I was all set to write a middling review on this stuff. I really was. But I said to myself, “What are we if we don’t have some standards?” whereupon I poured myself a glass of it neat to establish a final word. And guess what? The Fifty Pounds availed itself nicely!
So: the story of the name. Feel free to read more on it if you’re curious, but here’s the lowdown: At one point during the early 1700s, Gin was basically the Fentanyl of England. Lax production laws meant that people were putting all sorts of adulterants into it to lower the price (sulfuric acid, anyone?), and in a well-publicized story, a woman literally killed her kid, sold his clothes, and bought gin with the proceeds.
Suffice it to say that the gin problem became pretty-well crystallized after that point. A then-exorbitant 50-pound tax was levied in the hopes of separating the legitimate producers and distributors of the time from the opportunistic rabble. A whopping two producers paid the fee. It’s here that the narrative switches to: “Fuck you, Johnny Law! We distill what we want and we’ll be god damned if we’ll let some powder wig wearing sonofabitch come in and deny us from selling our acid liquor to addicts and murderers!”
I mean, seriously, I feel like the public health epidemic and moral quagmire of this story always ends up getting glossed over when it gets to the AND NOBODY PAID THE TAX part because fifty pounds was a lot of money back then. Look, if they’d have asked me, I’d have said that naming a gin “fifty pounds” would be almost like naming an American-made rum “three fifths.” Y’know, as a callback to that time when liquor production was linked with slave labor. Sure, it’s historical, but it’s a rather dark part of history that seems inexplicable to reference solely for the sake of cleverness. Anyway! I digress. Gin!
For about the first two-thirds of the bottle, the Fifty Pounds was used as a mixer simply because I thought it would be silly to buy Boodles, Fords, or Tanqueray Ten again. For about $25, I wasn’t really sold one way or another on the 50P, and it didn’t play very well with most gin-based cocktails I was making. I’d seen the handsome bottle here and there, and thought, hey: why not. All things being equal, I do like a good bottle design.
In the role of just being “a gin,” Fifty Pounds didn’t astound. It had enough body to not disappear in a drink, but not enough character to lend a distinctive edge able to cut through several layered ingredients. It advertised itself as a traditional “London Dry,” but unlike something like the classic Tanqueray, it wasn’t a hard-charging Juniper bomb. “What’s it good for?” I thought to myself.
That question was finally answered when I poured it two ways: over ice, and all on its own, naked in a tasting glass, with nothing to hide behind. I sipped back and forth. What I found was a rather genteel gin that worked best when flying solo, and much to my surprise, in these two applications I found a spirit that did something new for me.
I’ve often described gins as being tailor-made for vodka drinkers. Although many might read this as a backhanded compliment, what I really mean is that gins in this category are typically not face-melting ballbusters. Rather, they’re more balanced, citrus-forward instead of juniper, and lend themselves well to cocktails. Gins of this sort are often good mixers—but yet, as I said before, I did not think Fifty Pounds was a great mixer. So what’s the catch?
I would describe Fifty Pounds—and this is a first—as a gin for people who have developed an appreciation for good vodka. As I mentioned in my vodka overview some years back, developing an appreciation for vodka involves looking past the raw taste itself and paying attention to subtler variances in terms of how it sits in your mouth and affects your taste buds. Sipping the Fifty Pounds, I was reminded of what I like about some of my favorites, including Russian Standard Imperial, Square One, St. George All Purpose, and Belvedere. There’s a wonderful savory quality to the Fifty Pounds, and the finish leaves the mouth watering.
Evaluated from that mindset, I began to appreciate it for the first time. Nothing about this gin is aggressive. It has a very mild entrance, slowly amplifies a subtle citrus flavor, and shows itself out while leaving a very mild lingering sweetness (one that’s enhanced if sipped on the rocks, I might add). Tasted neat, it has a wonderful body (which I would describe as slightly oily, but don’t interpret that as a negative).
This might be the only gin I’ve ever recommended to serve with one large ice cube, to be sipped over time to appreciate the evolution of flavor from neat to diluted, as various permutations of pepper and lime give way to lemon, cream, and sweet nutmeg. This is a quality spirit, through and through, with none of the alcohol reek or throat burn I generally expect from booze at the twenty to thirty dollar level.
The only knock? Like a lot of the “good” vodkas I’d recommend, there’s an island of misfit toys quality going on here in that I’d describe it as an exceptional gin for die-hard, experienced students of a spirit category usually aimed at people who don’t really like the taste of alcohol. I mean, talk about a niche inside of a niche inside of a niche.
It’s hard for me to recommend the Fifty Pounds unequivocally. That said, I make room in my heart for anything that manages to surprise me these days, and this was indeed a very pleasant surprise.