The Granddaddy of Modern Gin: Malacca
Tanqueray Malacca, the granddaddy of modern gin.
If you were 18* before 1997 and you drank gin, you may have noticed a certain sameness to it. It was juniper heavy, basically had the same botanical mix, juniper, coriander, lemon zest, orris root, angelica root, and licorice. And pretty much tasted very similar - having what we now refer to as a classic, or London Dry flavor profile - although the quality, heat, and roughness varied dramatically by brand.
The name London dry came to being about 1830 with the invention of the Coffey still, which really was the first still that allowed a quality unsweetened spirit to be distilled. That was a huge improvement over the gin, aka Old Tom gin style, being made locally in makeshift low quality stills which essentially had to be mixed just to make them drinkable. To differentiate the gin made in these Coffey stills from the swillish old tom of the day, the gin was called “dry”. Based on available ingredients, and with the proliferation of Coffey stills in London (as opposed to everywhere else at the time), the style came to be known as London Dry.
That wasn’t meant to be a flavor designation, but a quality designation, which is how the EU views it now.**
Then in 1997 Tanqueray came out with a gin that was a game changer. It was Tanqueray Malacca, a gin made from an 1830 recipe by Charles Tanqueray and it was decidedly different.
I was lucky enough to first taste Malacca at it’s coming out party in 1997 at the old Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City. It was a tasting event hosted for charity and featured a formal tasting of all three of Tanqueray’s products available in the US - their classic gin, their Tanqueray Sterling Vodka, and Malacca. The vodka, while good, held no charm for me, as I’ve never been a vodka fan (bad experience in my youth - I am not a fan of drinks that sneak up on you - Definitely prefer those which say “hey here I come!”).
Now I grew up drinking classic Tanqueray. It was my go to drink from the time I first started drinking. I thought at the time it was the pinnacle of gin drinking, and to be fair I still think it’s a damn good gin. But Malacca was eye opening. And on that night, when I tasted Malacca, I found what I thought would be the future of gin. While I remember the slightly grapefruit dominant nature of that gin, what I remember most was the black pepper, and the spice that was so different from the classic flavor profile. It wowed me.
I was thrilled to go home with four bottles of it. It was the best gin I’d ever tasted - and it flopped so badly commercially, that Tanqueray pulled the plug on it, less than 4 years after its introduction.***
BUT while the gin may not have succeeded, it woke up gin makers around the world and launched what we know as modern, or contemporary, (or new western) gin movement. It made a lot of people realize that gin didn’t just to be a massively juniper dominant spirit. While there are plenty of purists who argue that any drink where juniper is not the dominant botanical isn’t actually gin, regulators have largely dodged that question. While on paper the EU definition of gin says that “The production of all gins must ensure that the taste is predominantly that of juniper berries”, they don’t lay out how that can be defined, or measured. Thus it really hasn't been, and the label of gin has stuck to just about any spirit that contains juniper and has an abv of 37.5%.
It might be hard to enforce that now, since more and more gins have relegated juniper to the backseat, or even to just a part of a botanical bill (sometimes so distantly that you can barely discern it) and changed the very nature of what we now know as gin. Certainly gins like Brockman’s, Aviation, Hendricks, and Elephant 47 and maybe even Tanqueray No. 10, would be searching for a new spirit definition if things were to change now. I’m not sure that the industry could afford to do that.
If a small distiller had put out Malacca**** it might have been ignored, and forgotten but this launch had the might of the largest gin producer in the world behind it Gordons-Tanqueray, who still are the dominant force in gin globally. And while Malacca was a financial failure it ended up being the start of a revolution - with Martin Millers (link)citrus forward gin coming right on it’s heels, along with Hendricks, which focused on cucumber, and Tanqueray’s own Tanqueray No. 10 coming right after.
Malacca opened doors that may have been imagined, but had not been opened since the original London dry style became the dominant style in gin. Simply put, Malacca was the shot that started a revolution.
Today there are anise centric gins, vanilla centric gins, citrus centric gins, cucumber centric gins, and even gins made with other species of juniper instead of Juniper Communis. In fact many of the best selling gins on the planet now are of the modern/contemporary varieties. Including a few by Tanqueray itself including their Rangpur, Savilla, and Tanqueray #10 - which is one of the most awarded gins in history.
Malacca in the end, is the father of modern gin - although perhaps we shouldn’t really call it that, so maybe we should call it the grandfather of modern gin - as it was based on a 1830 recipe by Charles Tanqueray - it just took 169 years to take hold.
*or 16, or 21, depending on where you grew up.
**That said colloquially, we tend to call that juniper forward flavor profile London Dry, despite there being many London dry’s that do not have that flavor profile today. Nor does that gin have to be made in London.
***However it developed a cult following. So much so that it’s been back for limited runs both in 2012 and 2018. That said the 2018 version was wildly different from the original, with more notes of lemon and a lot less spice, but it was still nice.
**** Which could not have happened in the UK at that time due to rules that would have insisted that the smallest still that could be used for legally distilling would have been 18 hectolitres (about 475 gallons) which kept craft distillers from entering the market. In the US the craft distilling movement had begun, but the craft gin movement in the US market had really not.