A UK bartender has made a winning blend of gin and sake, writes Steve Colquhoun.
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 tasks such 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 having 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," she says. "So is whisky, but I think whisky should just be whisky and I think gin has a lot of opportunities to push the boundaries.
"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, a citrus fruit that provided Davies with the inspiration for the drink's name.
"It doesn't taste like a sake and it doesn't taste like a gin," she says.
"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."
Davies hopes jinzu will be embraced by cocktail bartenders looking for a new twist on an old spirit that has come back into vogue. "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."