Creating new flavours is part of the job description for a cocktail bartender, but even aficionados did a double-take when they sampled a deceptively simple concoction mixed by an unheralded 24-year-old.
Englishwoman Dee Davies entered a competition to create a new spirit with jinzu, a hybrid concoction of gin, sake and botanicals that not only aced the contest but won the backing of the world's largest spirits company, Diageo.
Less than two months since Davies wowed the “Show Your Spirit” competition she has already been appointed creative director for the new spirit and is assisting with such details as finding a Japanese distillery to supply the sake and designing the bottle for her blend.
That jinzu came into existence is a minor miracle, with Davies originally developing an aversion to its two main components.
Her first experience of Japan was a family holiday when she was 16. She fell in love with the culture and traditions but not the traditional tipple.
On that holiday Davies badgered her predominantly non-drinking parents to try sake. “I spent the entire holiday saying: 'I want sake! I want sake! I want sake!' So on the very last night my parents bought a beautiful bottle of sake and I was like: 'Yaaay . . . oh, that's horrible!' and I hated it.
“At 16 you don't want your alcohol to taste of alcohol, you want it to taste of coconuts or oranges or anything that isn't actually spirits.”
Returning home to Somerset, Davies later moved to Bristol to study fashion design, working after hours as a bartender to fund her study.
“Bristol is such a gin city, it's ridiculous, and when I moved there I hated [gin], really hated it,” she says.
“Then a friend found out I didn't like it and I was systematically forced to drink it with every type of liquid, to the point where I was drinking a cup of coffee and I put it down and someone put a shot of gin into it, and I was like: 'Oh, come on!'
“About six months into this gin-forcing experience, all of a sudden I was out with friends and it was really hot, and I thought: 'I'd love a gin and tonic'. It just clicked. I understand it now, I get gin.”
Davies says when she decided to enter Diageo's blending contest there was never any hesitation in combining the two spirits she once despised.
“I knew it was going to be gin-based – gin is one of the largest-growing spirits. So is whisky, but I think whisky should just be whisky and I think gin has a lot of opportunities to push the boundaries,” she says.
“Bartenders love working with gin because it's a spirit you can add a lot of flavours to but you can still tell it's gin.”
Her respect for Japanese culture and tradition made sake a desirable companion, along with Japanese-inspired botanicals such as cherry tree blossom and yuzu, the latter a citrus fruit providing Davies the inspiration for the drink's name.
“It doesn't taste like a sake and it doesn't taste like a gin. It's smooth and creamy and slightly sweet, which is the only way to describe something that doesn't sit anywhere, but sits a lot of places,” she says.
Davies pushed hard for the drink to be legally recognised as a gin variety rather than a sake. “Persuading people to drink sake is a lot harder, but gin is easy. It's got a lot of characteristics of both."
She was initially hesitant about going into business with Diageo but has quickly realised the spirit maker's clout will take jinzu to markets she could never reach herself.
In addition, she will pocket 5 per cent of the product's profits, while Diageo's premium “Reserve” arm will donate a further 5 per cent to the bartenders' association, which marketing director Walter Celli describes as “our contribution to the economy”.
The profit-sharing arrangement helped allay Davies' concerns. “When I first started, I did worry they'd take my idea and run with it because they have all these experts and I'm just a bartender with not a clue, saying, 'I want to do this',” she says.
“But they were great with it; every decision was my decision. It's a dream come true, and it's not something I would ever have been able to do without them.”
Davies hopes jinzu will be embraced by cocktail bartenders looking for a new twist on an old spirit that has come back into vogue. She also believes her blend can spice up the quintessential G&T.
“The first people doing stuff with it will be the bartenders, so I really want them to run with it and create incredible cocktails," she says.
“And then it will be gin and tonics, because that is the easiest way to persuade someone to try a new gin.
“When people are more comfortable with it I would like them to drink it neat, like you would a sake. It can be drunk neat; it's quite a smooth gin.”
Steve Colquhoun travelled to the World Class cocktail bartender global finals as a guest of Diageo Reserve.