Already drawing comparisons to Hendrick’s Gin, which uses cucumber as its starring-role botanical, newcomer Commonwealth Gin is made with cooling cantaloupe and hops. This fresh-melon baller is the brainchild of Dwight Chew, head distiller at tiny James River Distillery in Richmond, VA.
Cantaloupe and hops? "It’s a New Western style gin," Chew explains, referring to gin made with a bit less juniper and bit more everything else, which has grown in popularity in recent years. The first bottles of Commonwealth were made in July 2014 — after about 18 trials, he estimates.
"The cantaloupe in particular was inspired by how Hendrick's uses cucumber in theirs," Chew acknowledges. "I was thinking — what would have similar characteristics to cucumber, but wouldn’t be ripping Hendrick’s off?"
Since he had always planned to use hops (for flavor, not bitterness, he emphasizes), while testing batches Chew realized that one of the two hops varieties he wanted to incorporate had subtle melon characteristics, and the connection was made. And it didn’t hurt that the melon was easily available from local producers: "cantaloupe is pretty ubiquitous around here, especially in the summer," Chew notes. The gin’s flavor profile was then rounded out with fresh ginger, juniper, coriander, cardamom and black pepper. It works particularly well in cocktails with natural bitterness, he says, like a Negroni.
Chew previously ran an organic farm (where an obsession with microbes led to a fascination with fermentation, including beer and wine) followed by a stint at the Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, MD. Given Chew’s background, it’s unsurprising that he’s building a distillery using locally grown, organic ingredients — or that hops are among the botanicals he uses for his gin.
In addition to Commonwealth, most likely in April James River will release Continental Gin, a more traditional juniper and citrus-forward bottling, followed by a Navy strength gin requested by local bartenders. But for those keen to try cantaloupe gin, the spirit is currently sold in Virginia, Maryland, Washington DC and soon North Carolina.