When master distiller Peter Hunt’s first attempts to create a gin celebrating the Fairmont Empress resulted in a strange indigo liquid, he thought it was a terrible mistake. But customers, from Victoria to New York and beyond, soon couldn't get enough of the indigo spirit.
By CINDA CHAVICH
When Peter Hunt set out to create a gin to celebrate the centennial of Victoria’s historic Fairmont Empress Hotel, he chose both classic and unique botanicals. There would be plenty of juniper and coriander for old-world style, plus contemporary touches of lively grapefruit peel and ginger root. But the most unique addition to the Empress 1908 Gin was a blue butterfly pea blossom from Thailand, which tints the gin a very royal purple and has made the spirit a hit both here and abroad. “Empress 1908 Gin may soon be Canada’s most popular premium spirit export,” says Hunt, Victoria Distillers’ young president and master distiller, whose indigo gin recently surpassed Hendrick’s as the most popular premium gin sold in the province, and is now selling across Canada, in 22 U.S. states, and in the U.K. and Japan. “Victoria Gin always did well, but Empress Gin surpassed Victoria Gin sales in five weeks,” says Hunt, “and within six months it was the best-selling premium gin in B.C.” Hunt is the son of Bryan and Valerie Murray who opened an artisanal distillery called Victoria Spirits in 2008. They produced the eponymous Victoria Gin whose original bottling, with the image of a young Queen Victoria on the label, was launched at the Empress. In 2015, the Murrays sold the company to Grant Rogers of Marker Group, and he expanded with a new larger distillery and tasting lounge on the waterfront in Sidney, rebranding as Victoria Distillers in 2016. Peter Hunt remained with the new company as president and master distiller. With the new gin so wildly popular, he is preparing to install a third still at the small Vancouver Island distillery to keep up with demand. “Our production has increased tenfold in the last year,” he says. Empress 1908 Gin is now the flagship spirit for Victoria Distillers, a boutique distillery which, like many, started with a dream of making whisky. Gin was a way to help distinguish the brand while the brown spirits aged in barrels, but Hunt says their whisky, rum and bitters projects have been eclipsed by their bold new gin.
INGREDIENTS OF SUCCESS How the colourful butterfly pea blossom ended up in the botanicals for Empress 1908 Gin is a fascinating story. Hunt says he was experimenting with various botanicals, including some of the signature Empress Hotel afternoon tea blends, while working on the new spirit named for the year the historic hotel opened. The intense royal-blue colour was accidental, says Hunt, a result of infusing the Blue Suede Shoes blend of green tea and butterfly pea blossoms into a batch. When the gin turned colour he says he thought it was a nonstarter. “I’d never heard of butterfly pea flowers,” he says. “We almost threw out the whole batch — who would buy this?”
But the gin, which so perfectly complements the amethyst accents in the new décor of the hotel’s modern Q bar, found instant fans. Soon hotel guests were grabbing a cab to the one government liquor store in Victoria that was selling the new spirit to buy a bottle. The other exciting and unexpected side effect of this infusion is its ability to magically change colour. Just add a splash of tonic or a little acidic citrus juice, and the royal purple spirit morphs to lavender and pretty pink. It’s what has brought mixologists to the Empress 1908 Gin in droves, but Hunt said he didn’t initially know his gin would transform this way in the glass. It wasn’t until they began creating cocktails for a local Art of the Cocktail event that they realized how the colour evolves, depending on what mixer was used. “We had no idea why this was happening,” he says. “We were sitting at the bar in the distillery lounge, shaking up cocktails, and we were scratching our heads, trying to figure out why we had so many different colour variations.” The butterfly pea flower blooms on a climbing vine in tropical Asian climates, where it is traditional for indigo teas in Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. The petals are also used to garnish salads and desserts, and to create blue rice dishes and puddings. As it’s nearly impossible to add a natural purple hue to a drink, creative bartenders began using the tropical plant in their own cocktail infusions, says Rob Williams, the new bar manager at the Empress Hotel’s Q Lounge.
