She would suddenly appear in front of me, once a week on a Saturday evening, in a plume of colourful smoke. And she was absolutely ‘bloody’ terrifying!
One minute I’m chilling in front of the TV, watching ‘Blind Date’ with our’ Cillar or the homoerotic muscle-fest ‘Man O Man’ (a retro throwback that demands a Google search once you’ve read this blog). The next minute, she’s there!…
She’d look directly at me through the glass, her eye contact never breaking focus. She would speak in a breathy and unnerving voice, with a tone that would send shivers down my spine – it was as if I was completely alone in the room, waiting for her to reach through the screen and grab me. She was an all-knowing medium, surrounded by a ghoulish aura, as she would go about her business regaling tales of future events that had yet to pass.
Fight or flight would kick in almost instantaneously, with flight inevitably winning. I wasn’t about to hang around to find out what future fate was in store for me! I would sprint from the living room, in floods of tears, to the sound track of overly dramatic background mood music and the laughter of my parents (that’s right dear reader! Laughter?!).
Well my friends. I can tell you that this was no laughing matter! Where most children were afraid of the bogeyman, monsters under the bed and sharks with lasers (just me?!) I was preoccupied with a beast of another kind…The National Lotteries ‘Mystic Meg’!
I bet, somewhat ironically, you didn’t see that coming did you?!
Ok. So it’s a pretty unconventional fear. I’ll give you that. Some might say it’s pretty niche. Ghosts, blood and guts did little to phase me in my youth. But put me in front of Mystical Megan or, for some unknown reason, BBC News reader Moira Stewart, and my underpants would be well and truly scared off!
Whilst admittedly being far from ordinary, this ‘spooktacular’ intro is as fitting to the 31st October Halloween diary date as it is to the impending subject matter. For I recently received a bottle of a very different nature, dressed to the nines in a brightly coloured costume of its very own. And as I anxiously slid the bottle from its cardboard coffin (box, sorry, it was in a box) I found the label was covered in blood!
…well, kind of. It actually just detailed the brand name; ‘Bloody Bens Signature Gin’.
Hello. My name is Ben.
Say hello to Ben Walton. Back in September 2011, Ben decided to open a canteen. He was on a mission to create something different – a hangout that was ‘anything but ordinary’. And after what seemed like literal minutes of Marketing and PR masterminding, he came up with a name. ‘Bens Canteen’. Nailed it.
Bens first Canteen in Clapham Junction fast became known, neigh renowned, for its brunch and (probably most importantly to this particular story), it’s Bloody Mary’s! Hundreds of the ‘bloody’ things were flying out of the doors on a weekly basis, as the perfect accompaniment to the best brunch in town.
Not content with slurping these bad boys on the premises, his baying customers spent years badgering Ben and co to bottle up their saucy little number for offsite consumption. And bottle it they did! Under the branding stroke of genius mark two; ‘Bloody Bens’!
Bens enormous success allowed for a sister venue to be created, with canteen number two taking residence in Earlsfield. I know what you’re thinking, ‘where the heck is Earlsfield?!’. This was exactly Bens thought too.
Earlsfield, seeing as you’re asking, is in South West London, 1 stop from Clapham Junction and just down the road from Wimbledon Tennis. A fact, that it is…it’s just not a very interesting fact. And this was a point that Ben set about wanting to rectify (or distill, in this case). With the Bloody Marys by this stage a staple of the menu, it was time to branch out. And our intrepid hero had an idea that might just get a few tongues wagging about his little Earlsfield venue…
Ben explains “I’ve always loved gin and we were looking for ways to make Ben’s Canteen, in Earlsfield, more interesting. We had a space where we kept baby chairs – having a gin Still in that space was a far more exciting proposition! Also, we wanted to raise the profile of Earlsfield, and creating a gin seemed a great way to achieve that”.
And with that, a genuinely small scale operation was born. There are three ‘ginthusiasts’ (including our mate Ben and Canteen Ops Manager Shane Gardiner, who put his hand up to add the role of Head Distiller to his duties) who work on it on a part-time basis, typically making a modest 60 bottles at a time. But a couple of thousand bottles later, and with over 100 stockists on the books, it turns out he was on the money in thinking his gin could be an exciting venture! Unless you were looking for a baby chair, that is…
In September 2019, Bloody Bens took over Ben’s Canteen in Earlsfield. The brand now had a permanent home. A new small Still has been installed, with a Gin Bar to boot! And yes, they still do a mean Brunch at the weekend!
