All About Gin - Part 2: The Modern Revival
Back for more gin? Let’s get right into it -
In the last article, we made a claim that gin is the most diverse spirit out there, and then spent six pages recounting the evolution of gin that started as a mix of all kinds of flavors and eventually emerged as the monolithic London Dry with a very narrow set of characteristics. While a fantastic spirit - that is hardly a good argument for calling it diverse. This is because the diversity we’re talking about didn’t come around until a more modern era. So let’s see - what happened to gin since we left it in its reigning London Dry era?
SOME MORE BRIEF HISTORY
You may have noticed that we’ve said surprisingly little about gin cocktails so far - this isn’t an omission. There are two reasons: (1) most of the cocktails that we know to be accurate to the time didn’t start to establish themselves until the London Dry style of gin had become dominant and readily available* and (2) we thought that there were so many fantastic cocktails from different gin eras that we decided to give them their own posts. Follow these links to read all about Classic, Vintage and Modern gin cocktails.
[*Though Jerry Thomas definitely wrote down quite a few Old Tom and Genever cocktails of the time]
Having said that - the 1850’s, where we left off, saw the invention of some of the classic cocktails we still know to this day (although some of them have changed quite a bit). As Gin spread through the world, cultural centers quickly claimed a stake with their own cocktails. The Gimlet first saw the light of day through the British Navy use of gin rations and lime cordials (another issued ration to combat scurvy). The Martinez (one of the proto-martinis) was born in (or near) the California Bay Area. The Ramos Gin Fizz made itself known in New Orleans. It quickly became impossible to operate a proper cocktail establishment without a host of gin-based libations.
However, while the amount and variety of gin cocktails exploded over the 20th century - gin evolution stagnated. Prohibition in the United States largely decimated the distilling profession as a science and an art, yielding a return to dangerous production methods of the early 1800s (case in point: "bathtub gin"). World War II saw the destruction of many established British distilleries - and though gin production recovered a little faster than that of aged spirits, the effect was severe.
The post-war years also saw the popularization of vodka. Soviet prominence on the world stage combined with the ease of vodka production hurt gin even more. Most of the original gin producers in London had to shutter - leaving Beefeater as the sole Victorian-era survivor. The modern world, spurred on by chemical and mass production revolutions, developed a taste for the consistent, convenient and pre-packaged. For much of the second half of the 20th century, prepackaged products were viewed with a futuristic sheen - a post-scarcity alternative to the inconvenient fresh and craft ingredients of Depression and war-time eras.
It’s not our job or desire to judge the wants and needs of a different time - but in a strictly objective sense, cocktail quality suffered. We’re not going to go into all the ways the decline exhibited itself - it’s just important to note that there was no one reaching for new branches in the gin evolutionary tree.
But, as with all supply and demand based things, that which went down will probably go up again. Gin’s resurrection began in 1988 with Bombay Sapphire - a fairly traditional gin but with a reduced juniper content and a lower proof. The lower alcohol content made it more cost effective to produce, while a luxurious image made it intriguing for the curious. A new generation of cocktail lovers began to emerge in the 1990s - shrugging off the cocktail mixing conventions of the previous 20 years, they pursued accuracy to the cocktail craft of the 1920s and 30s. Shortage of spirit varieties created new demand for all kinds of old and new spirits and the “craft distillery” industry began its cautious but steady rise.
Hendrick’s is one of the best examples of new, experimental gin. Highlighting the juniper with cucumber and rose, they aimed to win over new gin drinkers and bartenders who were committed to nothing but vodka. Shackled by antiquated laws, it took a little while for larger varieties of new gin to be produced. Tentatively at first gins that hewed very closely to the London Dry style emerged into the light. Led by brands like Sipsmith, these were the first bridges into a more contemporary style. Putting great care into every part of the process, they produced spirits that didn’t defy convention but aimed to leave a clear footprint of their own (we are calling these Modern London Dry style).
Once the revival was clearly here to stay - the floodgates of gin creativity burst open. Gins with botanicals that minimize the role of juniper became much more common. Flavors that cater to all kinds of tastes from savory to sweet and everywhere in between became staples of cocktail bars. This is where we find ourselves today: a cornucopia of gin varieties from spicy to soft, from herbal to grain-driven, from floral to smoked - and on and on. Everytime we think that we have seen it all, a new producer surprises us with new, delicious takes (we are calling these Contemporary style).
But not everyone is happy about the great gin-versification*. More recently a debate has surfaced about the very soul of what makes gin, well, gin. To crudely summarize: there are those who believe that gin has now become whatever-one-wants-it-to-be-as-long-as-there-is-a-drop-of-juniper. This has some truth to it. They suggest that there should be other categories for botanical spirits and that gin should go back to being a largely London Dry-like substance. Others counter by praising the diversity of the new Contemporary-style gins and pointing out that they still have a pronounced juniper note making them recognizable as gin in any cocktail. There are good points on both sides and while we will halt our thoughts on it here, we left some links at the bottom of the article where you can read the debate in greater detail*.
So here we are - let’s talk about the different styles of gin we find in the wild today:
MODERN LONDON DRY
As we mentioned above, Modern London Dry gins don't step very far from the London Dry formula. What they do, however, they do very well. Usually in small batches, they aim to produce some of the most meticulous gin out there. The beauty of these Modern London Dry gins lies very much in the nuances they pull out of a set in stone convention. Here, we highlight three of these Modern London Dry gins from three different locations (as the previous post mentions: London Dry gins do not have to be made in London)
Viewed as heroes among craft gin producers, Sipsmith took on UK legislation that had stymied small distilleries for decades --- and won! Their licensing in 2009 was the breaking down of barriers that allowed for many more fantastic gins to be produced in the UK. Sipsmith is made using ten botanicals from around the globe: juniper, coriander, angelica root, licorice root, orris root, almond, cassia bark, cinnamon, orange, and lemon peel. If the first three ingredients sound familiar, it may be because we mentioned them as the traditional gin flavor bearers - and despite being revolutionary, Sipsmith is very much traditional. Sipsmith perfects everything a traditional gin can be - and the result is smooth and well-rounded. Learn more about Sipsmith here.
From a land of famed scotch producers, this gin has a burst of big botanicals, including apple, mint, honey, lemon, orange, pomegranate, and juniper. Made by Bruichladdich, a distillery well known for unique and not-so-subtle scotch, The Botanist manages quite a bit of subtlety (especially given the large number of botanicals involved). Most of the botanicals are local to Islay and even though they make themselves known in this gin, it still manages to come through quite traditional tasting. Initial flavor is mellow and tame, but is quickly followed by bursts of citrus and spices that leads to a satisfying finish. Learn more about The Botanist here.
Despite the name, Brooklyn Gin comes from a slightly upstate New York place, but it still manages to be a closeted Modern London Dry. We had a bit of a debate on classifying this one the way we did. Brooklyn Gin was made to showcase the diversity of citrus that a gin can bring out - and it definitely does just that. Several types of citrus (especially lime and orange) jump out on the first sip. So why did we place this gin in this category and not the citrus? Because despite the center-stage citrus presence, juniper still stands tall and helps this gin work just like a strong London Dry in most cocktails. Learn more about Brooklyn Gin here.
Fresh of the citrucy Brooklyn Gin description we dive into our favorite Citrus forward gins. These gins don't shy away from marrying the juniper to the citrus and often forcing juniper to take a backseat.
Continuing our geographical tour of gin, finds us with Four Pillars in Australia. Their take on a dry gin has become one of our all time favorites. Ten botanicals are used that are common enough to many gins (though the quality and blend is especially superb here) but it is the use of whole oranges that really stands out here. Four Pillars put trust in the high aromatic content of Australian oranges and it really payed off. The fresh orange notes support the spicy botanicals, yielding an extremely well rounded gin that shines in any cocktail. Learn more about Four Pillars gin here.
Emerging more recently out of San Diego, Old Harbor fancies itself a Southwestern Gin. The botanical used here are all locally grown and work in a very well balanced melange of complementary, savory flavors. Lime takes center stage but cucumber and cilantro are very much present as well. Learn more about Old Harbor Gin here.
Russell Henry Malaysian Limes Gin
We mentioned Russell Henry in our previous post, so all we'll say here about it is that they successfully transplanted their minimalist dry gin take to a lime-forward gin. Incredibly flavorful limes yield a surprisingly balanced gin that's perfect for a Gin & Tonic. Learn more about Russell Henry lime gin here.
Floral gins are exactly what they sound to be - they carry floral notes in a prominent way. Some do this more extremely then others, but safe to say that these are perfect gins for the olfactory delights.
A perfumers' gin if there ever was one. Sacred, the producer of Geranium Gin set out to make unique gins with abandon - and this gin is quite the testament. They too plenty of inspiration from floral elements like rose petals but also orange peel, lemon peel, and, of course, geranium. Body is lightly sweet and full of perfume, pumping up those juicy citrus notes and layering on floral elements to a degree that surpasses even the most modern of gins. Spectacular in a light martini. Learn more about Geranium gin here.
This certified organic gin from Chicago comes in of the most gorgeous bottles. Juniper and wildflowers envelop the nose, while the taste is dry, yet vibrant - clean and nuanced by emerald grasses, golden citrus, and white pepper with a round, floral body. Crisp enough to enjoy straight, and excellent in cocktails - though its complex nuance is based showcased by simpler cocktails. Learn more about Koval Dry gin here.
Another certified grain-to-glass organic gin (fitting for the floral ones, no?) comes from Santa Cruz, California. True to the diverse flora of the Santa Cruz mountains, the mix of botanicals here puts the juniper far in the backseat to citrus (orange, lemon, and tangerine). The nose highlights a different story - one full of lavender and ginger. This is the spiciest gin on the floral list and the contrast works quite well. Learn more about Venus gin here.
Similarly to the Floral gin, this trio aims to show off some unique fruit flavors that happen to work perfectly with gin.
Fans of gins dedicated to showcasing the local botanicals of their parent region will savour the dedication to illuminating each of the 30 ingredients included in the Saar Dry Gin. Very few gins (another great example being Monkey 47, Ferdinand’s German compatriot) succeed at keeping so many flavors distinct, and this results in a tastebud oriented veritable tour of the far west German countryside. However, Ferdinand’s goes a step further: clearly unsatisfied with the already vast bouquet of botanicals, the gin is also infused with the region's old native wine, Riesling (quite literally steeped in… or with tradition).
As you can imagine, such an abundance of flavor is a little bit hard to pin down in words - but the Riesling gives this complex gin a very rounded fruit feel. Learn more about Ferdinand's Saar gin here.
Peach Street took two of their favorite products to make this gin. They finished their Jackelope gin (one full of Colorado botanicals) and finished it with some of their Pear Eau de Vie. A perfect marriage of wood, fruit, botanicals, and citrus with incredible aroma and a complex flavor profile, this spirit proves itself alone and in cocktails. Learn more about Jackelope and Jenny here.
Nolet's Silver Dry Gin is Distilled in small batches in copper pot stills with a variety of botanicals including Turkish rose, white peach and raspberry. These botanicals are individually distilled to yield the highest concentration and purity of natural flavors and aromas. The gin base and botanical extracts are then married and allowed to rest in order to fully integrate the flavors. The juniper is almost missing in this spirit, just a bit of spice reminds you that you indeed still drinking a gin. This results in a smooth, balanced spirit with soft floral aromas, a fruit-driven palate, and a classic dry finish. This is similar to Hendrick's, but amped up on all fronts. Learn more about Nolet's gin here.
CONTEMPORARY: HERB AND SPICE
This category and the next are a bit more subjective. As gins have become more divers in their botanicals use, some have emerged with incredibly vast taste profiles. So, we had to make so tougher calls on how to explain them. The following three rely heavily on herbs and spices not normally associated with gin.
A London-made gin that only recently crossed the ocean, Half Hitch is a unique gin that happens to be a pleasure to sip on. The unique combination of ingredients and production processes, particularly the use of tinctures, gives Half Hitch its distinctive color and taste. On the nose you will discover lifting and aromatic notes of light citrus followed by spicy, fresh cracked pepper, and juniper berry. On the palate, note tones of sweet orange, nutmeg and rich black tea before a long finish with lingering touches of cinnamon and fresh lemon zest. Learn more about Half Hitch gin here.
The name "Piùcinque," which means "plus five" in Italian, comes from the first recipe that was used to create the gin. Once the ten botanicals were chosen, their intensity was perfected. After analyzing different combinations, one had the perfect alchemy. That bottle was tagged by the master distiller with the wording "plus five" (as five of the ten botanicals had greater intensity). Along with juniper look for sage, bergamot, and ginger flavors to stand out. Learn more about Piucinque gin here.
Another gin from the ever adventurous Sacred distillers. This one really carried it's identity in it's name (much like the Geranium gin). For Cardamom lovers, this is an excellent sipper. For those more in love with cocktails, the cardamom makes a fun foil for most bitter and citrus liqueurs. Learn more about Sacred Cardamom gin her.
CONTEMPORARY: COMPLEX BOTANICALS
These bottles defy any real classification. When we call them complex, we don't mean to say that the others up till now have lacked in complexity, but rather we wish to highlight the immense diversity of ingredients used. No one botanical takes centerstage here, and new fun flavors emerge - ones that are more than just the sum of their parts.
Another South German gin, it has become a legend among modern gin lovers. Boasting 47 botanicals (and bottled at 47% ABV), a sip of this gin is like a german meadow hike for your taste buds --- and that's a great thing! Woody, grassy, citrusy, and botanical sweetness are followed by spice, fruit, and herb flavors. It has a lot going on, but citrus and pine really come through. One of our favorites in a martini. Learn more about Monkey 47 here.
Bobby's Dry Gin combines Dutch distillation with Indonesian spice. Combining local botanicals such as juniper and rosehips with the exotic flavors of clove, lemongrass, and cubeb pepper. In total eight botanicals are each distilled on their own before being blended together. Fresh oil and floral aromas create an unusual and complex nose. Incredibly distinctive and big flavors, citrusy, herbal, spicey, and piney, with an extraordinarily long lasting finish that can be enjoyed on its own. Learn more about Bobby's gin here.
Coming from Portland's New Deal distillery, this gin is a perfect blend of sweet and savory notes. New Deal’s custom pot still allows juniper berry oils and tannins to remain as distinctive notes, creating a buttery and herbaceous sipping gin. Citrus notes followed by cracked black pepper and an overall round, deep, dark, and mellow tone. Divine in a dirty martini. Learn more about New Deal gin here.
CONTEMPORARY: BARREL AGED
For some people, these gins really push the envelope on what a gin can taste like. The barrel aging can impart characteristics similar to a whiskey or a cognac (depending on the mash used to distill the gin). There are no real rules for gin barrel aging, so we'll try to cover a few diverse varieties.
The base is comprised of wheat and some California grape Eau de Vie. That second ingredient is especially well matched to the French Oak barrels - much like brandy would be. The result is a junipery wheat whiskey-cognac hybrid, in the best possible way. The juniper and citrus notes already present in the gin become aromas of baking spice and cloves, with hints of vanilla and a rounded mouthfeel with flavors of the holiday season rounding out the taste. Great in cocktails that call for a bourbon or a rye, but also takes roles of Old Tom cocktails if you so chose. A great bottle to convert whisky drinkers to gin. Learn more about Rusty Blade gin here.
An unusual, complex gin made using a total of 23 casks, including barrels that previously held Cognac, Pineau des Charentes and Bourbon, among others. It has a light straw hue and gentle vanilla scent, opening smooth and sweet with hints of grapefruit peel, ginger and pink peppercorn zing, and a mellow fade marked by cinnamon, coriander, almond and coconut. Citadelle is dedicated to precise, light aging and uses a Solera method for this.
Citadelle Reserve's Solera method uses American oak cask (to impart a touch of vanilla sweetness) and casks that once held Pineau de Charente (for a full-bodied, flowery roundness) and also Brandy (which imparts elegance). Once the gin has spent some time in casks, a portion of the gin from each cask is moved into a large vat for blending, and new gin will be added to the remaining gin in the cask. Again, after aging for a specified period, the process of taking some of the aged gin out to be blended and adding new to the casks starts all over again. Learn more about Citadelle Reserve gin here.
Distillery No. 209 Wine Barrel Reserve Gins
Distillery No. 209 takes its fantastic dry gin and ages it one of three possible wine barrels: Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, or Chardonnay. The result is like no other gins out there. The California wines infuse deeply into the gin producing hybrids that are very fun to sip and but also make for delightful martinis. Learn more about 209 Wine Barrel gins here.
CONTEMPORARY: REGIONAL - JAPAN
One new and exciting direction gin production has taken in the recent years is also one that gin is uniquely well suited for. By selecting botanicals that are local to a region or a country where a gin is produced, distillers have begun to bottle up a certain geographic essence. In a similar way to how eau de vie captures the spirit of a fruit, these regionally dedicated gins capture and showcase the botanical representation of a place. You can think of this a bit like terroir - but with a significant cultural component. While a terroir driven spirit will display the effect of the production environment on the product, these gins capture diverse flavors and botanicals heavily linked with a place.
As with whisky before it, Japanese producers have taken to adapting gin distillation to their own sensibilities with phenomenal results. Fine tuning a perfect recipe of botanicals for gin has much in common with expert whisky distilling and blending, and so it should come as no surprise that these distilleries have released bottles that feature strong flavors, but in a balanced and harmonious way. While the expressions do vary, and are certainly unique to each distillery, there are some common overarching ideas. These gins tend to have a slightly lean toward citrus flavors derived from yuzu, instead of oranges and lemons used in western gins. Sansho peppers are commonly used to provide some contrast and spice to the finish. And lastly, various teas are employed for the softer notes of the gin.
This is a Gin produced by Nikka Whisky, with all of the base distillate made in their "Coffey Still" imported from Scotland in 1963. The Coffey Still produces a base with a silky texture, rich body, and more flavor than modern column stills. In addition to the Coffey Still a pot still is used to distill the Japanese citrus and a vacuum still for the Sansho pepper. This gin's aromatic complexity relies on the delicate balance of various botanicals including Japanese citrus such as Yuzu, Kabosu, Amanatsu and Shequasar. There is also a touch of apples, followed by pleasantly tangy hints of Japanese Sansho pepper on the finish, with traditional gin botanicals including juniper, coriander, angelica root, lemon and orange peel as well. Learn more about Nikka Coffey Gin here.
Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin
Ki No Bi Dry Gin is created, blended and bottled at the artisanal Kyoto Distillery using many local ingredients and inspired by the history and culture of the ancient city. Meaning 'The Beauty of the Seasons', Ki No Bi is made from a rice spirit, complements by the addition of regional botanicals such as yellow yuzu, hinoki, sansho pepper and gyokuro tea from Uji, blended with the famed waters of Fushimi. Of the three Japanese gins presented here, this one is the closest to a traditional London Dry, but the local botanicals still make themselves known - just in more subtle ways. Learn more about Ki No Bi Gin here.
Suntory Roku Gin
A journey through the four seasons with six Japanese botanicals: Sakura flower, Sakura leaf, Yuzu peel, Sencha tea (green tea), Gyokuro tea (refined green tea) and Sanshō pepper. Each botanical has been harvested at the peak of its season to extract the best flavor, and distilled to fully embody the blessings of nature. Eight traditional botanicals are added for an authentic gin taste - they include juniper berries, coriander, angelica seed and root, cinnamon, cardamom, bitter orange and lemon peel. Learn more about Roku Gin here.
SLOE GIN AND GIN LIQUEURS
It's not uncommon to assume that Sloe Gin isn't any different from standard gin if one has not tried it. But more accurately, Slow Gin is a liqueur - just one with a gin base. Sloe berries (relatives of the plum) at their ripest time are submerged in gin and infuse their flavor for about three months. The tart and sweet flavors of the berry produce a refreshing and complex liqueur that has a dedicated fan base who love sloe gin for sipping and mixing.
We wanted to also point out that gin a versatile liqueur base, and so we present two other gin-derived bottles that are worth a sip or ten. These liqueurs also make for fantastic mixers to use in gin cocktails.
Wild hand-picked sloe berries are harvested after first frost. The sloe berries are gently steeped for several months before being blended with natural sugars. This bottle is bursting with smooth and intense bitter sweet fruit flavors. Learn more about Hayman's Sloe gin here.
The Saar Quince is wholly different experience. Instead of capturing the countryside, as it's parent gin does, it beckons to be enjoyed on a sunny day in the countryside. It is infused with a sweeter wine and a harvest of the region’s local quinces. This make the Saar Quince an excellent alternative to a Sloe Gin, with an experience more evocative of a lightly sweet, delicate, fruity white wine. It is unmistakably a gin, but one that plays with traditional spirit-roles. Learn more about the Quince gin here.
Edinburgh Rhubarb & Ginger Liqueur.
An ode to the classic flavor pairing, Edinburgh Rhubarb & Ginger Liqueur delicately balances sweetness with warming spice. Spring-crop rhubarb and Oriental ginger marry to create a liqueur that promises lively sweetness, sharpness and spice on the nose and palate, with a lingering warm finish. The liqueur is great in a variety of cocktails, its complex notes enhance punchier aromatics such as lemongrass, cardamom and candied ginger. Learn more about this Rhubarb and Ginger Liqueur here.
There's so much gin to explore, one just needs to grab a glass.
*Links on the gin debate:
1. "Fake gin" manifesto by Hayman's: https://www.haymansgin.com/fakegin
2. A thoughtful response to "fake gin" manifesto: https://theginisin.com/long-form/fake-gin/
3. Signs of new gin-that-isn't-gin products: https://www.forbes.com/sites/elvaramirez/2018/05/01/ketel-one-debuts-botanical-vodka-a-new-kind-of-spirit/#535121b56ab4
NOTE: Gin history and classification is vast and convoluted. I've tried here to distill it to its bare essentials which, like old time gin production, is always an imperfect endeavor. If you have any further questions or comments, feel more then welcome to reach out to me (Mish) at firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to learn more?
- More about some great 'Gateway Gins'
- More about Classic Gin Cocktails
- More about Gin & Tonics
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