GIN IT UP “Where I come from, in the U.K., there’s been a gin boom,” says Williams. “Ten years ago there were four or five brands in Scotland; now it’s close to 100.” But now he’s fielding calls from bartending colleagues from as far away as Australia about Empress 1908 Gin. “It’s outselling everything — I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Williams, who also has barkeep colleagues in Edinburgh, London and New York asking him about the popular blue gin made in his new backyard. Williams puts Empress Gin on par with other new premium products like The Botanist Gin, produced by Bruichladdich Distillery in Scotland. With 50 per cent juniper in the botanicals, plus intense citrus notes, he categorizes Empress Gin as “a contemporary London dry.”
It’s now the top gin poured in the hotel’s Q dining room and lounge. The Q-1908, a frothy lavender sour, is the bar’s signature drink, just one of the many gin cocktails that now make up nearly half of what’s ordered in Q. “Last year we sold 23,000 drinks using Empress Gin, 60 per cent of our total gin sales,” says Williams. “We make a lot of French 75s using Empress gin, Negronis, and our Royal Auxiliary.” “Q is seen as a martini bar, and our highest selling cocktail is the gin martini — but we made 7,000 Empress G&Ts last year, too.” Jeff Guignard, executive director of the Alliance of Beverage Licensees (ABLE BC) says gin is riding a popularity wave that coincides with the growing cocktail culture and the craft distilling craze. “Gin, as a category, is doing tremendously well,” Guignard says, citing national statistics showing gin sales are up more than 30 per cent since 2010, with a six per cent increase in B.C. between 2017 and 2018 alone. “Ten years ago there were maybe five B.C. distilleries; now there are 60,” he says. “Bartenders today are extremely competent and experienced, and small spirit producers are making good connections with them. “Plus, when you’re selling something hyper-local, consumers will pay for that experience.” Though gin trails other spirits in total sales — whisky and vodka being Canada’s most popular drinks — spirit sales continue to rise with sophisticated young consumers expected to spend $26.6 billion on spirits by 2020, while the artisan gin movement continues to expand worldwide.
COLOUR CRAZE When it comes to colourful gins, there are some copycat spirits but Hunt says Empress 1908 was the first blue gin. Recent releases of “colour-changing gin” using the butterfly pea flower include Ink, a small-batch gin from Australia, The Illusionist Dry Gin in a black bottle from Munich, and Sharish Blue Magic Gin from Portugal. There are other coloured gins from small producers in Canada, too — like the electric yellow Ungava from Quebec that gets its sunny hue from arctic plants including rosehips, bakeapple and Labrador Tea, or Dillon’s amber Rose Gin made with rosehip and rose petals — but Empress 1908 Gin is the only homegrown gin that morphs from deep purple to full-on candy floss pink.
Though some say the indigo colour is “gimmicky,” Hunt says the butterfly pea flower adds an earthy flavour and rich mouth feel to Empress gin. It’s won several medals at international competitions this year in blind tastings — Gold at the 2017 New York World Wine & Spirits Competition, Gold and Best in Class at the 2018 Canadian Artisan Spirit Competition, Best Canadian Classic Gin at the 2018 World Gin Awards, and double gold at the 2018 San Diego International Wine and Spirits Challenge. It’s on the menu at the Plaza Hotel in New York and The American Bar in London’s Savoy Hotel. Hunt says Empress 1908 Gin fits well into the growing trend toward unique gin offerings, especially in the U.K. where gin has never really gone out of fashion. According to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association in the U.K., gin sales rose by 28 per cent in volume (and 33 per cent in value) to reach £1.5 billion in the year ending in March 2018, with sales more than doubling in the past five years. Gin may also be riding the wave of pink cocktails. The association points to a recent “craze” for coloured and savoury gins, including pink products from major makers — Gordon’s Pink and Beefeater Pink, raspberry-infused Pinkster, Edgerton’s rosy London Pink Gin, Warner Edwards pink Rhubarb gin, and Luxardo’s sour cherry gin. Empress 1908 Gin hits both trends, a naturally deep-purple spirit that makes pretty lavender and pink drinks. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Ultra Violet, a blue-based purple, was the 2018 Pantone colour of the year — “a dramatically provocative and thoughtful purple shade” that “communicates originality, ingenuity and visionary thinking” and offers “a higher ground to those seeking refuge from today’s overstimulated world.” Cheers to that!