If you didn’t know where Earlsfield was before, I’m pretty sure you’ll be looking it up shortly!
Trick or Treat?
Walton is enthusiastic and considered in his explanation to me on what makes Bloody Bens stand out from the crowd;
“It’s a London Dry but with Honey & Orange notes to give it a deliciously distinctive taste. It’s inspired by living and working in London (the Honey represents that) and dreaming in Mallorca where I visit frequently (…well, I did before children…) and it’s where I fell in love with gin. The orange represents the island’.
Juniper, honey and orange? Colour me interested.
But you know the first thing that caught my attention? (and how could it not?!) It was the absolutely stunning label design. One does not simply scroll past such a thing of beauty on Social Media without having their interest peaked…
In a gin scene where branding and USP has never been so important, Bloody Bens have caught the bull by the horns and chucked it in to a bucket of multicoloured paint! It really is a distinctive and eye catching piece of differentiation. Hands down, this is probably my favourite gin artwork on the market.
In the bottle design, they have captured the elegance and sophistication of a fine wine. But the truly clever bit is the label – you can’t see the brand name…you have to get up close and personal to find it! The label is all about escapism – whatever that means to you in either your professional, social or personal life;
“Our label design is distinctive. It’s about the colours, rather than screaming out the logo – this part is embossed and the idea is to get it into people’s hand, having a tactile label which they can touch and feel. And this is reflective of the small batch, hand made gin that it is.”
Aside from honey & orange, the Bloody Bens Signature Gin contains lots of juniper, cloves, angelica root, cardamon, liquorice, cassia, lemongrass, coriander and honeysuckle (which I must excitedly confess is a new one on me!).
But would the contents of the bottle be a trick or a treat? Well ‘stop the press’, because I’m here to take the guessing out of the equation. Step aside Moira & Meg – The Gin Shelf has this covered!
Bloody Bens Gin to taste
On the nose, the honey and honeysuckle are clearly at work. There’s a thick and pungent sweetness to the scent; there’s almost a stickiness to the vapours! My first thought on nosing the gin was that it seemed almost familiar to me?! At which point I realised I was being reminded of Copenhagen Gins ‘Dry Gin’, which is made using a honey meed base. The sweetness of the honey, against the pine of the juniper, gives off a similar boozey raisin aroma that I’d enjoyed before.(https://theginshelf.uk/2018/02/04/copenhagen-distillery/)
There’s a background orangey tone to the gin, that grows in strength. It not only complements the sweetness, but also acts as a bit of citrus zing to cut through the initial richness of the honey. It feels very much needed to help balance out the profile.
There’s a bold spice to the vapours, which build as the glass warms in your hands. A cassia, clove and cardamom spice mix develops nicely to create a festive character – alongside the indulgence of the honey, there are times that you could be forgiven for mistaking this for a Christmas edition offering.
Herbaceousness is not at the forefront of this gin, which aligns just fine with my juniper and citrus forward preferences. However, there is a slight grassiness that creeps forwards, with the oh so familiar bite of coriander in tow.
Upon sampling neat, wow; CLOVE! I’ve swallowed a clove!…Well, not quite. But nearly… suffice to say, I could taste a hefty amount of clove on the first swig. That spicy trio found prevalent on the nose is there in abundance on the taste. It’s ‘five spice-esq’ as it tingles on the tongue. On reflection, between sips, to my pallet the neat gin actually walks a dangerous tightrope of being too heavily dominant on the spice front – though I stop short of saying that it has actually tipped too far.
There is a depth and richness to the gin, with a clove studded orange washing around as part of a second layer. As the spirit matures, and your pallet acclimatises, there’s something of a ‘Christingle orange’ sense to the flavour profile. The whole thing is held together by those pine cone honey base notes, with the juniper being pleasingly strong throughout.
The liquorice makes its presence known at the backend of the gin, with its sweet and earthy richness against the other spices delivering a fresh ginger stem like heat. It’s a warmth that emphasises the gins not insubstantial 43% ABV.
Again, herbs don’t have much of a seat at the table here. On the one hand, I found myself searching for the coriander or a sense of greenery. On the other, I was quietly impressed at the fact that Bloody Bens has clearly made a decision to limit that aspect of the botanical spectrum and successfully stuck to its guns. For my pallet and taste, this is no bad thing.
But then, in a G&T, things start to change. It all makes…a little more sense! I opted for the Bloody Bens perfect serve of Fever-Tree Mediterranean Tonic and a wedge of fresh orange; a combo that I must say lives up to its perfect serve reputation! The energy and dominance of those spices, and the heat of the botanicals, are reigned in without being lost.
