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The best books on Gin

recommended by Olivier Ward

Olivier Ward, editor and co-founder of gin appreciation website, Gin Foundry, recommends the best books on Gin — the medicinal drink that came to define the British Empire.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

I think of gin, or a gin and tonic, as the most traditionally English drink imaginable. But, like so many great things, it actually came from the Low Countries. Is that right?

Most people will just tell you ‘yes’ and then not caveat it. Yes, it came from the Low Countries—Belgium, probably—but they weren’t making gin there, they were making ‘jenever.’ Gin has always been a British thing in that it was the Brits’ attempt to make their own version of jenever.

It was very different, in that the Brits did not have the distilling heritage or prowess or knowledge. Right at the start, and certainly in the 1600s, it was far inferior to jenever. But they were trying to replicate it and so they created their own version that became known—just reduced to that one monosyllable—as ‘gin.’

The Low Countries never made gin, but they certainly were the forefathers.

Is it made from juniper berries?

It’s made from barley and wheat and rye as the base spirit. Then it’s distilled with juniper berries as the flavour added to it. The base spirit always used to be cereal—though no longer, because you can make it from grape and all sorts of weird and wonderful things, even whey.

“Juniper had this ridiculous, medicinal, all-curing, all-conquering folklore about it. It didn’t matter what you had as an ailment, juniper was the answer.”

But certainly back then it was wheat, barley, or rye that was the base alcohol. Because that base alcohol was shockingly bad, they needed a pungent spice or herb and maybe something that had medicinal properties. Juniper fitted the bill.


You’ve got to remember that back then—and even before then, we’re talking about the 12th and 13th centuries—juniper had this ridiculous, medicinal, all-curing, all-conquering folklore about it. It didn’t matter what you had as an ailment, juniper was the answer. Whether you were wanting to cure gout or stomach problems, that was it. If you wanted to prevent becoming pregnant, you would ingest juniper. Other people would rub juniper over themselves to increase their virility.

Juniper was this magic botanical. The medicinal properties of it were so potent that when people were creating alcohol and creating what started off as medicinal tinctures, juniper was always going to be a huge part of it. The inherent thought was that it could do no wrong—it could only fix and cure.

So what is the difference between jenever and gin?

Today, jenever is geographically protected. The way that they distil it is using a high percentage of barley. A lot of that base spirit comes through into the end product. If you distilled any alcohol all the way through to 96/97% ABV, you’d have vodka. If you did it to 60% or 70%, you’d have what is called, in the industry, ‘new make spirit.’ That’s the kind of stuff you’d put in barrels for whisky or Armagnac or Cognac or brandy. Jenever is that.

Gin is a neutral spirit that is then redistilled with botanicals. It’s a neutral spirit that’s been rectified.

The difference could be explained like this: imagine painting on a beige canvas as opposed to painting on a white one. Jenever has a grainy, more cereally undertone, whereas gin should or ought to have a very clean start. Which, of course, they couldn’t do back then.

Let’s go through the books you’ve chosen. The first one on the list is Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason (2002) by Jessica Warner. It’s an illustrated history about the gin craze in the 18th century. It’s quite ironic because, these days, gin and tonic has slightly posh connotations—but it started off as a drink of the poor.

Gin as a neat spirit, very much so. Gin and tonic as a cocktail is slightly different in that it has its roots in the colonial era, when they were mixing gin with quinine for the troops. But yes, the irony is that gin and oysters was the poor man’s dish. Like pie and ale shops, they would have gin shops that would also serve up oysters because it was considered poor people’s food.

“ What people don’t really talk about with ‘Gin Lane’—this illustration of a debauched, broken society—is the fact that it was commissioned by the beer industry.”

What Jessica’s book does really well is show that the gin craze wasn’t just about this sudden attraction to cheap spirit. It was about policing what the poor drank so that the gentry weren’t affected by it and keeping that debauchery away from the upper class. It wasn’t that they actually cared, they just didn’t want to see it on their doorstep.

Is it about the Hogarth print, Gin Lane?

Yes. The Hogarth print is from 1751. Jessica presents the lead up to it. The gin craze is essentially over by the time that this famous depiction comes along. What people don’t really talk about with ‘Gin Lane’—this illustration of a debauched, broken society—is the fact that it was commissioned by the beer industry.

