Playing the New Gin Game
What exactly is gin anymore?
From its 16th century beginnings as a malty Dutch spirit called genever to the juniper-focused style that became known as London dry gin, and the 18th century sweetened version known as Old Tom, what gin is has always depended on who you ask.
Gin had remained mostly unchanged since the 19th century when London dry, Old Tom, genever, and a few smaller off-shoot styles like Plymouth and Menorcan were the standard-bearers. But starting at the end of last century, the familiar London dry mix of juniper, coriander, citrus and other botanicals found new companions in the still: lavender, fir, lemon verbena, poppy seeds, bay, hawthorn, white pepper, heather and blueberries among many, many other ingredients. New distillers started testing new recipes and flavors using botanicals consumers didn’t fully understand. In many cases, these spirits started arguments, as the juniper-restrained styles now known as New Western gins were assailed by purists, even while gin as a category declined in the US. Some distillers suppressed the juniper so much they were forced by the government to call their stuff flavored vodka.
Hendrick’s, with its rose and cucumber additions, blazed the trail and is the most successful of the modern iterations. But there are many others that have helped make gin more interesting and marketable as a pricey tipple. Among the newer botanical mixes there are Bulldog, which includes poppy seeds and lotus leaves; Caorunn, a Scottish gin using rowan berries; and Ungava, a Canadian entry using rose hips and Labrador tea. Adirondack Gin, made in New York State, tweaks the classic London dry neutral grain spirit model by starting with corn spirit rather than neutral grain and incorporating 10 botanicals and essential oils, including Alpine bilberries. Monkey 47, as its name states, includes 47 botanicals, including cranberries and spruce shoots, and is distilled from molasses.
Traditional category leaders haven’t rested on their laurels. Beefeater’s 24 includes grapefruit and tea, and Burrough’s Reserve is made in small batches in limited production and aged in oak. Bombay added Bombay East made with black pepper and lemongrass to its portfolio of Bombay and Bombay Sapphire, while Tanqueray has recently relaunched citrusy Tanqueray No. TEN.
Some of these new gins straddle the border of new and old. Consider The Botanist, made at the Islay distillery home to Bruichladdich Distillery. Years of experimentation and the help of a local botanist couple created a mix of 22 hand-gathered local botanicals, including Islay juniper, lady’s bedstraw, meadowsweet and mugwort, combined with 9 classic botanicals.
The list, especially from newer distillers looking for a white spirit that helps pay the bills while the vodka business slows, goes on and on, and small production gins have proven to be especially popular locally and regionally, as enthusiasts look for brands they can identify with.
So if your gin game needs to be upped, it may be time to craft a seasonal list, bringing in new gins for the summer when consumption of the savory spirit spikes. It’s a new gin world and the same old same old won’t do the trick any longer.