Visiting Marco Polo and his “laboratory” demanded driving through the Irish countryside past quaint towns hugging the Shannon River. Navigating narrow roads, and dodging straying sheep to reach tiny Drumshanbo had been a challenge. But I was intent on meeting the artists creating Irish Gunpowder Gin–discovering why this “meticulously-prepared” spirit in a textured glass bottle is reputed for its fragrances and taste. The gin’s creator, inveterate traveler PJ Rigney has combed the world searching for rare Cambodian Kaffir Limes, Morocco’s Orris Root, and Macedonia Juniper Berries. His fascination with exotic botanicals is legendary in the world of distillers. But I still hoped to see how Chinese Gunpowder Tea was meticulously and “instinctually” blended with ingredients such as Cardamom and Caraway Seeds.
“Committed to the artistry of combining Oriental ways of distilling with Irish traditions, PJ spends countless hours experimenting with different recipes,” Sean MacGabhann, Gunpowder’s Global Marketing Manager, told me as we entered the “laboratory.” Rigney wasn’t here. But I was greeted with the fragrant aromas of various herbs, fruits and spices. This was where all the “trial and error” testing with wild grains and Irish flora was done–the lab that gives life to Rigney’s “secret tabernacle” of botanicals. A light and delicate gin, it was still robust. I had tasted Gunpowder before my arrival, and the hand-picked botanicals gave me a gentle sensation, as if I was drinking a symphony of flowers.
Irish laws are strict. I couldn’t drink at the distillery. I could admire the gleaming copper pot stills. See the workers’ energy that was in perfect accord with Rigney’s resurrecting Drumshanbo after years of its falling into decay. Nothing was modern here. Instead, there was a palpable devotion to traditions, to time-honored secrets–an artistry that has fashioned one of the world’s most popular gins.“We simply try to be creative, PJ is always coming into the lab and testing new recipes,” says Macgabhann. “He launched the gin in 2016 and like an artist, is never satisfied. He’s always looking for that great balance between aroma and flavor. His hands, nose and intuitions are constantly at work.”
Standing outside the lab at sunset, I could smell many of the botanicals, and even better, feel the slow pace of Irish countryside life. I must admit, I did have a few sips of the gin, perhaps too many. I had been told that at midnight, if lightning stuck, I could encounter a jackalope. This was the mythical creature from Dumshanbo, a rabbit with horns that adorns the distillery’s textured blue bottles. It wasn’t midnight. But there he was–or was he? The jackalope, smiling at me, inviting me to savor a few more sips, to enjoy that symphony of flowers.