It was part of a twin set: ‘Gin Lane’ and ‘Beer Street’. In ‘Beer Street’ there’s prosperous industry and everyone’s getting along, the streets are clean and everyone is looking a bit portly and well-fed. Whereas ‘Gin Lane’ has a baby being skewered in the corner.

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It was propaganda. That’s not to say it wasn’t true at the time but it was about fear-mongering around this spirit so that it would shock the gentry of society into acting in favour of, basically, the beer breweries and farmers that supplied the breweries.

But gin was incredibly popular, wasn’t it? There were thousands of gin houses around London.

Certainly in East London, one in four doors would have had some form of gin still. There were patches. In Whitechapel, and Holborn to a certain extent, and around Seven Dials, there would have been quite a lot. And I suppose around St Paul’s, going east.

You can still see it in the street names. In Camden, there’s Juniper Crescent. So there are remnants in today’s London—even though there’s no hawker on the side of the street flinging gin at you as you walk past.

And the popularity stemmed from the fact it was a nice, strong drink and affordable?

Yes. It became incredibly cheap through various different acts of legislation. It didn’t happen overnight—it happened over 100 years. At the time, they thought of it as a way of raising money through taxes. They felt that by legislating it in specific ways, they could raise money for the war coffers against the French.

So it developed and grew. The thirst developed not just through a natural thirst for it, but a flood in the market of widely available, relatively cheap, booze. I’ve never really seen any evidence to say that it was cheaper than beer, which was widely commented on at the time. Having said that, it was probably almost as cheap.

“ People were literally drinking pints of gin because they thought that was okay and that’s how you drink alcohol, isn’t it?”

As she explains very well in the book, even in the first couple of years, people just didn’t know how to deal with it. People were literally drinking pints of gin because they thought that was okay and that’s how you drink alcohol, isn’t it? And then falling over dead.

It was much more akin to a crack cocaine epidemic than a drinking epidemic. People were being excused for crimes. I think one lady was excused for killing her husband and throwing him down the stairs because she had been made so senselessly drunk that it therefore incapacitated her ability to judge what was right and wrong. Ridiculous crimes were being attributed to being so drunk.

It was an amazing time of discovery, not just of alcohol but the effects of alcohol in a pre-police society. There were no police and the only way that society was kept together was by everyone trying to force people into thinking that they had a very set class and were not allowed to move out of that. That was what got the gentry so upset—because if people don’t know their place, then we might get challenged.

Jessica’s book is extremely well-researched. She articulates all these points and really delves into the facts of the matter. And, also, the human element. You hear these amazing statistics—of the birth-rate being lower than the death rate but also the human stories of these outrageous acts that were going on at the time. Some of them are senseless and some of them are just unbelievably shocking.

The one depicted in ‘Gin Lane’ was an allusion to ‘mother’s ruin’ and Judith Dufour. She worked as a seamstress in one of the washhouses. She went out on a lunch break with her child, killed it, took his clothes, and sold them in order to buy gin. She then came back blind drunk to work later that evening. These human stories wouldn’t have emerged without Jessica’s research.

It’s a good read?

Absolutely. She writes well and the best thing about it is that she doesn’t let the research or the academic side get in the way of the story. It clearly shows the references—if you want to look something up, you can—and there’s nice annexing and indexing. But it’s narrative-driven, as opposed to being just academic, although it is an academic project.

She also makes parallels with the modern era ‘war on drugs,’ I believe.

She certainly alludes to it. There are the facts of the matter, who’s being impacted—and then there is who’s legislating against it. Those are two completely separate things. There’s a huge disconnect in understanding, a lot of the time. That’s probably the most potent of the parallels that she implies. I’ve seen her give a talk about this separately—today’s society versus theirs with specific claims. I think, in the book, she’s a little bit more generalistic in drawing those parallels.

Let’s go on to your next book, The Book of Gin: A Spirited World History from Alchemists’ Stills and Colonial Outposts to Gin Palaces, Bathtub Gin, and Artisanal Cocktails (2011) by Richard Barnett. I guess the title explains it pretty clearly. It’s going right through the history of gin from its beginnings.

