Americans are rediscovering the affordable elegance and unrivaled complexity of premium gin. Crafted according to a secret blend of aromatics, every brand is endowed with an engaging personality as individually distinctive as DNA, which explains why no two smell or taste the same. So when gin fanciers say they fancy a particular gin more than the others, believe them.
“Gin is definitely undergoing a reappraisal by trade and consumers,” explains Bob Fowkes, director and co-founder of Brockmans Gin. “First, the craft brewing movement is heightening everyone’s interest in the subject of taste. Gin delivers more favorably in that respect versus say neutral vodka. In addition, the process and recipe story for gin has a greater degree of interest and fascination for consumers. Gin tends to be unique and different and probably resistant to being flavored with cake, bubblegum and bacon.”
The character differences between the brands lie in how they’re made. The most widely produced type is London Dry Gin, a term that now refers to a style rather than a geographical reference. They’re produced in two stages. First, a fermented mash of cereal grains are distilled in specially designed gin stills. The highly rectified, neutral spirit is then redistilled with the introduction of botanicals.
The exact composition of these aromatic ingredients is a guarded trade secret and essentially distinguishes one premium brand from another. An exceptional gin makes its presence immediately known with an outpouring of fresh, celery-crisp aromas elicited from botanicals such as juniper berries, citrus peels, herbs, roots and spice.
The category’s bestselling London Dry Gin is made in the U.S. by the House of Seagram. Distillers since 1857, Seagram’s is the only house that takes the extra step of mellowing its Seagram’s Extra Dry Gin in white oak barrels for added smoothness. The elder statesman of the portfolio is Seagram’s Distiller’s Reserve 102 proof, a stylistically full and vibrant spirit made from select barrel proof batches. The range also includes the popular line of fruit-infused Twisted Gin, the latest of which is Red Berry.
Still, according to Bill Eldien, president and CEO, Nolet Spirits U.S.A., “Imported gins in particular continue to gain traction and experience the largest growth within the gin category. We see talented mixologists leading the charge behind beverage programming as a driving force behind gin’s resurgence.”
The influx of new imports as well as American crafted distilled gins has contributed greatly to the category’s activity. “The rise of local and artisan gins have given the whole category a serious jolt of creativity and energy,” says Tom Potter, partner and co-founder of New York Distilling Company, which makes Chief Gowanus New-Netherland Gin, a recreation of an 1809 New York distiller’s manual recipe.
Still, it’s only fitting to begin our overview with the brands that comprise the heart and soul of the gin category. They hail from England, the country where the spirit made its popular debut.
Beefeater London Dry Gin — This iconic brand is made in the same manner and according to the family-held recipe first devised by pharmacist James Burrough in 1820. It is exquisitely dry with a floral and spicy bouquet and a layered, long-lasting palate. Bottled at 94-proof, Beefeater has the well-deserved reputation as the driest of the London gins.
Beefeater 24 —Created by renowned master distiller, Desmond Payne, Beefeater 24 is distilled with a unique blend of 12 hand-selected botanicals, an aromatic mix that features Seville oranges, grapefruit peels and Chinese green and Japanese sencha teas. It is bottled at 90 proof.
Bombay Sapphire— The first superpremium gin in the U.S, Bombay Sapphire, 94 proof, is double-distilled in a series of Carter Head stills. The copper alembic stills are designed such that the spirit’s rising vapors in the neck pass through a basket-like device holding the 10 botanicals. The aromatic mix includes fragrant herbs, spices, roots, fruit and juniper berries from Italy.
Boodles British Gin — Created in 1847, the venerable London dry gin is made by Chivas Brothers at the Strathisla Distillery, Scotland’s oldest continuously operating distillery. The gin, 90.4 proof, is made in a vacuum still, which functions under extreme pressure allowing the alcohol to evaporate at a lower temperature. Its mix of botanicals includes coriander, sage, cassia bark, nutmeg, rosemary, caraway, angelica root and juniper berries.
Hendrick’s Gin — Self-described as the “world’s most peculiar gin,” 88-proof Hendricks’s is made in Scotland from a blend of small batch spirits produced in two types of stills, each of which produce distinctively different styles of spirits. Particularly unusual is the gin’s botanical mix that includes rose petals and cucumber.
Plymouth Dry Gin — Plymouth Gin, 82 proof, continues to be made where it originated over 200 years ago, at England’s oldest, continuously operating distillery, the Black Friars Distillery. The venerable brand is distilled in a large copper alembic still using pure grain spirits, soft spring water and an infusion of seven hand-selected botanicals.
