many of the gins I thought had been produced in various towns and cities in small batches were in fact made to order and produced by some of the big distilleries. They are known as contract distilled gins, and I was pretty devastated to learn about that. As a gin nerd I thought I knew everything there was to know, and as a consumer I thought I was spending my money on provenance.
“I decided to put my hand to making gin myself. I thought ‘well, I’m going to do it properly then and prove a point’. I was incredibly naive about what that would involve! Fortunately there have been some extremely supportive people, venues, and other local businesses that have helped us along the way.
“I released Darkside Gin in May 2016 after trialling it on friends, family and some friendly local landlords! It’s a nod to West Kirby, where I grew up and have lived for most of my life, and to Wirral and Liverpool as a whole – from the local seaside botanicals that inspired the flavour, to the name which comes from affectionate Liverpool-Wirral rivalry. It took a year to find the right balance of some very unusual botanicals like the foraged sea beet I use – it’s a little like spinach, but grows along the coast.”
Each season, Tappers release a new batch of gin. Autumn’s was Darkside, a herbal gin.
“Most gins are citrus-led, like Gordon’s,” says Steve. “After releasing Darkside, testing the water with it, and finding it was doing very well, I decided to look at releasing something else – something seasonal, still very British, but not specifically local. For Winter, an aromatic gin fit the bill with spruce needles, birch bark, cassia and meadowsweet – a real smell of Winter and a taste of Christmas in a bottle. That was when I thought about releasing a gin for every season.
“For Spring I had to go with floral so I used foraged gorse flowers from Caldy Hill, cowslip flowers, chamomile, elderflower, orange blossom. Summer had to be citrus – lots of lemon with lemon peel, lemon verbena, lemon balm and grapefruit peel for a nice long G&T.
“The Autumn release is probably my favourite though. It was the hardest to finalise, especially since it was the last seasonal gin to release and I wanted it to be special to finish off the range. I made a lightly spiced gin with elderberries, rose hips, bilberries, fennel seeds and ground ivy.
“I love the colour – the usual amber hue (from infusing juniper) has turned rust coloured from the bilberries. A perfect match for the season!
“Darkside took so long partly because it was about developing a formula by which I group botanicals by intensity and type of flavour and in relation to juniper. Everything is based on juniper. Juniper is what defines gin as being gin, after all, and I use a lot of juniper in my gin since the method I use (to compound, and not to distil) is very old fashioned and I wanted to produce an old fashioned gin. Compound gin retains all of the flavour of the botanicals since nothing is distilled away.
“It means I have to be incredibly careful and precise about the quality of ingredients I use. It’s why my gin is distinctive in colour and flavour and also why many of them can be taken neat like a “sipping gin” which is quite rare for gin. Everything is entirely natural, nothing is stripped away as it is with distillation.
“Once I had the formula down for Darkside, the other gins have been easier to develop. I spend a lot of time researching botanicals and how they’ll taste and then a lot of time testing how they combine with one another. Sometimes I’m lucky and they come together quickly, and other times they don’t play ball and it takes me a while to realise which one is the culprit so that I can make changes.
“In terms of producing a batch (of just 40 bottles): it takes about a week in total to infuse all of the ingredients, over different stages and for different times, and to then bottle, wax seal and label them all by hand.”
This season’s gin is the aptly named Wintergreen.
“Herbal gins like Darkside aren’t particularly common but aromatic ones like Wintergreen are even more rare, so I was taking another gamble that it might not be popular but I’ve never made a gin for that reason,” explains Steve.
“I make them more for myself to be honest – to know I’ve created something and that it’s different and unique, and then if people like them that’s just a bonus! I was also worried it might dent the popularity of Darkside.
‘As it turned out, I had a lot of people who weren’t big fans of Darkside suddenly drinking Tappers because they liked Wintergreen. I love the way, with all of the seasonal gins, people tell me they have a favourite and they’re excited for when it makes another appearance. Wintergreen has a huge following of all of the seasonal gins. The aroma is what it’s all about: the smell of a pine forest in a bottle! It’s got a crisp, sharp taste as well, perfect for the time of year. It also makes a mean mulled gin…”
The Tappers Christmas party must be something to witness – what’s on the drinks menu?
“Biased me would say mulled gin with Wintergreen or a gin hot toddy with Darkside, both of which are really warming and perfectly seasonal,” says Steve.
“If I were to cater to other tastes, though, since it’s not all gin gin gin, I’d offer up mulled wine and of course some bubbly. There’s some incredibly impressive English sparkling wines out there that I’d encourage people to look into instead of just relying on good old Prosecco.”