The annual Six Nations Championship begins this weekend, and fans from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy will be tuning in to cheer on their teams. Here at 6 O’clock Gin HQ, we’ll be cheering on England, and hoping they can swipe victory from the French, who took the title in 2022.
Naturally, we’ll be keeping refreshed throughout the matches with a crisp 6 O’clock G & T, but the start of the tournament has got us thinking a little more about what fans from the other competing countries might be enjoying with the game. There are certainly some drinks that are common to the drinking cultures of northern Europe (gin being one of them!), but there are also many differences. One thing’s for certain though – no matter what colours you wear, or the language you cheer your team on in, many fans from all of the competing nations will be celebrating (or commiserating) with a glass in hand.
So, whether it’s the sunny southern reaches of Sicily or the windswept wilds of the Scottish highlands that you call home, come and join us on a whistle-stop tour of these 6 great nations, and let us get introduce you to some of their finest (boozy) drinks!
We start our journey in the north and venture into the wild landscape of Scotland, where one drink above all others rules the roost. It is, of course, Scottish Whisky – or Scotch for short. Made in Scotland for over 500 years (and possibly a good deal longer), Scotch is made from malted barley, which is fermented (to make the beer-like substance known as wash) and then distilled twice in a pot still.
Those of you who have joined us on a tour will have seen Kathleen, our very own marvel of engineering, who sits that the heart of all we do. But a Scottish whisky distillery is an altogether different beast; full of steam, smoke and creaking noises from the various tanks and pipes. And while our gins are made from a neutral base spirit, which we then carefully distilled with botanicals, whisky is distilled in huge copper pot stills and the process is designed to bring over as much of the character from the raw ingredients as possible.
Whisky draws its distinct flavour from the complex interplay of barley, water, peat, and wood which are carefully balanced by master distillers. The resulting styles can range from light and mellow to broad and robust – with tasting notes often focusing on the fruity, smoky, sweet, and spicy character of the drink. The location of the distillery (Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, Campbelltown, Islay and the Islands) is often also a useful guide to the style of whisky one can expect (though there are some rather wonderful exceptions to this rule).
Here at 6 O’clock Gin we are well aware of the importance of time in the distilling process, and patiently rest our gins before release to ensure smoothness in every sip (including our delicious 5 Year Old Sloe Gin). Scotch whisky takes this ageing process to new heights though, and every drop has to be matured for a minimum of 3 years before it can even be legally considered Scotch. There’s a good reason why things are drawn out over this timeframe in the world of Whisky though, as the distillate that comes from a pot still is a wild and untamed thing, and it needs to be rested in wood before it’s ready to drink. Most Scotch is aged for at least 10 years (usually in charred American oak barrels), and during this time it develops its character and complexity. Some distilleries even use casks that have stored sherry or port in to add extra layers of flavour – look out for the term ‘cask finish’ when you’re next perusing the whisky aisles.
When we think of drinking in Ireland, the first thing that comes to mind is very often a pint of the black stuff, closely followed by a tot of Irish whiskey*, but it’s not surprising considering that they are both derived from grain. The island has a similar geography to Britain and shares a common Celtic background, especially evident when we think of the cultures, customs and languages of Wales, Scotland and Cornwall. Other notable drinks point to Ireland’s important farming communities, with cider being made from local orchards and that ever-popular Christmas tipple, Baileys, giving a clear nod to the importance of dairy farming.
But back to whiskey, and though there’s some heated debate as to whether whisky/whiskey was first distilled in the Emerald Isle or Scotland, Irish Whiskey has developed its own very popular style and gives Scotch a good run for its money.
We’ve seen that Scotch is made from barley, but over in Ireland, there’s a wider use of other grains (oats, wheat and corn) in the mash which gives a different character to the end drink. Another key difference is the method of distillation. Scotch uses a double distillation, while in Ireland it’s much more common to find triple-distilled whiskey, which is, in part, what gives it the lighter, fruitier character for which it is known.
* (you’ll notice a slight variation in spelling here – Irish whiskey has the ‘e’, as do those from the USA, whereas Scottish, Canadian, or Japanese whisky miss it out)
Our next stop is at the smallest of all the 6 nations, but it certainly makes up for it in national pride (and dare we say it, brilliance in rugby). Wales, which can be seen from our home city of Bristol on a clear day, sits on the western side of Britain and is a nation that has a rich cultural identity and sense of belonging. You only have to cross the Severn bridge and spot the Welsh roads signs to get a sense of just how important the Welsh language and traditions are here.
While there’s not the same long history with distilled grains as in Scotland or Ireland, an enterprising group of Welsh distillers are making their mark on the whisky scene and Wales is now officially a Whisky producing nation and is currently in the process of applying for protected status.
So, whilst we wait these new whiskies to mature, let’s take a look at a food that has a rather fine history in Wales: honey. The mountainous landscapes with its wildflowers and heathers has provided a perfect habitat for bees for millennia, and beekeeping dates back in Wales for centuries. In 2011, the UK’s largest-ever collection of bee boles (a precursor to the modern beehive) were discovered at Dolmelynllyn Estate, and similar finds have been made across the region.
Welsh honey (or Mêl to Welsh speakers) has been collected and traded as far back as records go, and like most inventive nations, it didn’t take too long for people to find ways to turn their favourite foodstuff into alcoholic drinks. Honey – being naturally high in sugars and containing natural yeasts – is the perfect food for this; when let down with water and fermented, it can be made into mead. This sweet and delicate drink is often considered to be a little bit archaic, but the Welsh are doing their best to change this, and are bring mead back to the masses. Over the past few years, people from all kinds of backgrounds have discovered new styles and methods of working with mead, and nowadays it’s a regular find at local food markets.
