There is one boozy pronouncement, however, that I will always remember. It was uttered by the critic F. Paul Pacult, publisher of the Spirits Journal, at the Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans a couple of years ago. It should be included in the next edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. “Gin,” he said, “is such a lovely invention. There is the wheel, and then there’s gin.”
I love gin — so much that it always comes as a shock to find out how many people in this world are unaware of its pleasures. I completely shut down when people tell me they don’t like gin. Often, these gin-haters are young and know only vodka. The juniper is too much for them bear: “It’s like getting smacked in the face by a Christmas tree!”
But others don’t have such an excuse. On a recent weekend in my local liquor store, I encountered a older gentleman standing before the gin shelf, completely befuddled.
“What’s a good gin?” he asked the clerk.
“Why don’t you ask this guy,” the clerk said, pointing at me.
“What do you even do with gin?” the gentleman asked us.
“How about a martini?” I said.
“What’s in a martini?”
Frankly, for a moment, I thought he was putting us on. The guy was probably in his mid-60s, dressed in that preppy variety of green pants and a belt decorated with sailing flags. He’d never had a gin and tonic at the yacht club?
In any case, it gave me further evidence that his baby boomer generation is the one that messed up everything, at least when it comes to cocktails.
But I was exceedingly polite. I pointed him toward balanced, subtle, versatile Plymouth gin. I told him to stir together four parts of that and one part dry vermouth, with plenty of ice, and then strain the liquid into a cocktail glass. (I even referred to it as a “martini” glass, just to make sure he would understand.) I hope it all worked out.
What do you do with gin? The beauty part is that you don’t have to do too much. There’s a reason martinis and gin and tonics are among the simplest and most ubiquitous mixed drinks. Good gin is an already-complex infusion of botanicals. Juniper, of course, is what makes gin “gin,” but there is usually also citrus peel, orris root, angelica, coriander, licorice or any number of other herbs and spices in the mix.
For years, the gin shelf was owned mostly by behemoth brands such as Beefeater and Gordon’s and Tanqueray, almost all of it made in the London dry style. But over the past five years, we’ve seen a bunch of smaller brands, as microdistillers in the United States and previously unavailable European brands enter the market. I’ve written excitedly before, for instance, about long-lost styles such as Old Tom and Dutch genever.
But most gin cocktail recipes call for dry gins. And until recently, I’ve had relatively mixed feelings about the new generation of small-production dry gins. Certainly, Plymouth — made in a distinctly different style — was one of the first alternatives to London dry, and it has become one of my desert-island spirits.
There are others I love. G’Vine from France, with grapevine flowers in its botanical mix, is a favorite. And Hendrick’s from Scotland, with its rose and cucumber infusion in addition to juniper, is a regular presence in my liquor cabinet, even though I don’t use it for every kind of gin cocktail — only in specific cases, such as the Unusual Negroni. Among the American microdistilled gins, I like Bluecoat, with its lighter, citrusy style, and Aviation, with its bold earth, pine and cardamom flavors.
By and large, however, I’ve found myself disappointed in most of the new American gins and still have gravitated toward Tanqueray or Beefeater or Plymouth. Until now.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a series of gin tastings. Now, tasting gin is different from tasting whiskey, because most people are not taking their gin straight. So I tried about a dozen new gins three ways: in martinis (four parts gin, one part dry vermouth, twist of lemon peel); in gin and tonics (11
2 ounces gin, 3 ounces tonic, squeeze of lime); and finally in a Negroni (equal parts gin, Campari, sweet vermouth).
What I found has convinced me that the gin category is taking another big step forward, in both quality and creativity.
I found a lot of spirits that stretch the very definition of gin. Caorunn, a new Scottish gin, added five Celtic botanicals to the infusion: heather, bog myrtle, rowan berry, dandelion and Coul Blush apple. The result was a crazy symphony of competing flavors that worked much better in a gin and tonic than in the more serious, and unforgiving, martini. Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin, made in the Netherlands by the same distillery that makes Ketel One Vodka, has created a big splash (and a big $45 price tag to boot) with its lavish, floral, perfumed aromas. Although Nolet’s Silver Dry is a lovely spirit — it’s pitched as a “sipping gin” — I find that its floral character makes it tough to work into cocktails.
But my new favorites all hail from the United States. I simply love the two gins produced by Berkshire Mountain Distillers in Massachussetts: Greylock Gin and Ethereal Gin. Greylock, in particular, with strong juniper, coriander and licorice flavors, gave traditional London drys such Tanqueray and Beefeater a run for their money in a classic martini. The Ethereal, with a wider mix of botanicals, made for an absolutely wonderful gin and tonic, with its orange blossom, pepper and spice standing up to the bolder flavors of an artisanal tonic water such as Fever-Tree.
Not to be outdone were three new gins from St. George Spirits in Alameda, Calif. In particular, I loved St. George’s Terroir Gin, which used native California botanicals, such as Douglas fir, bay laurel and coastal sage, in the infusion. Terroir Gin had an intense, woodsy aroma and a clean, crisp flavor that was simply beautiful in a martini.
Even more noteworthy is St. George’s Dry Rye Gin, in which the botanicals are added to pot-distilled rye rather than to a neutral spirit. The result is something like a cross between traditional London dry and a rye whiskey. It was absolutely amazing in Negronis, particularly in the variation called the Old Pal, which replaces the gin with rye and the sweet vermouth with dry.
It is the most surprising gin I’ve ever tasted — and that is not just a tipsy declaration that I’ll forget in the morning.
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2011).