Layered and subtle, the flavor of modern gin is ready to change your perception of the distillate. And we're here to help: from street hooch to the classic G&T to artisanal gin, we've got the details on gin's development. —INGRAIN, Spring 2019
STORY / Mike Smith
Gin and other quick-to-bottle distillates can be viewed as a great side hustle for startup distilleries in need of fast cash. But biding time while the whiskey and other barrel-aged spirits mature isn’t why some of the best craft distillers today are so obsessed with the juniper scented spirit.
With their unique expressions of the spirit, more distilleries are placing their bets on gin. They’re flipping a finger at the idea that gin is a second-class distillery citizen by piling on the herbs, spices, and other aromatics. The latest generation of botanical gins have such layered complexity and subtle nuances that they rival the best whiskeys. Some actually are barrel-aged. Barrel-aged GIN, you say? Glad I finally got your attention.
This new wave of artisanal gin producers is changing the way many of us think of gin. Even mixers that are typically paired with gin, like tonic, have been restored to what we can only imagine is closer to their original flavor profiles. We like to think of these distillers as a cross between botanists, food scientists, and mixologists. They turn to herbs, spices, and other adjunct ingredients to complement the subtle notes of juniper in every gin rather than simply piling on the classic “piney” juniper flavor. (A true gin by legal definition must include juniper.) Producing an artisanal, or botanical, gin is, to use an overused word, an art form. (Try tossing a handful of thirty different botanicals into a pot of boiling water and see what kind of tea you get.)
One of the reasons there is so much room for distillers to experiment is the “flavor flexibility” of juniper. The dominant flavor in gin is always juniper berries, but the “berry” is hardly a one-trick pony. (Juniper isn’t a berry, either, but the seed cone produced by the various species of junipers.) Alcohol handily draws out the oil’s many different flavors: piney, woodsy, spicy (nutmeg, clove), citrusy, minty, musty. The other botanicals used to complement those flavors can be more delicate and floral, or as is the case with one of our new favorite gins, be loaded with other big flavors, like mint. This is where the fun of trying all today’s gin styles comes into play.
The most robust, and typically juniper-forward, of this new guard of spirits are even finding their way into whiskey barrels. (If the concept of a barrel-aged gin is a shocker, remember that genever was often aged in barrels.) And like whiskeys, they take their color from the barrels in which they are aged, which infuse flavor characteristics not typically associated with gin: vanilla, oak, smoke/char. They shine when simply sipped, but also work well when shaken or stirred; try subbing an aged gin in a classic whiskey cocktail.
Gin has weathered a sullied reputation more than once in its 400-plus-year life span. Throughout the 1700s, Brits in London’s back alleys were downing bottles of what was essentially juniper moonshine; street peddlers sold homemade concoctions to the working class that were often laced with cheap “flavorings,” like turpentine, and clocked in at an equally shocking ABV. The devastation caused by this gin-like street hooch is often equated to the effects of a widespread crack epidemic—or today, opioids. (Most of London’s working class only had access to beer prior to the arrival of these alcohol bombs.)
Attempts by Those-in-Charge to regulate the gin industry, mainly by passing new regulations on sales and later exports, would be an ongoing struggle (when you have to keep rewriting the “gin act” a half dozen times, you’ve got a big problem). Eventually, the “London dry” gin style—with its distinctly woodsy, pine needle notes of juniper berries—would emerge as the industry standard.
Jump forward a few hundred years to the cocktail era overseas. Prior to Prohibition, Americans loved their cocktails. Many of those shaken or stirred drinks featured imported British gin, including the original martini (dry vermouth and a dash of orange bitters). Dozens of gin-based cocktails were “invented” at bars across the US. Had top ten lists existed, we’d bet good money that juniper-based spirits and cocktails would have made the cut, with the iconic G&T (gin and tonic) topping the list.
It was only after Prohibition that gin, like many other spirits, turned into something else entirely, and the brash, overly piney spirits that are still the backbone of the average bar-crawl gin cocktail became the norm. Americans loved their cheap drinks most when they were masked by syrupy sweetness; soon even the beloved G&T fell victim to mass-produced mixers. While whiskey connoisseurs continued to shell out for the best aged bourbons and scotch, gin seemed forever destined to be the happy hour special.
As was the case with so many spirits after a few too many long, bar slinging nights, gin was in desperate need of a new image, and flavor, overhaul.