France… where to begin?! A country dear to our hearts, and one with such a rich history of food and drink. As we head further south, the climate and geography change, and naturally we find styles of drink (and drinking) which are best suited to the local climate and produce.
Grapes were introduced to France by the Greeks in the 6th Century BC, and for a long time, what the French don’t know about wine wasn’t worth knowing. While we’re very partial to a glass of Claret or Pouilly Fumé here at the distillery, we’re going to be looking at a couple of French drinks which are based on wines, but which can be mixed in cocktails (and which work particularly well with our gins).
One such example is Lillet, produced in Podensac in the Bordeaux region. Lillet is full of lively citrus and floral notes, and is a delightful aperitif when sipped neat – the locals like to mix it with tonic, but we’re not quite sure where ready to go there just yet! In the cocktail world, Lillet is most famous as the key ingredient of the Vesper cocktail (as drunk by James Bond in Casino Royale). This heady combination of gin, vodka and Lillet certainly packs a punch, and if you’re a martini fan, and you haven’t given it a go, we can recommend you don’t delay!
Another wine-based drink that we’d highly recommend having in your drinks cabinet is Byrhh (pronounced much like ‘beer’ just to confuse English and German speakers). Dating from 1866, Byrhh strikes a delicate balance between bitter and sweet. It contains quinine (which is what gives Indian Tonic Water its refreshingly bitter bite), and, was sold as a health tonic in the late 19th century where it could be bought in pharmacies.
The link between beverages and medicine was historically much closer than we see these today, and this was because alcoholic beverages were often flavoured with extracts of plans that were already known for their health benefits. We use gentian root (which is known as a digestive aid) in our vermouth, and it is also the key ingredient in Suze. This richly herbaceous, straw-colour liqueur comes from the French/Swizz board and is traditionally drunk neat over ice. If you find a bottle and want to mix it up with your favourite gin, we can recommend giving this White Negroni a go – especially as it also contains Lillet (which you now know all about!).
On the subject of Negronis, it’s time we crossed the Alps and headed to Italy to test our taste buds and embrace the Italians’ love of all things bitter; think espresso, radicchio and chinotto oranges!
Bitterness, along with sweet, sour, salty and umami, is one of the 5 core flavours that we can identify, but it’s a flavour that most of us shy away from. In Italy, they’ve learned to love bitter foods, and they also have a whole category of drinks – known as Amari (the plural of Amaro) – just waiting to be discovered.
Amaro is very much a part of the drinking culture in Itlay, and these intensely richly flavoured drinks are enjoyed either as an aperitif before food or as a digestif afterwards. Many recipes are closely guarded family secrets, and Amari can range from lighter styles with citrus and herbal notes (such as Amaro Montenegro), right through to intense menthol / medicinal notes of Fernet-Branca. Some Amari are aged for many years in barrels as part of the production process, though these rare bottles can be hard to find outside of Italy.
Many of you will have already discovered the joys of Aperol and Campari, and these easy-to-find Amari are the perfect stepping stones into the world of bitterness in drinks, with the ubiquitous Aperol Spritz now being very much part of the UK’s drinking culture. If you want to try adding a dash of bitterness to your drink like to keep things fruity, then the Damson Negroni may be the one for you.
Campari (which is another notch up the bitterness scale) is a classic partner with gin, and the Negroni is now a staple of cocktail lists up and down the country. If this is your tipple, but you’re wondering what else you can create with your bottles of Campari and 6 O’clock Gin, then we’d suggest giving this fantastic Jasmine Cocktail a try.
And so, once more we return to England; the land that we call home. We’re sure that you’ll have plenty of your own favourites (there are over 2,200 breweries alone!), and some of you may even be partial to a bit of backyard (or bathtub) production yourself – after all, that’s how we started. As fruit farmers, we made our first liqueurs to use up surplus fruit, and it was only when we couldn’t keep up with demand at the farmers’ markets that we realised we were onto something special!
England’s own food culture has often drawn inspiration from far-flung corners of the globe, and recipes have often been adapted to suit produce that can be grown locally. We make our very own English Vermouths which combine exotic ingredients such as Medula dates with herbs grown near the distillery. Historically, we always had to source the base wine from mainland Europe, but these days it’s possible to create Vemmouths from locally grown grapes.
In fact, the wine industry has taken hold in England to a degree that many wouldn’t have thought possible even 20 years ago. The range of varietals that have been planted (and shown to be not just viable, but decided well suited to English soil) has made English wine a serious contender on the international market, and premium wines (especially sparkling) are sought after across the globe.
We’re also fans of English ciders, partially because we’re rather geeky about apples, but also because we love the wonderful folklore and traditions that surround apple growing and harvest time. Wassailing, a custom still found in parts of Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire is a practice where people gather to sing around the orchard’s trees to ward off evil spirits and encourage a good harvest the following year. The ceremonies, customs and songs vary from county to county and village to village, and have been passed down through the generations, but they generally all involve lots of noise, drinking lots of cider and making merry!
Well, that’s us back home safe after our brief trip around the 6 nations. We hope you’ve discovered something new. Whatever you’ll be drinking over the coming weeks, and whoever you’ll be supporting, we wish you all the best of luck and great game!