The New Gin Game
Exotic citrus and other unusual flavorings have become big players.
My car has a little red light that comes on when the engine is overheating. My brain has a similar alarm mechanism. Every time the temperature rises past 80 degrees, my mind begins flashing a neon image of a tall, frosty Gin and Tonic. There’s no spirit better suited to warm weather cocktails than crisp, aromatic, and thoroughly refreshing gin. Whether you’re a longtime convert or a curious newbie, gin is definitely in, and the shelves are overflowing with exceptional versions, both classic and cutting-edge.
Dutch CourageGin is sometimes considered a quintessentially English indulgence—one tippled by naughty spinster aunts at remote country houses in Sussex, quaffed by colonels of the Raj under palm fans in India, or imbibed by the Noel Coward crowd at swank Mayfair cocktail parties. But the first gin was actually made in Holland.
Around 1650, Dutch physician Franz de la Boe—better known by his Latin moniker, Dr. Sylvius—was conducting experiments at the University of Leyden in hopes of finding a cure for stomach and kidney ailments. The good doctor turned to juniper berry oil, a powerful diuretic that he thought would rid the body of “bad humors.” His patients, however, found the acrid juniper oil almost impossible to get down the hatch. To make the medicine palatable, Dr. Sylvius began adding the juniper to a base of neutral distilled spirits.
Dr. Sylvius dubbed his tonic genever, derived from genièvre, the French word for juniper. Genever was soon the rage of Holland. Perfectly healthy people began developing mysterious stomach ailments that could only be relieved—mirabile dictu!—by daily doses of the new cure. Demand was so great that the enterprising Bols firm in Amsterdam began marketing a commercial version of genever, a highly aromatic version that’s still available today. (Given gin’s medicinal roots, it’s perhaps no coincidence that gin’s best friend, tonic water, contains quinine, an alkaloid used to relieve malaria symptoms.)
Seventeenth-century English soldiers were so impressed by the plucky, gin-tippling Dutch on the battlefield, that they brought their “Dutch courage” back to Britain. There, a drier, more refined “London dry gin” was perfected in brands such as the historic Tanqueray, which first appeared in 1830.
Into the LimelightToday, gin is hot. The high-end premium gin category (from $12 to $24) grew a whopping 18 percent between 2005 and 2006, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Gin sales totaled more than $870 million in the United States—an amount well short of vodka’s nearly $5 billion in U.S. sales, but considerable nonetheless.
At the Blue Bar in Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel, where Dorothy Parker and her coterie held their notorious Round Table during the heady 1920s, Ms. Parker’s favorite spirit is in vogue again. “Gin is coming back for sure,” notes veteran Algonquin bartender Cristian Preda. “During the ’90s we served mostly vodka Martinis, but today it’s about fifty-fifty gin to vodka. One reason is because there are so many new gins out there.”
Although gin’s primary flavoring agent is juniper, every distiller adds an individualized recipe of herbs and flavorings—coriander, angelica root, cardamom, cassia bark, orris root, caraway, anise, fruit peels, and others—that vary greatly not only in flavor but in intensity as well. These days, the trend is moving slowly but surely away from gins dominated by a classic juniper influence and toward those that showcase other sectors of the flavor spectrum.
Tanqueray No. Ten was one of the first contemporary gins to bring citrus more front and center, and it was a smash success. Younger, hipper cocktail enthusiasts fell like mosquitoes on a bug-zapper for “Tanq Ten,” with its fresh nose of lime and a palate of lush botanicals that works beautifully in trendy mixed drinks.
Encouraged by new converts, Tanqueray has pushed the citrus envelope even further with its newest gin, Rangpur. Released late last year, this sultry spirit relies on exotic Rangpur limes from India to brighten its flavor harmonics. Bombay Sapphire, now considered a staple gin in its distinctive blue bottle, was well ahead of the curve in this respect. Based on a revived 1761 recipe that downplayed juniper for a milder bouquet of botanicals, Sapphire set the stage for alternative gins when it was launched in 1988.
