And you thought it was all about academic rivalry and the annual boat race…
Most people are familiar with the world class universities of Oxford and Cambridge. You might have heard of the town and gown phenomenon, or sometimes caught the famous annual boat race, but what I bet you haven’t heard of is that now the two cities are engaged in a new battle - supremacy in the field of gin.
Oxford drew first blood by launching Physic Gin which they have distilled from plants from the university’s very own botanical garden. According to The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD), the university granted them a 25 year licence (the first of its kind), which allows spirits to be made by the brand. What makes it unique is the access TOAD have been given to the Oxford Botanical Garden. The garden was established in 1621 and at that time was known as a ‘physicke’ garden for teaching students about herbal medicine. The Oxford Botanical Garden was later planted in the 1640s by Jacob Bobart the Elder. Such was the importance of the garden that Jacob complied a catalogue of all the plants within the garden; a document that is one of the university’s most treasured books. It is the access to this catalogue and the garden itself that gives Physic Gin its special qualities. Master Distiller Cory Mason says, “This gin is medicinal – in a good way. Botanicals like wormwood, rue and sweet woodruff bring a deeply complex flavour to bear and take us back to the time when plants formed the base of all medicine. Expect rich, earthy notes from this gin – like nothing you have tasted before”.
Before the end of 2018 Cambridge responded in kind by launching a gin distilled from plants in their Botanical Garden, Curator’s Gin. Amongst a raft of ingredients, it claims that it contains apples that are descendants of the very tree from which an apple grew and then bounced off the very famous and brilliant head of Sir Isaac Newton. William Lowe, who is co-founder of Cambridge Gin, says, “We had already been making gins for a dozen Cambridge colleges, using botanicals from their college gardens, when the offer came [from the university] asking whether we would like to have the keys to the sweet cupboard.” Like his Oxford counterpart, he was allowed access to the botanical gardens, which he claims provided the company with, “ this wonderful range of botanicals that are simply not available anywhere else, which enables you to bring a degree of complexity to the gin that would otherwise be lacking from the distillation process.”
So as not to offend other great universities, botanical gardens or distilleries in the UK, Oxford and Cambridge are not alone in exploiting the wealth of botanical delights to be harvested from botanical gardens. The Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh and Kew have been working on developing award winning rich botanical gins. Some chemistry students at the Leicester University were given permission to experiment with gin distillation using plants from their botanical gardens.
But getting back to that all important OxBridge rivalry, William Lowe, says, “There is actually an enormous spirit of collaboration between the two universities,” however, he was quick to point out that it was in fact Cambridge who distilled the first botanical garden gin, back in 2013. He went on to say that, “The Curator’s Gin is just the latest edition in a series of gins exploring Cambridge’s gardens. If anything, Oxford’s gin came after ours.”