Richard Barnett is a historian and, for me, it’s an interesting one. There are a lot of boozehounds who talk about history and it can be a little bit cold and un-engaging. Richard is a historian at heart. He gives no explanation of how one might make gin, or drink it, or make cocktails or anything like that until he’s well into the book. It very much comes second. And that’s why I think that, if you had to read about the history of gin, his is the book I would refer people to. It is comprehensive and well-written.

I think in your email you described it as a ‘one-stop shop’ for the history of gin.

Yes. When I look at, say, Olivia Williams’s book which is a nice read, or Lesley Jacobs Solmonson’s, which is also a good read, they’re really just summarizing similar content without necessarily covering any new ground. I think Richard’s ability to present history in an engaging way makes it the go-to as a reference for the history. And still, to this day, I haven’t really seen anyone tackle the subject in its entirety with the same ability and the same completeness.

“The term ‘quacks’ for doctors came from the bubonic plague era, when doctors used to wear masks with long beaks…They thought that by breathing through juniper, they would be immune to the plague.”

Jessica’s book is about 70 years of history—a very specific period—whereas Richard’s goes right the way through to Prohibition. Some of the American books on that history focus on booze and not necessarily gin, whereas Richard remains on topic.

Can you give an example of a bit of the history that you particularly like that people might not know about?

He articulates very well how juniper was used from a medicinal perspective. There was this growth in myth and folklore through people like Pepys—and other writers of that time referencing their plights, whether it was gout or colic.

The plague doctors used juniper berries to breathe through. The term ‘quacks’ for doctors came from the bubonic plague era, when doctors used to wear masks with long beaks. And those beaks were filled with juniper. They thought that by breathing through juniper, they would be immune to the plague. Obviously they were wrong but, ironically, there is a slight truth in that juniper oil is actually quite a good flea-repellent. So, they wouldn’t be covered in fleas, perhaps. And—who knows—maybe that made their houses less attractive to rats and rodents that were carrying the plague at the time. Little details like that are sporadically put in and linked throughout the book.

Many terms that we know today are relevant. Another example is: “a bitter pill to swallow.” He talks about that being the quinine pill that troops used to get. They used to have to wash it down with alcohol of some form and often that was gin. That was the original gin and tonic, perhaps. A bittersweet pill, indeed.

Is it true then, that in colonial times in India, people started drinking gin to improve the taste of the quinine?

To mask it. I don’t think they were trying to improve it. It was the daily dram. You can see this through rum culture in the navy certainly. Obviously there was gin in the navy as well. It was mainly officers who were on gin and the rest of the ship would have been on rum, or brandy, depending on where they were setting sail from.

The daily dramming, in terms of rations, would have been given to troops. If they were at sea, they would have been given lime cordial to avoid scurvy. And if they were on land, in the colonial era across the Raj and certainly southeast India, they would have been given quinine which, at first, came in cordial form. It would be like a dark brown, syrupy, ridiculously bitter thing to put down your throat. Later, the compounds were isolated and it became pills and you have quinine pills. That has carried on today to malaria tablets which are still, essentially, quinine in massive concentration.

So they were given the booze alongside this medicine as part of the daily dramming. It was helpful to mask the vile taste of quinine in the morning. There are amazing photos of this online. If you look on at the colonial gin and tonic—it’s in the cocktail section—there are photos of the daily dramming on the left hand side where these troops in the 1900s were getting their rations every morning. You would stand to attention, fall in line, and get a quart.

Was quinine originally from South America?

Yes. It was found in Peru, in particular. Going on the engravings, it was the Incas who gave quinine to science and the Jesuits. You can track it to South America, and then it was propagated in Indonesia predominantly by the Dutch, and then into Africa.

So, at this point, they knew it was good against malaria?

Yes, which is why quinine seeds were absolute gold dust. The South Americans tried to ban their export. To get quinine seeds and smuggle them out of the country was quite an ordeal. There are a lot of good history tales about captains and adventurers who did just that to be able to propagate the seeds elsewhere.

Colonialization would not have happened without quinine. Kew Gardens have amazing books on their role in helping propagate quinine into areas that were closer to where the troops were, as opposed to having to ship it all the way across the world.

