For decades it has played out on the Thames, on University Challenge and on playing fields, as well as in university league tables. Now the ancient rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge is spilling over into a rather less traditional sphere: gin.
Eight months after Oxford ann-ounced the production of Physic Gin, distilled from plants in the university’s botanic garden, Cambridge has created its own spirit. Costing nearly £40 a bottle, £5 more than its Oxonian counterpart, Curator’s Gin claims to benefit from a variety of floral flavourings, and ingredients including lavender, an unusual “green ginger” rosemary and berries from the dozens of varieties of juniper grown in the garden. The final ingredient, it says, is apples from a tree descended from the one that sent fruit tumbling on to Sir Isaac Newton’s head.
“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,” said William Lowe, co-founder of the distillery, Cambridge Gin.
“We were allowed unprecedented access to the university’s botanic garden itself, which was the holy grail for us. As an area of academia, it has 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.”
After drawing on the expertise of the garden’s curator, Sam Brockington, Lowe spent most of this spring and summer collecting plant samples and taking them on his bike to the distillery, two miles away in Grantchester, or punting to his gin laboratory in central Cambridge. “By constantly visiting and harvesting throughout the year, we got the exact floral flavour profile we were after,” he said.
He described the ginger rosemary as a “phenomenal” find. “It’s extraordinary – when it’s distilled, it tastes almost exactly the same as both ginger and rosemary combined.”
Cambridge and Oxford are not the only institutions exploiting their gardens to make gin. The Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh and Kew have also been cashing in on the trend for rich botanical gins and have won awards for the complexity of their beverages. Leicester University, meanwhile, recently allowed students to conduct a gin-making experiment using plants from its own botanic garden, which the chemistry graduates involved said they had “really enjoyed”.
Back in Cambridge, Lowe, the son of an Oxford professor, played down the historic rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge. “There is actually an enormous spirit of collaboration between the two universities,” he said. But he stressed that Cambridge produced the first botanical garden gin, when its colleges started distilling the drink in 2013. “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.”