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Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin

Written by Gin Foundry

There are very few American gins that go down the cold compounding route, so Uncle Val’s, fresh from 3 Badge Beverage Corporation in California, is quite an unusual prospect right off the bat. That isn’t what sparked our initial interest, though. What reeled us in – right from the off as well – was the promise of a Tuscan inspired gin.

It seems as though it’s impossible for a bad gin to roll on out of Italy, what with the wealth of wondrously oily, bathed-in-glory flora in the country. There’s Sabatini, Rivo, Malfy, Bordiga, Gin Del Professore Madame… a growing list of ludicrously tasty spirits, each of which gifts the mouth with a rich, powerful flavour and the nose with a sharp, bright punch even when the gins aren’t made over there. Basically, there is nothing not to love when it comes to Italian inspired ingredients, and if a gin aims to live up to the country and it’s current gin offerings, it’s setting quite a lofty ambition for itself… so lets see how the Americans deal with them!

Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin was launched by the 3 Badge team in March 2012. Brand owner August Sebastiani was very much inspired by his paternal Grandfather’s little brother, Zio Valerio. He passed away years ago, but his life as a physician in a small town outside of Lucca, Italy has always captured the attention of Sebastiani. Valerio lived for his garden and loved local food, so if a gin was to take his lead, it was always going to be green, and it was always going to have a hint of the culinary masterpiece about it.

The gin itself is not made by the team in California, oddly enough. Instead it is created on a farm up in Bend, Oregon and shipped out en masse. Mass, incidentally, is something of a topic for us here; all of the branding surrounding Uncle Val’s speaks of small batch, but with this made 12,000 – 18,000 bottles per run we have to ask a few questions, namely: How small (or rather, how big) is small? 12,000 bottles is a lot of bottles, 18,000 is… well, let’s just say the distillers making circa 800 bottles a time would probably stretch to the word gargantuan on this occasion.

To our understanding, the base spirit is made from 100% corn, which is distilled 5 times at a distillery in Oregon. According to the team,  the vodka needs to go through the still five times – although usually vodka reaches 190 proof after the third run through a still, but on the equipment being used here and to get maximum smoothness, they take five turns. Five seems to be the lucky number here, though, because after the final run the spirit is put through a five-times filtration process before the botanicals are added. The filtration is a source of pride for the gins: pushed through lava rock, the spirit ends up with impurities at less than 0.0005%.

Numbers like that are always ones we take with a pinch of salt (because we are naturally cynical, of course), but nevertheless, such low impurities tend to result in a cleaner spirit and an easier morning after…

To make Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin, juniper, cucumber, sage, lemon and lavender are added to the base spirit, but that’s about as far as we can go without getting all tangled up in knots. This is a compound gin - the botanicals go nowhere near the still, yet somehow the team behind it have gotten away with having the term “distilled” on the side of their bottle.

Not just as a reference either, but in the description too “The gin is distilled 5 x and offers…”.  Uncle Val’s Gin is not distilled at all - the vodka they use as a base is, yes, but from a British perspective, the current descriptions and labelling actually breaks many boundaries set out in EU rules. We’ll park that to the side for now and just state for the record, as many readers will undoubtedly email us, that there is no doubt here, no terminology misunderstandings - this is a compound gin. It’s not a fact the team try to hide when you discuss it - they are proud of their production.

It’s made from a five times distilled corn base spirit, but it’s not a five times distilled gin. Those with allergies to any of the botanicals mentioned will need to be aware of this as unlike distilled gin, compound made gin can hold the elements that trigger reactions.

Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin to taste…

On the aroma, there’s a distinctly waxy and bright lemon zing, with sage and cucumber just behind adding a fresh, vibrancy. To taste, there’s more of the same, but with a flash of juniper that gives way to a warming pinch of lavender finish. Cucumber underpins the entirety of proceedings, going from crisp upfront, to verdant at the core of the journey and finishing off towards the end by adding a pleasant cooling tone, one that counters the growing fire that builds at that point. Despite a lot of the talk being around Tuscan cuisine and Italian inspired Gin, the lemon is loud throughout and the citrus twang returns on the finish (alongside the cucumber) to such an extent that it leaves a more garden-like-impression than something distinctly savoury and green. In our opinion, it is easier to consider this an ode to Val’s love of gardens, rather than an homage to the country he was based in. That or thinking of it as “I-talian” as New Yorker’s might say, as opposed to Italiano for the natives…

The Botanical Gin was quickly joined by two others: Uncle Val’s Restorative Gin, released in August 2014, and Uncle Val’s Peppered Gin, off the line in January 2015. All go through the same process, though a tweak in the botanicals sees the gins head off in all directions. Restorative sees juniper, coriander, cucumber and rose petals in the line-up, whilst the stars of the show for the Peppered Gin are juniper, bell peppers, pimento and black pepper. Each offer something a little different in a crowded marketplace, and show just how much flavour can change and evolve.