There’s a satisfying medicinal hum of clove washing around the glass, delivering a subtle aniseed sensation on the pallet. The sweeter nature of the tonic does wonders to open up the other flavours; those stem ginger notes follow through to the longer serve, with the orange feeling brighter and more vibrant in the glass. What was once a winter warmer when sampled neat, is transformed in to a summer sipper that really does help stoke images of a Majorcan beach break. Rather clever, and not a shift in gears I had anticipated finding. It’s far more in keeping with my citrus fanboy sensibilities!
The botanicals suggest that this gin is tailor made for a Negroni (as did Ben himself when discussing the available serve options!). So my excitement was palpable. And you know what? He’s not wrong! The sweetness of the honey works nicely against the bitterness of the Campari, softening the pallet without dampening down what a Negroni is supposed to be all about. The juniper is still able to stand tall, unintimidated by the complexity of the cocktail. The orange feels brighter and fresher, complemented by the bitter orange flavours, whilst complementing them in equal measure. The spiced profile of the gin is calmed slightly, so as not to be distracting or individually recognisable, but definitely plays its part in constructing a very enjoyable shorter serve over a fistful of ice.
My overall verdict? It’s bloody good…(sorry). At first I was thrown; when I opened the bottle I was expecting to dip my toe in the sea, and experience the summer warmth of Majorca. But what I got on the neat serve was a ‘do up your duffle coat, London Christmas market’ sensation. It’s not that, that was a bad thing – it was just completely unexpected! But then throw a Mediterranean Tonic & a healthy dose of orange garnish at the glass, and you’d better slap on the sun cream, as you’re instantly transported to sweeter and warmer climates! For my pallet, I far prefer this as a longer serve, with the G&T providing an exciting and refreshingly different take on the classic.
And any gin that can double up to deliver a well balanced and rounded Negroni is a thing of beauty, to be applauded, heralded and then drank (sensibly and in moderation of course…).
It delivers the classics in a uniquely interesting and moreish style. But then for a gin that describes itself as ‘anything but ordinary’ what were you expecting? The ordinary?!
It could be youuuu…
So looking ahead, in mystic style, what does the future hold for Ben and the Bloody Bens team?
Having well and truly caught on to the market for the growing trend in Brunching, it seems that Bloody Bens are set on making a little section of gin scene their own.
It feels like an almost certainty that more gins will be on the horizon. Indeed, alongside their Signature Gin, they already count a 43% ABV ‘Strawberries & Cream’ Pink Gin in their armoury;
“As we’re just down the road from Wimbledon Tennis, we did a Strawberries & Cream Pink Gin summer special but it was so popular we decided to make it a permanent fixture”.
In broadening the portfolio, there are also rumours of branching out in to a flavoured vodka to really enhance their Bloody Mary’s!
The team even have the eventing and gin tourism card marked, with it possible for you to hire out their micro distillery! So if you’re planning a party for up to 100 people, or you need a pop up space, Bloody Bens have you covered!
But in closing, I do have a parting admission… I really, really don’t like Bloody Mary’s! I’ve never understood how someone could enjoy, let alone pay for the pleasure of drinking, what is essentially cold tomato soup in a glass?! But I am heartened to hear that this is a trait that I share with Ben himself, who at one stage couldn’t stand them either! The Bloody Bens website explains to me that my issue is most likely down to not yet having tried a good one. I perhaps need to pay them a ‘bloody’ visit! Or better yet, if you’re in the same boat as me, pick up one of the teams non-alcoholic Bloody Mary mixes & slug some of their gin in there.
But until then, slide me over that bottle of Bens. I’m going to pour myself another Negroni. This really is ‘anything but ordinary’!
Huge thanks to Ben Walton and the Bloody Bens team for my complementary bottle of Bloody Bens Signature Gin!
Be sure to check out the latest ‘bloody’ news across Social Media and the teams website, where you can also pick up a bottle of one of their gins or Bloody Mary mix:
Bloody Bens are also hosting the Earlsfield Winter Gin Festival on the 30th November, with a great line up. Head over to FaceBook to check it out and snag your tickets!:
And once your thirst for knowledge is quenched, why not check out the brunch options at http://www.benscanteen.com (@benscanteen) and book your table now!
And don’t forget to stop by @theginshelf across all social media platforms for more blogs & event updates. Stop by, say ‘Hi’ & chat gin!
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