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Waiting for a Clear Comeback

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

I'm sure you've heard this before: Gin is back. It's one of the most overhyped spirits claims of the past few years.

[See Recipe: Unusual Negroni]

The Great Gin Comeback has of course been hailed by bartenders and cocktail purists who pray for the day when consumers leave behind their unsophisticated vodkas and return to a thinking person's spirit. Unfortunately, it also feels a little like wishful thinking. Those damn consumers just aren't playing along.

The sad truth is that when I mix cocktails for friends, I often have to bribe them to try a cocktail that features gin. So many people tell me that traditional gin is too harsh, too aggressive, too high-proof. They say they don't like the Christmas-tree-in-a-glass experience.

That is dismaying to those who hope to revive classic cocktails and the art of bartending. A couple of months ago, at a panel discussion on "The Future of Mixology" at the Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans, at least one top bartender ruefully said that even though the trend spotters and food media have for several years been calling gin the Next Big Thing, the truth is that so far, it just isn't.

Here's how the story is usually told: Once upon a time, gin was gin. And drinkers adored it, so much so that gin was the base spirit of the nation's glorious cocktail culture. Everything was as it should be. Just crack open, say, the 1934 edition of Patrick Gavin Duffy's "Official Mixer's Manual," one of the most popular bartender's guides of its era. Inside, Duffy devotes 103 pages, a third of the book, to hundreds of gin-based recipes. Vodka-based drinks merit exactly a half-page. Number of vodka recipes? Two.

Times changed. In the purist's view, vodka became popular and ruined everything. If Duffy were to return from the grave, he'd probably have to find a new line of work. What would the curmudgeonly Duffy make of an Appletini? Or blueberry vodka? Or vodka from Kyrgyzstan? Or vodka from Donald Trump? He'd be horrified to learn that a sizable portion of the drinking public believes that a martini is made with vodka.

Personal preferences aside, the pitting of vodka vs. gin has a clear marketing element. It should be no surprise that talk of a gin comeback coincides with a proliferation of premium brands such as Junipero, Hendrick's, G'Vine, No. 209, Citadelle, Martin Miller's and others -- all of which retail for over $30. Cadenhead's Old Raj retails for over $50. Which means premium gin is following the same path as premium vodka.

"No one is really looking for another vodka," said Andrew Auwerda, president of Philadelphia Distilling. The company produces Bluecoat Gin, the latest premium gin available in the Washington area, where it retails for $27.

"The question that many spirits companies are now struggling with is how premium will they go?" writes Noah Rothbaum in his new book, "The Business of Spirits." "Beefeater gin, always considered a premium product, now doesn't seem all that expensive at a mere $20 a bottle. The company is working to create an ultra-premium gin and is deciding how to price it." Rothbaum reports that Beefeater has considered one option that would be priced at around $100.

Not too long ago, rappers boasted of sipping Tanqueray as an emblem of a bling-bling lifestyle. These days, Tanqueray (at a little over $20 a bottle) is one of the best buys in the liquor store. At the same time, the company sells its super-premium Tanqueray No. Ten for more than $30.

Although I'm not convinced that any of the newer premium gins justify their price tags, several are excellent ways to introduce non-gin-drinkers to the spirit.

What's interesting (and challenging) about the new gins is how wildly they differ in flavor profile. Gin is simply neutral grain spirit (i.e., vodka) flavored with juniper and then any number of other herbs, spices, fruits and roots. For the drinker who's looking for a softer, more approachable gin, I recommend three bottles: Bluecoat, with a sweet orange finish; Hendrick's, with rose petal and cucumber notes; and G'Vine, with a floral aroma and peppery finish. All three avoid the Pine-Sol scent-bomb effect, and they will appeal to people who already enjoy flavored vodka.

Of course, no one drinks gin straight. So introducing a newbie to the right cocktail is important. You have to ease into it. One of my favorite gin cocktails is a Negroni, but even that -- with gin, bitter Campari and sweet vermouth -- can scare people away. For that reason, I've been initiating non-gin-drinking friends with a variation, called the Unusual Negroni, created by Charlotte Voisey for Hendrick's. Campari is replaced with lighter, sweeter Aperol and sweet vermouth is replaced by the citrus-and-honey Lillet white wine aperitif. Only when a newbie appreciates that drink do I think about following it up with the ultimate gin cocktail: a big, strong, dry martini.

Jason Wilson can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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