I’m kidding. It means that it’s pointless to argue over subjective matters of taste. This is very wise advice. But lately I’ve found it more difficult to accept broad dismissals of gin.
Twenty years ago, you could feel confident that you were at least disagreeing about the same fundamental “object”: a spirit in the classic “London dry” tradition, predominantly flavored with juniper with a supporting cast of citrus and other botanicals. Today, depending on what your friend has tasted and experienced, you may be arguing over entirely different understandings of what “gin” is. It’s the booze equivalent of arguing that “Diabolique,” the terrifying 1955 French thriller, is an incredible movie and then discovering, 20 minutes into the debate, that your friend thinks you’re insane because they’re talking about “Diabolique,” the dreadful 1996 Sharon Stone remake.
I’m not saying either argument is a good use of your time. But if you’re anti-gin based on a gin you tried 20 years ago, you might want to do a little exploring.
Gin grew out of Dutch genever, and was picked up by fellow colonial power England and refined over centuries. Long considered the most British of tipples, gin has now gone truly global, with iterations springing up from Asia, Australia, South America and Africa. I tasted gins from five continents for this story, gins that have taken the roster of botanicals into new terrain, often turning to native plants to add new notes to the requisite juniper — yuzu, lemon myrtle, sage, Kalahari truffles, seaweed, mango, yerba mate, lingonberries. Some of them are recognizably gin; others truly stretched my concept of the term.
“One of the things that makes gin so exciting now is that 10, 20 years ago, there was a pretty singular style of gin, and if you didn’t like that style, then you weren’t loving gin. … Now it’s like, well, if you don’t like that gin, try this one!” says Stu Gregor, co-founder of Four Pillars Gin in Australia’s Yarra Valley, which produces multiple terrific gins, including one flavored with olive leaf and another with Shiraz grapes.
Hendrick’s, launched in 1999, was one of the earliest brands to bend the gin category in a way that captured consumers’ attention. Whereas a classic London dry gin, master distiller Lesley Gracie told me by email, “would be quite pointed in terms of a flavour profile; it’s quite triangular and almost goes off as a spike,” by contrast, Hendrick’s has a rounder, balanced profile, “with nothing pointy sticking out.” The juniper is definitely present in Hendrick’s, but the aromatics lean more into cucumber and rose botanical notes.
“The success of Hendrick’s probably showed that you didn’t have to produce a specific type of London dry to resonate with people who are drinking it,” Gracie says. “Taste is what drinkers care about, not category definitions, and creating something that tastes delicious is all that matters.”
The explosion of new gins has added to the challenge of categorization. In the United States, the broad gin class is defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau as “spirits with a main characteristic flavor derived from juniper berries,” yet plenty of American gins, to my taste, seem to bend or break that rule. London dry gins can actually be made anywhere following specific production rules that, beyond stipulating the primacy of juniper and tightly restricting sugar content, do not really govern how the gin must taste.
Legal regulations, of course, don’t drive how people drink, nor how their palates will differ in perceiving what botanicals are officially “dominant” in a spirit. As a booze writer, I’m more interested than most in inside-still geekery, but when I put my consumer hat on, if I’m buying a London dry gin, I expect it to taste and perform like one. I don’t care much about what made it do that.
But I’m also excited (and occasionally happily confused) by gins that are doing something different — like Four Pillars is with its Rare Dry and Bloody Shiraz gins, like Agave Gin (with 32 botanicals representing each of Mexico’s states), like St. George’s delicious Terroir, whose botanicals include Douglas fir, California bay laurel and roasted coriander.
The latter wasn’t even originally conceived as a gin, says master distiller Lance Winters, who was trying to capture the aromas of the California forest at his son’s day camp on a warm summer day. “I thought, I’m a distiller and it’s my privilege and my duty to distill the things I love the smells of. I’m going to distill this place,” Winters says. “It wasn’t until later that I started thinking, this is along the lines of a gin profile.”
Doing so successfully requires managing consumer expectations. “Every gin cocktail starts with an expectation of a flavor profile, that gin is going to be some slight variation of a London dry style,” Winters says. “And when you depart from that so dramatically, people are going to react in one of two ways, either with complete surprise and happiness because they’ve never tasted something like this before, or ‘What the f--- just happened? You completely ruined my gin!’” He’s fine with this; he wants people to be either in love or completely offended — no “beige” reactions.
