Mike Groener, CEO of local spirits company Genius Liquids, sees his flagship product Genius Gin contributing a much-needed new point of interest to the American gin conversation.
“We will be the best American gin, and we will have one of the most prominent aesthetics for anything made in America,” Groener says. “I fully believe that. You can confine it to gin, but I implore you to take any other American gin and say our product doesn’t look better or taste better than that.”
The broad and quickly growing spectrum of American gin runs a gamut of flavors. But after extensive travel and market research, Groener says he couldn’t find one that completely nailed what he believed gin should taste like. He decided to make one that would match that vision.
“We are a reaction to the industry, more than we’re trying to be a part of it,” he says. New Western gins “are not good in a martini or anything that calls for the gin to stand out on its own. We wanted a gin that was complete, but versatile enough to impart dryness, with a citrus and floral body as well so that you can drink it straight.”
Groener says he and business partner Charles Cheung approached the recipe development with two things in mind: They wanted to incorporate their appreciation for the culinary arts into the recipe, and they wanted to produce the spirit from start to finish using mostly local ingredients.
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They started by developing their base liquor from scratch, something not many Texas distilleries do (instead, they buy neutral base spirit in bulk and complete the process from that point). They looked at the ways different botanicals react to different levels of heat, just like a chef might approach seasoning a dish. Seven of the primary botanicals, including lime peel, lavender, rose hips and elderflower, steep in what Groener calls “a cold process.” The liquid is then re-distilled, and juniper and cardamom are vapor-infused during a secondary hot steeping process. This way, the botanicals that might be more sensitive to heat won’t be over-cooked, and the ones that can withstand more heat can reach their potential without damaging the others.
For flavor, Groener says he wanted to stray from the darker sarsaparilla or heavy anise personality that many West Coast American gins promote, opting for what he describes as a “pastoral” flavor with earthy, organic flavors.
“It tastes sophisticated but smells like fresh juniper masked in a soft citrus,” he says. “There’s a wonderful marriage that happens during the cold process that creates fattiness from the lavender and lime peel. It almost comes across like a soft light vanilla note.”
Once the original recipe was perfected, Groener started tinkering around with the idea of releasing a higher-proof version. Genius Gin Navy Strength, the 114 proof expression, is one of only a handful of Navy Strength gins out on the American market (Royal Dock, Leopold’s and Plymouth are a few others that can be found locally).
The name Navy Strength refers to the British Royal Navy and a time when their ships transported high-proof gin across the ocean. According to an article in the New York Times, the “reason for the high alcohol content was that that was the proof level at which the ship’s gunpowder could still be fired should it accidentally get soaked with booze.” Navy Strength gins are typically over 100 proof; most bottled gins land in the 80-90 proof range. At the higher proof, all of the characteristics of the liquid are amplified, leaving little room for poor production quality.
“If you have the right flavors, you should push them,” Groener says. “There’s a much wider mouthfeel, with good oils left intact. Even more bold in cocktails.”
After spending some time with the original, I agree that Genius, which arrived in stores in late June, has the entire fresh juniper personality one might expect from a gin, but it’s enveloped in a soft, silky lavender cloak with bright moments of citrus, and a lingering finish that hints at black pepper and cardamom.
I also tasted several cocktails made with Genius at a launch party at Drink.Well American Pub. Check out the recipes with this story. My favorite was the Antica drink, with the opulent, sweet vermouth and bold, warm Navy Strength. Notes of dark chocolate and orange swirled with lavender and juniper, creating an after-dinner drink that I plan to revisit.