Tanqueray— Top-selling Tanqueray, 94.6 proof, is distilled at Finsbury, England, which is famous for its pure, health-rejuvenating waters. The successful franchise also includes Tanqueray Rangpur. During its final distillation the gin is passed through a botanical mix of bay leaf, ginger and rangpur peels, a lemon and mandarin orange hybrid with a pronounced lime flavor.
Tanqueray No. Ten —Its point of distinction is that instead of being distilled using dried botanicals, Tanqueray No. Ten derives its fresh flavor from grapefruits, oranges, and limes, ripe juniper berries from Tuscany and herbs such as coriander and chamomile. It boasts a recent packaging upgrade.
Newer Aromatic Offerings
These are indeed heady days for gin. Those in the gin camp conjecture that potential converts are created on a nightly basis in the form of lapsed vodka drinkers, consumers who’ve grown disenchanted with its austere, aloof personality. For label-battered vodka drinkers, gin might well be a welcome break.
“We think that boutique spirits are the really hot spirit category,” says August Sebastiani, president of The Other Guys Wines, maker’s of Uncle Val’s Gin. “Vodka is certainly a monster category, but I think that it doesn’t do much for the craft movement. On the other hand, gin allows for much more flexibility and, frankly, complexity in flavor profile. Personally, the category allows a hand-sell not too different from a wine sale. Consumers are curious about process and ingredients and want to know more about subtle flavor profiles.”
The resurgent popularity of the cocktail has prompted the release of many new artisanal brands. Here’s a sampling of some promising candidates.
American Dry Gin — The flagship of Greenhook Ginsmith of Brooklyn, American Dry Gin is crafted from organic wheat and a botanical mix that includes in part Tuscan juniper, chamomile, Thai blue ginger, Ceylon cinnamon, orris root and elderberry. The DeAngelo brothers make their 94-proof gin in a custom-made, vacuum copper pot still, which allows the gin to be distilled at low temperatures. This helps prevent the delicate aromas of the botanicals from being diminished by excessive heat of distillation.
Brockmans —Produced in the heart of England, Brockmans’ botanical mix includes Bulgarian coriander, angelica, Murcian orange peels and juniper berries. The botanicals are steeped in pure grain spirits prior to being distilled in a century old copper alembic still. Afterwards the spirits are infused with wild mountain blueberries and blackberries from northern Europe. Bottled at 80 proof.
Death’s Door — This award-winning spirit is made in Wisconsin on a base of triple-distilled organic winter wheat and malted barley. Master distiller John Jeffery then infuses the spirits with only 3 botanicals—organic juniper berries, organic coriander and fennel seeds. The botanicals are placed in a chamber in the neck of the still such that the rising alcohol vapors pass through the botanicals and imprint the 94-proof gin with their aroma and flavor.
Distillery No. 209 — Made at Distillery No. 209 located at San Francisco’s famed Pier 50, the 92-proof gin has a balanced, citrus and spiced palate with the juniper taking a back seat. The brand features a botanical mix that includes bergamot orange, lemon peel, cardamom pods, cassia bark, angelica root and coriander seeds.
Ford’s Gin — Distilled in London at the Thames Distillers, Ford’s Gin is a collaboration between 8th generation Master Distiller Charles Maxwell and master mixologist Simon Ford. The 90-proof, juniper-forward spirit is crafted on a base of wheat neutral spirits mascerated with citrus (bitter orange, lemon & grapefruit peels), flora (jasmine flower & orris) and spice (angelica & cassia). The botanicals are steeped for 15 hours before being distilled in a traditional pot still.
Langley’s No. 8 —This English import hails from the century-old Langley’s Distillery. The namesake gin is single distilled in a small pot still using neutral grain spirits and a secret mix of 8 botanicals. The 83.4 proof gin is a masterfully balanced blend of spicy, zesty and piney flavors and aromas.
London No. 1 —Imported by famed Sherry producer Gonzalez Byass, the 94-proof gin is distilled in London with juniper, almond, iris root, bergamot and orange peel. It is finished with a ‘gardenia elixir’ giving it a jasmine-like finish and color. This together with bergamot zest used during distillation lends the gin an Earl Grey tea-like quality.
Monkey 47 — Recent arrival Monkey 47 is produced by the Black Forest Distillers from a staggering 47 botanicals that are macerated in a combination of pure molasses alcohol and natural spring water. Imported by Sidney Frank, the 94-proof gin is brimming with a juniper-forward character, floral and crisp citrus notes and a hint of peppery spices.