Uncle Val’s Restorative Gin to taste…

There’s a lovely softness to the nose of Uncle Val’s Restorative Gin, bringing with it a captivating first impression. The aroma offers rounded juniper and a vegetal cucumber, along with the slightest hint of rose petal. It is much more nuanced to taste than the Botanical Gin, as coriander seed and rose sing an opera between them, while juniper and cucumber watch on from the front row - visible to those looking on from the cheap seats at the back, but not where the attention’s being placed.

Despite being bottled at the same ABV, it’s much smoother and remains a round, soft spirit right until the death. The piquancy is still there mind, it’s 45%, but it’s much less acute than the Botanical. Overall, while the gin is less obvious and easy to instantly get a big flush of citrus from, in our opinion it is a far more compelling proposition.

Uncle Val’s Peppered Gin to taste…

The Peppered Gin is where it is possible to see a visible tint to the liquid. It’s a very mild tint, but noticeably present and gives an impression of what’s to come.

The nose offers up fiery bell pepper & cracked peppercorn. To taste, the red pepper flavours emerge with confidence, parting the way and setting out the stall for what immediately feels like a savoury experience. There’s a strangely saline quality to the mouthfeel, making it the most “food-inspired” gin in the range. Given the peppercorn and the almost charred nature of the peppers that overwhelm the mouth, one might expect it to ramp up in heat and leave a prolonged fire raging behind, but it’s quite the opposite, it finishes with a smooth, fading sense of peppercorn that lingers in the distance.

The bottles themselves are a work of art. There’s something about the idea of compounding, perhaps it’s the perceived ease of it when compared to the careful workmanship that distilling requires, that always makes us slightly anticipate a home made, low budget operation. It’s quite the opposite here; all three of the gins are a classy affair, a fact echoed by their medicine-bottle-green glass and thickly textured paper labels. It looks expensive, if that’s adjective enough, with a faint air of luxury about it. It doesn’t look like a home-spun, mom and pop style business, though family is at the heart of this particular product.

As a trio, there’s something for everyone in the Uncle Val’s range. Fresh, herbal and spiced, you can pick whichever flavour type suits you best or fits the type of cocktail you have in mind. We’ve been told repeatedly about Uncle Val’s by gin enthusiasts so there’s clearly a lot of support out there for their gins. That said, if we’re honest, we’ve been apprehensive about looking too closely for a while now.

There’s a lot of soul and family history about the inspiration behind the range, and a lot of romance in the region it is intended to reflect the flavours of. The gins are undeniably tasty, the packaging nice and yet at the end of it all, we find it very difficult to look past the third party made, cold compounded aspect of the product when looking at the price tag.

For that process (in that kind of batch size they make) and for it to be made not by the owners but by a third party, the £40 price tag becomes something of a tall order. It’s a subjective opinion that others may not share when they look at the packaging and taste the gins themselves, but it’s one we can’t shake when looking at it as a whole.

Whether deliberate or not - the terms being used to describe the product and the emphasis on the five x distilled hoodwinks drinkers into thinking it’s a distilled gin when it is not. It is at best misleading, at worst a blatant lie (although we don’t personally believe it’s malicious as they are so open about their process when asked). If they were a UK based brand trading standards would have already issued a statements about curbing the misleading nature of showing images of stills as they have done on their social feeds. For everyone’s sake, we hope there will eventually be better clarity on their labels too.

There are no issues with compounding gins - there are some great ones on the market, and Uncle Val’s can happily join the ranks as one of the better ones. Still, the issue is in the way the descriptions mask this in order to add perceived value as opposed to show transparency, which is troubling to say the least.

Perhaps in time this will change, and despite our issues we do wish them well in their journey. The gins are supremely tasty and deserve to be understood for what they are and savoured because of it, not questioned and avoided.

The best part of the whole gin journey for Sebastiani came back in 2013, when he was finally able to share Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin with its namesake, just ahead of his passing. We’re sure he was even more impressed than we were when tasting it (and we were pretty pleased). “There was only one Uncle Val,” Sebastiani said, “and I really feel that we were able to craft a gin as unique and inspiring as he was.”

As drinkers who can only get the measure of the man through the liquid that’s been made in homage to him, we’ll happily raise a toast to someone that was clearly worth knowing and worthy of celebrating.