“When we talk to consumers, we’re constantly tailoring the message, because a lot of people who think they don’t like gin end up really liking Monkey 47,” says Jennifer Schwartz, the brand director for the German gin. It’s a theme that likely resonates for many other new gins out there, some of which taste pretty classically ginny, some of which taste radically new.
What to call these gins, given the tremendous diversity of flavors and origins? The term “New Western Dry Gin,” coined more than 10 years ago by Ryan Magarian — one of the founders of Aviation Gin, itself a big swerve away from the classic gin profile — is often used to describe them. All gins, Magarian says, fall on a spectrum between classic — where the intent is highlighting the juniper — and the “New Western” style gins that seek a balance of all the included botanicals.
Magarian thinks the term is still useful, but at the time of its coinage, most of the new players were Americans. With more gins coming out around the world, including from non-Western countries, the term seems likely to require further refinement. Anand Virmani, founder and CEO of the India-based Näo Spirits, describes its Hapusa Himalayan Dry Gin as a “contemporary gin,” noting in an email that even though it’s made following the London dry style, “the flavour profile is so unique that the classification is needed to set the expectation for a consumer.”
Several sources I spoke to said their brands created their own category, a claim that I take with the usual hunk of salt one must suck on when sorting through marketing-speak. I don’t dismiss it entirely, though: Nomenclature evolves over time, and I’m interested to see how new gin styles develop country to country. While gin-making is still fairly unusual in some places, other countries seem to be carving out new geographic gin identities through their use of common botanicals. Many of the Japanese gins are incorporating yuzu, and Gregor says that lemon myrtle — “which has a beautiful sherbet-y quality” — is becoming quite common in the gins being produced in Australia now. Over time, location-specific terms like “Japanese gin” or “Irish gin” or “Australian gin” may come to tell drinkers more than just where their gin was distilled, but also the unique regional botanicals they can expect to taste in their next martini.
Give these gins a spin
All of the gins on this by-no-means-comprehensive list contain juniper (a prerequisite), but some take the spirit in intriguing new directions. Some subtleties won’t show up in complex cocktails, so try them in martinis or basic gin/soda highballs to start, to get acquainted with the flavors. These prices are approximate and will vary by retailer.
St. George Terroir Gin (California, $35, 750 milliliters): Earthy, herbal and piney, notes of sage and coriander. Complex and striking.
Four Pillars Gin (Australia, $28, 750 ml): This distillery is making a range of terrific and unusual gins, including its Rare Dry (which includes oranges and lemon myrtle), an olive leaf gin, and one infused with shiraz grapes.
Agave Gin (Mexico, $55, 750 ml): A gin for tequila lovers, this has a defined agave taste with a complex assortment of other botanicals.
Caorunn Gin (Scotland, $42, 750 ml): Crisp, floral, herbal rosemary. Flavored with Scottish rowan berry among other botanicals.
Roku Gin (Japan, $30, 750 ml): Soft, elegant, with botanicals including yuzu, cherry blossom and green tea.
Hapusa Himalayan Dry Gin (India, $46, 750 ml): Earthy and spicy, with a Himalayan juniper, Bengal lime and ginger.
Gray Whale (California, $35, 750 ml): Botanicals include almond and sea kelp, which comes through in a tantalizing savory note. Great for martinis.
McQueen and the Violet Fog (Brazil, $38, 750 ml): Floral, with fennel and a flavor that reminded me of petrichor (the smell of concrete after rain) in a good way.
Hendrick’s Gin (Scotland, $32, 750 ml): An early rule-bender, Hendrick’s is a mellow and soft gin; its cucumber and rose notes go beautifully with lime and elderflower.
Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin (Germany, $45, 375 ml): A molasses-based gin from the Black Forest in Germany. Floral with a lovely berry note; juniper is much more subtle.
Principe de los Apostoles Maté Gin (Argentina, $27, 750 ml): Flavored with yerba maté and eucalyptus, this gin has a mild, appealing bitterness and notes of mint.
Aviation Gin (Portland, $25, 750 ml): Spicy, earthy and citrusy, with lavender and cardamom notes. Juniper is a team player here, not the star quarterback.
Komasa Gin (Japan, $40, 375 ml): Elegant and citrus forward, flavored with Japanese mandarin.
More from Voraciously: