There has never been a better time to be a gin lover. It seems that every day a new gin arrives on the market or is finally imported from overseas (note the recent U.S. arrival of Monkey 47 from Germany). This Saturday, June 14, marks World Gin Day, which makes it most apropos to look back on gin's recent evolution from the much-derided “grandpa's tipple” to the superstar cocktail spirit it is. The newest crop of artisan gins – and nontraditional bottlings from the juniper giants – are changing the way gin is perceived.
If we're going to talk gin, let's talk ground rules. First, if you are a gin hater, stop hating. Yes, it's been said by naysayers that gin tastes the way Christmas trees smell. That Christmas tree gin would be the London Dry style, which requires juniper to be at the forefront. The more juniper, the drier the gin.
The game changer in the gin world was Bombay Sapphire, the first more citrus-forward gin. It launched in 1998, announcing all of its botanicals on the attention-getting blue bottle. Prior to this, gin companies fiercely guarded their botanical balance, like the Knight's Watch guards Castle Black. In 2000, a not-so-little Scottish rebel named Hendrick's came along and basically turned the gin world on its head. Cucumber and Bulgarian rose petals, you say? Damn right, said Hendrick's, whose aromatic and distinctly non-juniper-centric product is seen by many bartenders as the gateway gin for gin bashers and other tentative souls.
Hendrick's recipe – and success – essentially gave upstart gin distillers permission to play. No longer were Americans just drinking gin produced in England. These days, you can find gins from states across the union – Aviation is from Oregon, Few is from Illinois and No. 209 is from San Francisco – not to mention from around the globe. Caorunn is from Scotland, Whitley Neill from South Africa.
While juniper still plays a role, you're more likely to be experiencing botanicals from a vegetable garden or a fruit orchard, even barrel-aged products. The cocktail renaissance has given the new crop of gin distillers the freedom to create recipes without restrictions and to recreate old ones (for example, the early 19th century Old Tom style has come back into vogue). Moreover, giants like Beefeater and Tanqueray have made their own bold moves into gin's new botanical frontier with products such as Beefeater 24 (which includes tea) and Tanqueray Old Tom, just released .
Since Bombay Sapphire and Hendrick's changed the playing field, no fewer than 100 new gins have made it to liquor stores near you. Here are some of the more notable recent bottlings, in alphabetical order (since we don't want to play favorites – we have too many). All the bottlings are available at K&L Wine Merchants and Wally's, except where otherwise noted. Prices are averages.
8. and 7. Barr Hill Gin ($36, 375 ml) and Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat Gin ($37)
Have you ever heard of a gin that only uses two botanicals? Well, now you have. Barr Hill is distilled first with juniper and then with honey from the bees owned by distiller and longtime beekeeper Todd Hardie. The standard gin has a sweeter profile than standard London Dry, but there is still a classic element to it. The Tom Cat is aged in American oak, creating both a depth of flavor from the casks and a balance of piney and sweet notes. Despite the labels, these gins tends to defy categorization because they're uniquely their own, very much an expression of Hardie and his commitment to sustainability, farming and the soul of the land. The company also produces a vodka. Tom Cat only at Wally's.
6. Burrough's Oak Aged Gin ($75)
Beefeater master distiller Desmond Payne was given free rein to create this barrel-aged gin, using the original Beefeater recipe but letting the gin rest in Jean de Lillet casks for several weeks before bottling. The result is a velvety, full-bodied spirit that can – and should – be sipped like whiskey. However, if you find yourself feeling decadent, we won't begrudge you a Burrough's martini (although Desmond might not be too fond of the dilution). Available at only at Wally's and Total Wine.[
5. Bruichladdich Botanist ($37)
Created by the master distiller of Bruichladdich whiskey in an old pot still dubbed Ugly Betty, the Botanist might sound like a flower garden, but it is more citrus, spices and herbs. Of the 31 botanicals, 22 are native to the Hebrides island of Islay where this gin is made. There is a slightly sweet, floral quality to this gin, but it's also a ballsy flavor bomb with spicy, herbal, citrus layers that go on for days.
4. Ford's Gin ($27, 1L)
Ford's makes no claims to being a London Dry gin, but it is distilled in a classic style. The namesake of Simon Ford, co-partner in the upstart 86 Spirits Company, this gin favors juniper but softens the delivery with the subtle use of other botanicals. Despite the less aggressive botanical profile, this gin is robust enough to stand up to mixing. Both the flavor and the ergonomic bottle design have made it a bartenders' favorite. Available at K and L Wine Merchants.
3. Monkey 47 ($46, 375ml)
The story alone might make you buy this gin: A dusty bottle labeled “Max the Monkey, Schwarzwald Dry Gin” was discovered in the Black Forest home of English expat Montgomery Collins. The bottle included detailed recipe notes from which the gin was recreated. Juniper is definitely at play here, but locally sourced lingonberries add a subtle note of sweetness that deepens the gin's already complex tapestry of 47 botanicals. Ask any bartender who has tasted it, but make sure you have time for them to wax poetic.
2. Sipsmith ($37)
This is the first London Dry gin to be distilled in London in more than 200 years and the “sip-smiths” (owners) are very proud of this fact. There's an irreverence to this brand that recalls Hendrick's, albeit not with the same advertising muscle. Like Ford's, it's something of a darling with bartenders, partly because it was created by someone in the cocktail community (cocktail historian Jared Brown). But it's also lauded because it's a damn fine example of what a modern yet traditional gin should be.
1. Tanqueray Malacca ($33, 1L)
Tanqueray released this exotic and aromatic gin – a spicier, more citrusy, less dry version of its house style – back in 1997, but it failed dismally, due to poor target marketing. It was pulled from the market in 2001 and gin lovers mourned its passing. Fast-forward to 2013. Bartender demand helped bring it back, but only 100,000 bottles, which seems like a lot until you can't get yours. Many folks who favored the original say that the re-release isn't quite there, but at least we can have a taste of an almost forgotten classic. Available at K & L Wine Merchants.
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book “Gin: A Global History. ” Her book “The 12 Bottle Bar“, co-written with David Solmonson, will be released August 2014. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.