Rethinking gin: Craft cocktail movement creates new focus and flavors on an old spirit
Gin lost its place as a staple behind the bar when vodka came into fashion in the 1950s, pushing aside its botanically enhanced cousin. Although that remains true for many drinkers today, bartenders and distillers are turning their attention to the category of gin as the craft cocktail and spirits movement grows.
According to the Beverage Information Group's 2011 Handbook, only 10.5 million 9-liter cases of gin were sold in the United States in 2011 (down 3.1 percent from 2010). In contrast, vodka sales continue to increase; they were up 5.5 percent over the same time period, with 63 million cases sold in 2011.
Although general sales might be down, the overall category of gin continues to expand and evolve. The area that's experiencing the most rapid growth is a collection of new brands that fall into what spirits experts and bartenders are calling New American or New Western style.
The New American school expands on the definition of gin by playing with traditional notions of what the spirit is supposed to taste like. Distillers are straying from London dry's signature juniper face and focusing on different botanicals (the herbs, spices and roots used to flavor the gin's neutral base), creating a broad spectrum of flavors that appeal to a wider variety of drinkers. For example, Hendrick's gin features cucumber and rose as the primary ingredients. Aviation gin introduces lavender into the mix. Bombay Sapphire is known for its juniper-heavy London dry style gin, but the company recently released a new expression (the first in 25 years). Bombay East infuses Vietnamese black peppercorn and Thai lemongrass to Sapphire's original 10 botanicals. Others feature elderflower, grapefruit peels and even pecans.
With new brands of gin hitting the market every day, it's never been a better time to explore the underdog spirit.
When tasted side-by-side with London dry gins, Texas' bold and oftentimes unusual gins will rarely be confused with the traditional stoic English ones.
Mirroring the national trend that strays from a traditional botanical makeup, Texas has welcomed the introduction of several New Western-style gins to its homegrown spirits portfolio over the past year.
Houston-based New Artisan Spirits released Texas' first gin last summer. The recipe for Roxor was developed by chef Robert del Grande, who aimed to incorporate a subdued hint of juniper and focused on pulling out fresh grapefruit peels, hibiscus, cocoa nibs and sarsaparilla.
Austin's Treaty Oak Distilling's Waterloo Gin, which hit the market later that fall, aimed to be "true to a traditional London dry gin with our botanical selection," as well, owner Daniel Barnes said, but they also wanted to improvise by infusing "several native Texan botanicals — lavender, pecans and grapefruit zest." A backbone of juniper and earthy green peppercorn acts as the base for the gin, which softens and blossoms into a floral bouquet of lavender, lemon and slight anise.
On the near horizon, farm-to-bottle Bone Spirits out of Smithville will introduce its fourth and final product, Moody June Gin, in early September.
"It's not overly botanical, but I think definitely has all the notes and profiles of a traditional London dry," owner Jeff Peace says. "Citrusy."
Peace labeled Moody June as an American dry gin, made from a 100 percent corn base and infused with hand-picked Texas juniper, orange peel, cassia and angelica root, among other botanicals.
Finally, keep your eyes out for Austin-based Genius Gin, which will hit shelves later this fall. Like Bone Spirits, the base liquor for the gin is being made from scratch by Genius Liquids CEO and president Mike Groener, who is targeting juniper and cardamom as the primary botanicals. The gin will stray from tradition with the addition of lavender, lime peel and other proprietary ingredients. Groener says the result is a spirit with an earthy, organic nose that envelops the tongue with fresh juniper, soft citrus and a mellow light vanilla flavor.
The classic G&T
To explore the essence of gin — even in its new and unconventional styles — reach for a cocktail that celebrates the spirit in its most unadulterated form: the gin and tonic.
At a discussion on "reconsidering the gin and tonic" at the Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans earlier this year, Washington Post spirits columnist Jason Wilson said the gin and tonic used to be quite the cosmopolitan tipple, but has aged into a sloppy, poor quality drink, marked by bargain gin and generic tonic water from a soda gun, and served in a plastic cup or pint glass packed with lousy ice.
With the innovation within the category of new world gin, no one has to continue to drink gin and tonics in this uninspired manner.
Some American bartenders are looking to Spain for inspiration, and Audrey Fort of G'Vine Gin said Spain is the second largest gin consumer in the world. Eighty-five percent of gin consumption there occurs in the form of gin and tonics. Bartenders across the country are paying attention to the mixing of the best artisan tonic waters with complementary brands of gin, elevating the cocktail into a sort of art form.
"Gin is a spirit that relies on botanicals, and each gin has a different profile, so why are we always just squeezing a lime into the gin and tonic?" Wilson said. "There has to be a perfect storm of garnish, aromatic, gin and tonic."
With new artisan tonic waters available (most are less bitter and more subtle and nuanced), picking the right tonic to go with a gin that has a certain botanical profile can enhance and celebrate the drink. In Austin, several local bars make in-house tonic waters for this purpose. New local company Liber & Co. produces a tonic syrup that's sold commercially. Fever Tree and Q tonics are also solid options that can be found in many grocery and liquor stores.
The Spanish are also going beyond the lime wedge and experimenting with garnishes such as berries, grapefruit and grapes; spices such as saffron, star anise and coriander; and herbs including rosemary and thyme to draw out different aromatics.
Tales of the Cocktail panelist Adam Bernbach runs a gin and tonic program at the Washington, D.C., cocktail bar Estadio. If using Plymouth gin, he suggests adding baking spices such as cinnamon and anise to accentuate the gin's noticeable cardamom aspect. Old Raj gin has a "beautiful bright, warm tone," with prominent flavors of saffron, so playing up orange and a lot of traditional Spanish flavors such as paprika would match well.
Whether or not the drinking masses embrace gin again, they can at least ditch the lime wedge and take their experience up a notch with new flavors, garnishes and presentations.
Contact Emma Janzen at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reintroduce yourself to gin
Here are two simple and straightforward gin drink recipes from "The Essential Cocktail" by Dale Degroff.
2 sprigs of mint
3/4 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 1/2 oz. gin
1 oz. simple syrup
1 1/2 oz. club soda
Gently muddle one of the mint sprigs with the lemon juice in the bottom of a mixing glass. Add gin and syrup and shake with ice until chilled. Pour over crushed ice and stir to integrate. Top with a splash of soda, up to 1 1/2 ounces to taste. Garnish with mint. DeGroff says any style of gin will work in this classic cocktail (Plymouth, London dry, Old Tom), but if you're new to gin, start with one of the New Western styles such as Hendrick's, Citadelle or Aviation.
1 1/2 oz. gin
1 oz. simple syrup
3/4 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
2 or 3 dashes Angostura bitters
Lemon wedge for garnish
Combine the gin, syrup, lemon juice and bitters in a mixing glass with ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a rocks glass. Garnish with lemon wedge. DeGroff recommends Hendrick's as the gin in this cocktail as well. He also just released a line of Pimento Aromatic bitters that he says work well in this drink in the place of the more common Angostura bitters. They are available at his website on www.kingcocktail.com.
It's Gin Week in Emma Janzen's Liquid Austin blog. Go to www.austin360.com/liquid for more recommended brands of tonic, botanical breakdowns of some major brands of gin, news about upcoming Texas gin releases, and more recipes.