These days, it’s widely accepted that gin is not the next vodka. Still, exciting things are happening on backbars with the botanical-infused spirit. Savvy bartenders currently are promoting its various segments, running the gamut from London Dry and New Western styles to fringe spirits, such as sweetened Old Tom and earthy Genever. Bar operators also are creatively using the intriguing botanical profiles and stories behind various gin brands to draw consumers — even those who steadfastly proclaim they won’t consume the liquor.
Bibiana Osteria Enoteca in Washington, D.C. highlights a cool Italian vibe.
Although some guests legitimately may not have a proclivity for the spirit, many bar patrons who vehemently state, “I don’t like gin,” actually mean, “I have had a bad experience with gin,” notes Megan Coyle, mixologist for Hank’s Oyster Bar in Washington, D.C. Such a statement shouldn’t be a stop sign on the road to conversion.
“All one has to do is listen,” she says. “Figure out how the last experience failed, and try a different route.”
If someone wasn’t a fan of a London Dry gin cocktail with citrus, try mixing Old Tom with coconut water. If your guest doesn’t like tonic water, don’t use it. Likewise, offer substitutions for preferred ingredients, such as a splash of hibiscus instead of cranberry juice. One past “gincident” needn’t be the final straw that makes a guest eschew the entire category.
Its diversity of botanical combinations means gin mixes well with many different cocktail components, but finding them (and a guest’s preferred flavor profile) often requires more testing and tasting than with vodka, the neutral quality of which “assimilates readily,” explains Eric Stahl, wine and beverage manager of Morris House Hotel’s M Restaurant in Philadelphia. Experimentation is paramount to becoming familiar with gin styles and brands.
London Dry gin, represented by brands such as Beefeater and Tanqueray, is dominated by juniper, which renders the “Christmas tree” aroma that is attractive to some, yet off-putting to others. Those in the latter camp may be better advised to start their gin journey with a cocktail involving one of the so-called New Western style gins, in which juniper is understated in favor of other components, including cucumber and rose petals (Hendrick’s), ginger (DH Krahn) or citrus (Bluecoat.) Even traditional brands offer modern, juniper-light spins: Beefeater 24’s recipe includes green and sencha teas; distillers for Tanqueray Rangpur use the namesake fruit to create a citrus-forward product. Plymouth stands on its own as a brand name and style: Earthy and subtle, it’s a versatile introduction to gin.
Even though modern brands downplay pine-like aromas and flavors, customers still may need a little coaxing to give them a try. Education and a bit of colorful storytelling can help make guests more comfortable.
“Guests are ever more interested in house-created cocktails,” notes Jackson Cannon, bar director of Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks as well as Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston, and the 2011 Nightclub & Bar Bartender of the Year. “As we name our drinks to evoke the history or backstory of a brand, we can bring the consumer into that kind of discussion.”
The Frobisher’s ($10) blend of Oxley gin, house rosé vermouth and maraschino liqueur is named for an English pirate and explorer. The early-19th-century Aviation ($10) was named for the light-blue color imparted by crème de violette; the classic’s easy-on-the-palate flavor combination of cherry, tart lemon and a touch of herbal pine also make it Cannon’s go-to libation for gin-o-phobes.
Cannon cites a current trend toward small-batch American gins with an emphasis on natural botanicals and local terroir; gin distilleries located in proximity to bars add to their brands’ appeal. The staff at bar and barbecue hot spot Devil’s Alley Bar and Grill, located in Philadelphia, feels fortunate to be in the same city as locally produced Bluecoat gin.
“It appears that the ‘buy local’ phenomenon has translated into the drinking area,” General Manager Chris Younge remarks. “If [guests] know that the floral taste is imparted by orange peels and juniper berries only blocks away, they are much more likely to enjoy the final product.”
What more recently released gin brands lack in history, they make up for in consumer accessibility and relatability.
Wine and Beverage Manager Eric Stahl experiments with gin cocktails at M Restaurant in Philadelphia.
Sometimes closing the deal takes even a bit more ingenuity. Island Creek Oyster Bar Head Bartender Bob McCoy often approaches gin-hesitant guests by describing different brands as if he were talking about flavored vodkas. He uses this trick when recommending drinks such as the High Pines ($10): Its aromatic elements, including grapefruit juice, Carpano Antica and St-Germain, complement and offset Beefeater’s unapologetically juniper-forward quality.
Gin has a unique place on the bar, according to Jon Santer, Hendrick’s brand ambassador for the Western United States, as the only spirit that’s always a cocktail ingredient and never consumed solo. He calls gin a vital instrument in mixologists’ tool kits — one for which they should be comfortable reaching on a regular basis. He recommends that bartenders looking to attract the gin neophyte use gin in drinks typically made with vodka, such as a Lemon Drop, Bloody Mary or Sour, so customers will find familiarity in the cocktail’s other components. Stahl is partial to using sparkling wine as a float in gin cocktails because it adds a refreshing feeling on the palate that’s fitting for those unaccustomed to the spirit.
Coyle is uncomfortable, however, with the notion that several libations could ease all guests into gin-dom equally.
“Let the guest’s taste guide you rather than be guided by expectation,” she suggests. “The great thing about mixology is that all rules are meant to be, if not broken, stretched.”
She admits that even those who tend to gravitate toward brown bottles can find gin-kindred spirits.
“Old Tom gins are much softer, with some malty sweetness — great for blended-whiskey drinkers; Genevers tend to be richer with even more malt and apt to please the Scotch crowd,” she explains.
Another way to appeal to whiskey-lovers looking to cross over to gin — as well as reach out to adventurous palates on the cutting edge — is to embrace barrel-aged cocktails. Bibiana Osteria Enoteca, an upscale rustic Italian restaurant and bar in Washington, D.C., does a barrel-aged Negroni ($12).
“It has been very interesting for both us and our guests — it’s remarkable to taste the change,” General Manager Christian Pendleton says.
Like any part of a successful drinks program, knowing your target audience is key. Younge admits that the cucumber, lime and jalapeno in the Hendrick’s-based Zephyr ($10) cocktail at Devil’s Alley is not created for the average consumer, but its bold and eclectic flavor combination works with the venue’s style of food and décor.
The bottom line with gin: You can’t please everyone, but by being mindful of brands’ profiles, mixability and backstories, bartenders are making gin allies out of former adversaries. NCB