From the red dusted roads of the Australian outback to the crowded streets of New York. As a travelling gin writer I’ve been around the world in search of good stories, new gin trends and genuine distilling adventures for over a decade. But no place has pulled me back for more revisits than Hernö Gin and the surrounding hilly woodlands of the High Coast of Sweden, some 400 kilometres north of Stockholm.
One of the true highlights and sincere honours of my career in gin has been the opportunity to participate as a tasting judge at the Hernö Gin Cocktail Awards in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. I’ve worked as a panel and tasting judge in many cocktail and spirits competitions over the years, but the Hernö Gin Cocktail Awards is truly something special. It’s adventurous, it’s challenging and it’s an experience of a lifetime for everyone involved.
The concept behind the competition is very simple: bartenders from all over the world are invited to Sweden to compete against each other in creating the best cocktail made from ingredients they’ve picked themselves in the picturesque surroundings of the High Coast. Besides whatever the bartenders find in the wild they get a bottle of vintage Hernö High Coast Terroir Gin to mix with. That’s it. The rest they must figure out for themselves. No doubt that is challenging for even the most experienced bartenders out there.
The weather sets the scene
My time at the Hernö Gin Cocktail Awards has been filled with unforgettable moments. Like in 2016 when the competition took place at FriluftsByn in the heart of the High Coast. Halfway through the competition everyone's attention started to shift towards an invading greenish backdrop of illuminating northern light in the otherwise pitch-black evening sky. Everyone was in awe of the spectacular sight so common this far north. We paused the competition for ten minutes to admire nature’s fireworks in play. No one can plan these natural phenomena, but it perfected an already perfect evening.
But nature can also be much more unforgivable. As in 2018, five minutes before the start of the competition, the clouds opened and an intense and unmatched amount of water fell from the sky. As the minutes passed and there was no sign of the rain slowing down we decided to start the competition to avoid too much of a delay of the whole event. As we entered our chairs in the judging panel in the middle of the courtyard - totally exposed to the elements - we (Caroline Childerley aka The Gin Queen from Australia, Hernö Gin founder Jon Hillgren, Hernö Gin Brand Ambassador Emil Årang and me) tried to cover ourselves with raincoats and whatever random plastic covers we could find nearby to keep the rain out of our undies, drinks and competition notes for what seemed as an eternity. We kept warm by the fire and sipped delicious cocktails the rest of the evening. It all worked out fine in the end.
Taste the unknown
The Swedish climate is certainly both stunning and devious but it is without a doubt the people of Hernö Gin and the cocktail competition that always got me excited to return again and again to play a small part in one of the most challenging cocktail competitions in the world.
As an experienced bartender you’re used to working with a certain range of products. You have your selection of spirits, sweeteners and sour components. But when you are competing in Hernö Gin Cocktail Awards, you only have your experience to rely on - the rest you have to pick in an unknown forest in a part of the world you’ve probably never been to before. That’s why one of my biggest pleasures over the years has been tasting my way through the Swedish wilderness together with competitors from countries like England, France, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Macau, Italy, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Guiding them to the natural cocktail components of the Nordics.
A favourite discipline of mine was to convince the competitors to taste the local red ants that burst with tart citrusy notes. But by all means avoid the grey ones with a foul taste of mud. About half of the competitors take on the challenge of the red ants, but only a few usually end up using them as an acidity agent in their cocktail at the competition in the evening. It takes a lot more ants than most realize, but handled with care red ants can lift a cocktail to a whole other level. Raphael Redant from Sydney, Australia nailed his use of red ants in his cocktail God’s Country in 2019 and won the competition.
Thinking outside the box
Most common in the Swedish woods are ingredients like lingonberries, blueberries, raspberries, spruce, rowanberries and juniper. Every competitor will have these ingredients in their basket upon returning from the forest. So one thing you can do in order to stand out in the competition is to find something different, something unique for your cocktail. Over the years we’ve seen everything from boiled down pinecone soup to roasted birch bark, but a few went way beyond - some in innovative ways and some in more dubious ways.
In the category of more imaginative solutions we had Slamet Haryadi from Hong Kong and his winning cocktail Black Forest in 2018. A fresh and flavourful blueberry cocktail to taste but completely black to look at. For sure the most contradicting cocktail in the history of Hernö Gin Cocktails Awards. Slamet Haryadi achieved the black look by straining the cocktail liquid through a cloth filled with crushed charcoal from wood found in the forest earlier that day. Impressive, surprising and incredibly tasty.
In the category of the doubtful selection of ingredients we’ve experienced over the years we had something that will only find its way into a cocktail in a competition like Hernö Gin Cocktails Awards. At least that’s what I hope.
In 2016, my first year as a tasting judge at this competition, we had a Swedish bartender who sought a component to bring an authentic taste and feel of the forest into his cocktail. He went for some puddle water from the forest bed. Being in Sweden this could easily be a fresh puddle of water but if there’s one thing I learned while hiking in the woods as a child, it is only to drink water from vivid streams and never to drink stagnant water - at least if you want to avoid running into the woods every half hour to relieve yourself.
If I remember correctly the puddle water cocktail actually turned out decent - including some authentic forest notes. But I will admit it was a little nerve wracking having the first sip, hoping the alcohol of the gin eliminated the worst of the most gnarly forest bacteria.
New skills and lots of memories
Whether you perfected an ant cocktail, invented a new way of colouring a liquid, or just went with your gut in search of the authentic you will be a better bartender when entering the stage at the Hernö Gin Cocktails Awards to present your cocktail. All those learnings and experiences from ingredient picking, cocktail developing and presenting will come in handy for the rest of your bartender career. That’s why Hernö Gin Cocktails Awards is not only the most challenging competition for bartenders, but also the most interesting to be a part of.
For me the Hernö Gin Cocktails Awards has been the perfect adventure and source of inspiration. Roaming the Swedish forest for ingredients and guiding the competitors for the best cocktail components nature can provide has been such an honour. So many memories collected over the years and so many stories to tell.
Travelling Gin Writer for Whisky& magazine in Denmark and owner of En Verden af Gin.
Hernö Gin är världens ledande producent av hantverksmässigt framställt gin. Stolta pionjärer som startade Sveriges första gindestilleri 2011. Allt började med en passion för den ädla spritdrycken med dominerande smak av enbär och drömmen om att skapa gin. En resa som tog Hernö Gins grundare Jon Hillgren till platser och gindestillerier världen över i sitt sökande efter kunskap och ginspiration. Till sist bosatte han sig i den lilla byn Dala nära Härnösand i Höga Kusten, Sverige. Hernö Gin skapar världens mest prisbelönta gin med naturliga och ekologiska örter och kryddor i de handslagna kopparpannorna Kierstin, Marit och Yvonne. Måna om hantverket, transparens i alla led och med fokus på kvalitet, har Hernö Gin siktet inställt på att föra premiumginkulturen in i allas vardagsrum.