The precursor to gin, was a loud, rough, barrel-aged Dutch malt wine distillate that was “softened” with herbs and spices (including juniper berries). Like other spirits at the time, genever was sold in pharmacies and touted as a cure-all. (Any spirit that registered at roughly 50% ABV probably did cure something.) In the 17th century, British soldiers discovered the potent beverage on the battlefield and tinkered around with the formula back home. These early prototypes eventually evolved into what most of us consider a “classic” gin profile today.
Gin begins its life as a neutral grain spirit, meaning it is almost pure ethanol with very little taste (think straight vodka). Just like whiskey, a grain bill is put together (usually one type of grain), fermented with yeast into what is known as distiller’s beer,* and then distilled.
With vodka and gin, the spirit is typically distilled to around 190 proof. The result is a higher alcohol spirit that is flavor neutral; almost all the nuances from the grains have been stripped away. (Whiskey is usually distilled to roughly 160 proof, so more aromas and flavors from the original grains remain.) At this point, you can drink the distillate straight (prost!), or infuse/distill the neutral spirit with botanicals and other adjunct ingredients. This is why gin is considered the original “flavored vodka.”
To turn that neutral grain spirit into gin, distillers add adjunct ingredients to infuse the spirit with the desired aromas and flavors. There are several ways to do this. The traditional method involves placing the spirit into a pot still, along with the juniper berries and other botanicals, then allowing the two to steep for as long as 48 hours. Another method, called a vapor infusion process, involves placing the botanicals in baskets above the spirit (so they never come in contact with the base spirit). When the alcohol is boiled, the steam causes the botanicals to release their aroma and flavor nuances, which condenses into a liquid.
Some craft distillers combine these two methods, depending on the botanicals, or may employ newer methods that require less heat, thus retaining a “fresher” botanical flavor profile (take a look at Greenhook Ginsmiths’ process below). Regardless, most gins are re-distilled to achieve the infusion process. Afterward, the high ABV spirit is “proofed down” by adding water (the same is done to whiskey and other spirits) to reduce the ABV to bottling strength.
*Distiller’s beer is technically beer, only one that has been brewed specifically for the process of distilling. After fermentation occurs within the wort (grain, water, and yeast), the resulting liquid is called the “wash,” or distiller’s beer. (It’s drinkable but likely won’t taste particularly good, as other ingredients, like hops, typically are not included.) Some artisan whiskey producers today distill actual beer (a recognizable beer style that you’d find at a pub and is “drinkable” before distilling) to create a specific flavor profile.
FIVE TO TRY
Terroir-driven, artisanal, botanical; call this new generation of gins whatever you’d like. Just get tasting.
Botanical Gin Profile Coriander, orange peel, peppercorns (pink and black), balsamic vinegar, nutmeg/clove, hibiscus, mint, thyme, angelica root, vanilla, lemon peel, cinnamon, jasmine, flowers, green tea.
Steven DeAngelo jumped into the juniper game with a historical eye. His Brooklyn-based distillery employs a vacuum process that was used by perfumers in the 1800s to extract herbal and floral aromas (the lower heat allows more of the delicate aromas to infuse the spirit). Initially only available in the New York area, the distillery’s three gins are now popping up at spirits shops in other locales. Among them: a classically inspired American Dry Gin ($35) and a barrel-aged Old Tom ($45), a tribute to the fuller, richer aged gins of 19th-century cocktail lore.
F.E.W. made news in 2011, when it became the first distillery to open in Evanston, Illinois, since Prohibition. (Formerly a dry city, Evanston was the home of the Women’s Temperance Movement.) A favorite for whiskey, F.E.W. doesn’t disappoint on the gin side, either. The hints of citrus and vanilla in the American Gin ($40) make it a great spring sipper, while the smoky, peppery Barrel Gin ($45) rivals the distillery’s best whiskeys.
New York City spice expert Lior Liev didn’t hold back when he teamed up with Cardinal Spirits (Indiana) to create a truly botanical gin. With handfuls of zuta (a variety of wild Israeli mint), piney caper berries, and just enough juniper berries to sneak out from behind it all, Terra Botanical Gin ($40) is definitely off the beaten spice path.
When Sipsmith opened in 2009, it was London’s first traditional copper distillery since 1820. The aptly named V.J.O.P. (Very Junipery Over Proof gin, $50) and London Dry Gin, the distiller’s take on the traditional, with a strong juniper profile and a whiff of citrus ($35), are our go-to classic cocktail picks.
What started in a Chicago basement quickly catapulted into a cult distillery known for its wildly creative seasonal gins and riffs on classic digestifs. But it is still Letherbee’s Original Label Gin ($32)—a blend of nearly a dozen botanicals with hints of cardamom, coriander, and ginger—that has the place of honor on our bar cart.