Forget everything you think you know about gin. OK, maybe you don’t have to go that far. Maybe you’ve been out in front of the crush of developments (and redevelopments) in this tipple from the Middle Ages as it collides with 21st-century craft distilling. For me, the traipse down Gin Alley these last few weeks has been an eye-opener.
I had heretofore only been an intermittent imbiber—gin and tonics on a beach house porch, a martini on rare visits to dim, old-school eateries (I'm looking at you, The Prime Rib). I had no brand loyalty, choosing Tanqueray for no other reason than noted mixologist and safe-driving advocate Snoop Dogg name-dropped it.
But while I was busy keeping up with goings-on in the whisky aisle and craft beer case, gin blew up: new botanicals, new colors (barrel-aging the spirit to an amber hue), the revival of ancient recipes and ancestral varieties. The flavor profile of these newfangled/oldfangled gins have broadened so much that if you were to shake-not-stir, say, a Monkey 47 gin into James Bond's cocktail glass he'd probably spit it out, suspecting some nefarious evildoer had slipped him a Mickey. (Largely a vodka man on screen, 007 drinks gin as well in the novels.)
Fortuitously, I set out to expand my gin knowledge just as Matt Teacher's "The Spirit of Gin: A Stirring Miscellany of the New Gin Revival" came off the presses. "I would say that gin is a misunderstood spirit, especially in recent years," Teacher says over the phone. "Whiskey had its boom and people became aware of its varieties. A lot of people still don't exactly know gin, besides the quintessential 'tastes like pine trees' comment."
Junipers, though pinelike, are evergreen members of the cypress family. They are also gin's base. "The qualifying element for a gin is that juniper berries have to be in the distillation of the neutral spirit," Teacher says. "Besides that, a whole host of other botanicals can be added." The base alcohol is usually from grain, but neo-gins also use potatoes, apples, even grapes. (Does it surprise at all that some gins now boast being gluten-free?)
It began with the granddad spirit, genever, the original "Dutch courage" with its milder, sweeter, maltier taste. Amsterdam's Bols still makes genever, as do a few other companies. Semisweet Old Tom gin is often viewed as a link between genever and the crisp London dry style and its juniper-forward taste folks associate with gin (personified by big brands, such as Beefeater). And now we have New Western Style gin, wherein juniper jumps to the backseat behind a host of additional flavorings. Germany's Monkey 47 is so named because that's how many different botanicals are used, including cardamom, honeysuckle, and kaffir lime.
"A lot of people say gin is great because it's perfect for making cocktails but now there are gins that can be sipped on their own," Teacher says. "We are seeing more and more barrel-aged gins." Philly's Bluecoat brand and Boston's Grandten Distilling have both rolled out barreled gins.
But then Teacher's book turned me on to the existence of Jensen gin from London, and Hampden's Wine Source kindly ordered me a bottle of Jensen's Old Tom offering, based on an 1840s recipe. (Jensen makes a London Dry as well.)
Taking cues from Teacher and other ginophiles, I made a 50-50 martini with a dash of orange bitters and a twist. Here was a drink with a sophisticated sweetness—fruity without tipping into something from the flavored-vodka aisle. The gin label reads: "Sweet + smooth + character = Jensen … the perfect choice."
A drink with my name on it. The perfect choice indeed.