“Gin is the original flavored vodka,” remarks master distiller Jean-Sébastien Robicquet, whose just-launched G’Vine Gin is one of the newest entries in the category. Distilled in the Cognac region from Ugni Blanc grapes and grape flowers, its flavor profile includes nine botanicals: ginger root, licorice, green cardamom, cassia bark, coriander, juniper berries, cubeb, nutmeg, and lime. With its lighter body and eminent mixibility, G’Vine “reflects the same values that are driving the vodka segment today,” according to Robicquet.
Spirits producer Richard Ward, who created citrusy-peppery Zuidam Gin with a Dutch distilling family, notes that gin has traditionally appealed to the oldest demographic of any spirit product. “With Zuidam I was trying to get to a younger audience,” Ward says, “but I’m not trying to take away vodka drinkers. It’s a trader-upper market that buys our product—people who are looking for something different from the standard big-name gins.”
Taking the flavor game to entirely different places is both a gin producer’s challenge and a gin lover’s adventure. Oregon-made Spruce Gin, for example, includes spruce needles among its fourteen components. The recipe for Whitley Neill Gin calls for African Cape gooseberries and baobab fruit. The subtler Hendrick’s, from Scotland, boasts cucumber as a leading aromatic, while saffron lends exotic flavor and a yellow tinge to Cadenhead’s Old Raj, one of the priciest gins on the market.
The H²O used in gin production makes a surprisingly tangible difference in texture and taste, too, as is evident in Plymouth Gin, made from soft, granite-filtered Dartmoor water. Once a favorite of the British navy, Plymouth has a lush mouthfeel and beautifully integrated flavors.
Drink GloballyGin has become a truly international phenomenon, with entries coming from as far afield as New Zealand (South Gin), France (Citadelle), and Estonia (Reval), South Africa (Stretton’s), and Austria (Reisetbauer). The flavoring agents come from across the globe as well: vanilla from Madagascar, nutmeg from Indonesia, orris root from Italy, cassia from Southeast Asia—the list goes on and on.
In England, London dry gin still rules the bar, but newer brands have come along to challenge the Old Guard. The upstarts include aggressive Bulldog, in its spiked dog-collar bottle, and lovely Martin Miller’s, which is bottled at two different proofs.
Authentic genevers from Holland (Zuidam produces one for select markets) have a bolder taste due to their malt base. They’re often aged in wood before bottling, which gives them a straw color and a sweet finish. Usually consumed straight up, genever is an acquired taste, but newer Dutch gins have adopted a cleaner, more modern style. These include seductive Van Gogh and brisk, racy Damrak, which gives a nod to the genever tradition while still retaining a dry, contemporary finish.
Modern American gins—such as Bluecoat, pot-distilled in Philadelphia; understated, citrusy Hamptons; and rich, mellow No. 209, crafted in a depot on San Francisco’s waterfront—assure that gin will remain as fresh as Dorothy Parker’s wit long into the foreseeable future.
4 Gin Cocktails to Try
DRY MARTINI2 ounces gin
1⁄2 teaspoon dry vermouth or to taste
Olive or lemon twist
Stir gin and vermouth in a mixing glass with plenty of ice. Strain the mixture into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the olive or lemon twist.
NEGRONI1 ounce gin
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce Campari
Shake all ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the lemon twist.
BERRY FIZZ2 ounces gin
1⁄2 ounce maraschino liqueur 1 ounce lemon juice
1 teaspoon raspberry syrup
Mix all ingredients, except soda and fruit, in a shaker. Strain the mixture into a chilled highball glass. Top off the glass with club soda and stir gently. Garnish with the raspberries.
MINT COLLINS2 ounces gin
1⁄2 ounce lemon juice
1 teaspoon white crème de menthe
1 teaspoon sugar syrup
1 scoop crushed ice
Mix all ingredients, except club soda and mint sprigs, in a blender. Pour the mixture into a chilled Collins glass. Top off the glass with cold club soda and stir gently. Garnish with the mint sprigs.