By World War I, and even as late on as World War II, when the colonial era was coming to an end, it was in Indonesia that most of the plants had been propagated from their origin in south America.

Does the phrase ‘Dutch courage’ come from gin as well?

That was the Thirty Years War. At that time, the Brits and the Dutch were both Protestant countries fighting against the Catholics. It was noted that the Dutch would drink out of their flasks and this would give them a certain courage in the face of battle. That became known as ‘Dutch courage.’

Whether it was jenever or brandy that was being consumed at the time by the Dutch, no one really knows. But certainly when William of Orange came to the UK and popularised jenever and started increasing domestic consumption and production of alcohol and—in our case—gin, that ‘Dutch courage’ came to be associated with gin. You’d drink it before battle and it would either numb the pain of what was about to happen or it would numb the senses to the fear of going to what was, essentially, certain death at that point.

Let’s go on to book number three, which is The Curious Bartender’s Gin Palace. I take it this is a bartender’s perspective on gin?

Tristan Stephenson certainly started as a bartender. He then went on to own his own bars and still does. He’s done an incredibly successful series of books. The Curious Bartender is, I suppose, a series in its own right. He’s done rum, whiskey, gin, and, of course, bartending.

Tell me a bit about the book. 

The book starts off with a summary of the history of gin and some of the botanicals that go into it. It doesn’t dwell on too many facts but just the key elements that you need to understand the history of it. He glides through it quickly and then goes on to gin brands.

He doesn’t approach it as a list book—there are lots of list books out there. What Tristan does really well is he explains the process and the production and the story behind the gins. That’s what’s so engaging about it. You’re not just hearing someone’s opinion on a tasting note—as if you were reading a book on the 100 best wines or whatever it might be. He goes: ‘this is what I think about the taste but here’s a load more information so that you can understand the human aspect of the distillery, the production, the provenance.’ He paints a much wider picture in that way.

“ One shouldn’t forget that Tristan was considered one of the very best bartenders in the world”

He goes through a lot of different brands all across the world. He gives a really good snapshot of why gin is so popular, without necessarily stating it. A huge part of the resurgence in recent years has been, to be honest with you, about connecting with people, products, and provenance. It’s not just the taste alone.

So it’s not that he’s explaining how to make the famous cocktails?

He does do that, towards the end. He explains the Martini and how he would make it or the Red Snapper or the gin and tonic. He combines a bit of history with a bit of how-to.

And he does that really successfully. He draws on his experience. One shouldn’t forget that Tristan was considered one of the very best bartenders in the world, having won many competitions within the industry. I say he was considered because he’s not active any more. So he does talk about cocktails but the bulk of the book is the stories of each beverage.

I just read the opening bit, about him going downstairs and drinking his parents’ tonic when he was a boy and being hooked.

You can tell that food and drink, in all of their respects, are absolutely his passion—and have been, from a young age. That comes through in the book.

A lot of writers don’t necessarily come from within the heart of the trade and he very much does. And yet, he has an understanding, an ability to cut through bullshit when people are selling it to him.

Number four is Gin: The Manual by Dave Broom.

Dave is probably the foremost whisky expert in the world. He is one of my favourite writers when it comes to whisky and his understanding of the whisky industry and the heritage of it is second-to-none. I have loved reading his books for many a year. When you read his whisky books, you are transfixed and taken aback by the poetry and the understanding. He can make someone love a spirit.

I don’t feel that his understanding of gin is anywhere near that calibre. I think he was asked to write a book by his editors because it was a trendy topic, as opposed to him having inherent knowledge.

In it, he’s sampling about 120 gins. Is that basically what the book is?

Yes, tasting, and then systematically putting them through, say, gin and lemonade, gin and tonic, gin and ginger ale. You actually get a really good understanding of how to use gin  in a domestic context. It’s not just personal, subjective opinions—which of course there are a lot of—but a similar metric on which to evaluate the taste of gin. If you say, ‘Okay, I like this gin that he said is citrusy and works well with this,’ you can flick through the book very easily to find something he’s said the same thing about and therefore make the inference that you might like that too.

It’s a very good list book. You can use it as a reference to go, ‘Well, where do I start with this gin category?’ You read a couple of pages and go, ‘I like the sound of that,’ and you give it a try. It’s a very easy one to flick back and forth in and find something that you might like.

From your point of view, what is your favourite gin? What would you buy in terms of value for money?

I’ve posted an article about the ultimate gin cabinet—which five gins would you get? I find it quite difficult because it’s one of those things where I can’t separate the people, the production and the place in which it’s made, to the end outcome. There are certain gins that I absolutely admire and love but don’t necessarily like the flavour of.

“ I don’t feel I ever buy a gin for the sake of a flavour. I buy a gin as an endorsement of who, how, and where it’s made.”

And, equally, there are some that I love the flavour of but I know how it’s made. Sometimes, you like the flavour of something but it’s just an indulgent treat, and you ought to know better. You like it but, when you think about it, you really shouldn’t like it as much as you do. That’s my problem.

So, I don’t have a favourite gin per se. It’s more of a specific gin for a specific occasion. I think that conscious consumption is where I place the value in what I buy. I don’t feel I ever buy a gin for the sake of a flavour. I buy a gin as an endorsement of who, how, and where it’s made.

What might that be—an artisanal producer in Portugal where you’ve been on holiday?

Yes, it reminds you of a place. A good example of this is St. George’s Terroir Gin, which is Californian gin. It’s very well-crafted. The flavours are deliberately reminiscent of a Californian forest on a sun-drenched afternoon. So you get that Douglas fir, bay laurel, warming sun sensation coming through in each and every sip.

Or it might just be supporting someone like the guys at Half Hitch which is based in Camden. You look at it and it’s been a one-man band that has risked everything and built a micro distillery in the heart of Camden town. He’s built a great product and is building a great team around him. You can’t help but root for that kind of person. It’s entrepreneurial spirit but with authenticity and integrity.

Those things matter to me more than the end flavour. That’s what I think about when I drink. It’s about the entire package. And people don’t necessarily buy something for the first time on flavour, because they don’t know the flavour. It is based on price point and availability but also the look and feel of it. If you’re going to spend thirty quid on something, it’s got to look the part as well.

You mentioned an 18% increase in sales this year compared to last year. Is that right?

That was just in December. There was an 18% increase for everything spirits-related in December 2016, compared to December 2015. There was an enormous surge for spirits and alcohol, in terms of purchasing across the UK. That was very much driven by gin.

It just goes to show that growth year-on-year has been astronomic. I wouldn’t say that gin as a category has grown double digits, but it has certainly grown over five per cent.

Is a lot of that going to these artisanal gins that you’re referring to? Or is it mostly going to the big brands?

The big brands are still the lion’s share of volume in the UK. The big four or five gins that you can think of—Gordon’s, Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire etc—are still eighty percent of the market. So, of course, the bulk of the volume is theirs.

But where the growth is happening and the interest is happening and the rise is happening is absolutely all in this craft sector. They’re growing at breakneck pace. The other guys are growing too but it’s very much these small producers all across the country that are taking gin to the next level and are seeing double digit growth year-on-year.

Looking at your website, I saw there’s some weird and wonderful things being done. You mentioned whey…

Yes, there is a whey-based spirit which is a New Zealand gin called Reid+Reid. Whey isn’t really that heard of in the UK as a base. Most people are more familiar with wheat or even grape-based spirits, which have been popularised through the big vodkas in France.

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Whey-based spirits are a bit more common in New Zealand and also in Ireland. A lot of people are turning to it as the base for the gin. Ballyvolane makes a gin called Bertha’s Revenge and they call it a ‘milk’ gin because that’s where whey comes from. And it’s not just a marketing USP, it really accentuates the spice, from a flavour point of view. It’s quite an interesting one to have a little taste of.

So there is lots of experimentation going on.

Yes, on every level. What could you use as the base? What could you use as botanicals? What hasn’t been done? And also, when you’ve made your gin, could you then infuse something into it—rhubarb or something else? There are experiments on all of those fronts.

Also, the way it’s distilled. Do you have to distil it in a pot still? Could you vapour infuse it? Could you do it under a vacuum and do it at minus temperatures? People are distilling gin at -30 degree Celsius. It’s crazy. So development, R&D, experimentation and innovation are happening on every single level that you could possibly think of—and even not think of because these guys are developing entirely new areas in which to grow for the future.

I think you’re absolutely right to choose your last book about tonic because it’s so much associated with gin. This is Gin and Tonic: The Complete Guide for the Perfect Mix by Frédéric Du Bois and Isabel Boons. Tell me about this book.

As far as I remember, this is written by Belgians. You think that the Brits love gin, well the Belgians love gin almost in equal measure. They are bonkers about it. But in the same way that Dave had a nice list of gin brands out there for you to go, ‘oh, I’ve hadn’t heard of that one. That sounds interesting’ this book adds to that in a similar way. It adds the tonic section, which no one really seems to have talked about so far. From all of the surveys that we do in the UK, 65-70 per cent of gin is consumed in a gin and tonic. If you think of all the all other cocktails you can make—Martinis, Negronis, Tom Collins—or even sipping it neat, the fact that almost 70 per cent of people are only ever drinking this in a gin and tonic, it’s a huge part of the equation.

“From all of the surveys that we do in the UK, 65-70 per cent of gin is consumed in a gin and tonic.”

He discusses some of the ones that are out there, what they taste like, how they can be mixed. He doesn’t go and do specific pairings, i.e. that tonic with this gin. What he does do is a pretty handy guide as to, ‘Okay this tonic suits more citrusy gins, or this tonic suits more herbal or spiced ones.’

He’s doing the tasting notes of the tonic water by themselves but there’s an implied pairing that’s a lot more general. I actually think that rule of thumb is more helpful than saying, ‘use Schweppes with Gordons and use this with that.’ It’s much more, ‘if you like that tonic, then this is the kind of gin that you might opt for.’ And vice versa.

I didn’t realise there was a huge choice in tonics.

Enormous. Fever-Tree reinvented the wheel a couple of years ago. Well, premium-ised it, I suppose, is a better way of saying it, because tonic’s been around for a long, long time. You’re talking late 17th, early 18th century. There have been a lot of tonic brands.

But since Fever-Tree have come out with a premium offering, there have been a lot of other people who have said, ‘hang on a minute, there’s a huge gap in the market and how do we get in on that?’ Fentimans, from a British perspective, were also in there early.

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But now you’re looking at dozens and dozens. Last year alone, there were at least ten new launches. These are ranging from huge scale to very, very small batch and artisanal.

There’s been a comeback of the original type of tonic—the tonic syrup— which is not carbonated. It’s just brown syrup. You add a shot of that, a shot of gin, and top it up with soda water. You can use it to make brown, colonial-esque gin and tonics.

So it’s really cool, there is a lot of innovation going on. I think it’s also interesting–I mean, interesting for someone like me, who’s perhaps a little bit obsessive about it—since the whole ‘what kind of sugar do you have?’ conversation has come up. A lot of brands have been pushing tonic that’s not overly sweet and does not come from artificial sugar sources.

There’s a lot of change and a lot of choice out there for what you want to put in your glass. I still think Schweppes is great and a lot of the supermarket home brands are fantastic as well, but they are all fructose syrup. You didn’t have a choice before. Now, you can choose fruit sugars or cane sugars—there’s a lot more versatility.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

June 10, 2017

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Olivier Ward

Olivier Ward

Olivier is editor and co-founder of Gin Foundry. With years of experience building drinks brands, distilling Gin and creating and hosting events celebrating the category, he is well placed to comment on the category, and does his best to cast a positive light on the spirit and those making it.

Olivier also delivers consultancy work for those seeking to open their own distilleries and hosts frequent ‘how to open a distillery’ workshops at Gin Foundry HQ. He holds a Level 2 Award in Spirits from the WSET and is Channel 4’s resident Gin Expert on Sunday Brunch.

Olivier Ward

Olivier Ward

Olivier is editor and co-founder of Gin Foundry. With years of experience building drinks brands, distilling Gin and creating and hosting events celebrating the category, he is well placed to comment on the category, and does his best to cast a positive light on the spirit and those making it.

Olivier also delivers consultancy work for those seeking to open their own distilleries and hosts frequent ‘how to open a distillery’ workshops at Gin Foundry HQ. He holds a Level 2 Award in Spirits from the WSET and is Channel 4’s resident Gin Expert on Sunday Brunch.