Perry’s Tot Navy Strength — Produced by the New York Distilling Company, Perry’s Tot Navy Strength is bottled at a lip-tingling 114 proof. According to Tom Potter, partner and co-founder of New York Distilling Company, this character-rich spirit is an homage to a nearly forgotten, historical gin style made with a fresh interpretation. It is distilled with honey as one of its botanicals.
Uncle Val’s — Handcrafted in Sonoma County, Uncle Val’s is constructed on a foundation of neutral grain spirits that are slowly steeped with a botanical mix that includes lavender, sage, lemon peels, cucumber and juniper. Some botanicals steep longer in the alcohol than others to impart a more pronounced flavor and aroma. All told, the highly aromatic, 90-proof gin undergoes five distillations in a copper pot still.
A number of brands have survived the usual challenges of the initial launch and are now firmly entrenched in category’s ranks. These neo-classics are among the finest examples of their type or style.
“People don’t buy categories, they buy brands,” asserts Thomas Mooney, co-owner and CEO of House Spirits Distillery. “The rise of gin is led by a handful of pioneering brands that have introduced new, more balanced expressions of gin, for example Hendrick’s or our Aviation American Gin. These growth brands are more mixable, but they also pair well with complex fruit and spice flavors that are not as kind to more traditional gins.”
Aviation American Gin — Handcrafted at the House Spirits Distillery in Portland, OR, Aviation is a small batch artisanal gin distilled on a base of neutral rye spirits and infused with 7 botanicals, a mix that includes lavender, cardamom and sarsaparilla. This spicy, herbal and citrusy spirit is bottled at 84 proof.
Bluecoat American Dry Gin — Handcrafted in Philadelphia, organic Bluecoat American Dry Gin, 94 proof, is formulated on a base of pot-distilled rye, wheat, barley and corn. The resulting spirit is then infused with juniper, sweet orange peels and fresh citrus. In a break from style, the fruit notes and flavors take center stage.
Bulldog — This ultra-premium gin from London is handcrafted in small copper pot stills from English grain and a blend of 12 aromatics. The gin, 80 proof, features a botanical mix that features dragon eye, a fruit from Southeast Asia long renown for its aphrodisiac properties.
Cold River — Cold River Gin is made in Freeport, ME, from locally sourced potatoes and spring water from an underground aquifer. The gin, 94 proof, has an oily textured body and balanced palate with juniper in the lead and zesty citrus and cardamom spice on the finish.
Fifty Pounds London Dry — This classically styled spirit is distilled in London on a base of neutral grain spirits and eleven botanicals, including juniper, angelica root, coriander, licorice root, Grains of Paradise from African, lemons and oranges and French herb savoury. Its last 3 botanicals are a proprietary secret. After distillation, the 87-proof spirit is rested to allow the flavor of the botanicals to fully integrate.
G’Vine Floraison — This 80-proof French import is quadruple-distilled in copper alembic stills from Ugni Blanc grapes, 9 botanicals and fleur de vigue, the essential oils of the Ugni Blanc flower. The super-premium gin is highly aromatic with prominent notes of orange blossoms and lime zest.
Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin — Crafted at the Nolet Distillery in Schiedam, Holland, Nolet Silver is comprised of a neutral grain spirit distilled from premium winter wheat. The super-premium gin is crafted with several unique botanicals, namely fresh white peaches, raspberries and Turkish rose petals. The 95.2 proof gin is slightly sweet and floral.
Right Gin — Produced in Malmo, Sweden, Right Gin is an 80-proof spirit crafted on a foundation of neutral spirits column-distilled from locally grown corn. Its breadth of character is derived from a mix of 8 botanicals that includes juniper, cardamom, coriander, citrus, Sicilian bergamot and black pepper from Borneo.
Regardless of whether they feature conventional juniper-forward characters or are more avant garde in structure, these brands appeal to gin enthusiasts.
Broker’s — This London dry gin from Birmingham, England is made on a foundation of neutral grain spirits quadruple-distilled in a century-old pot still. The botanical mix is comprised of 10 herbs, spices and fruit sourced from around the globe. The 94 proof gin is marketed in an understated bottle whimsically topped off with a bowler hat.
Citadelle Reserve — Produced in Cognac by Gabriel & Andreu, the vintage-dated gin is triple-distilled in a Cognac pot still and formulated with a staggering 19 botanicals. The 88-proof spirit is then aged for several months in oak casks. The cognac maker’s cellar master created the gin with a specific combination of botanicals intentionally designed for oak aging.
Crater Lake Estate Gin — This vintage-dated, craft distilled gin is created from grains and botanicals grown on site at Bendistillery in Bend, OR. Released each fall, the 2013 edition includes hand-harvested juniper, lime basil and lemon balm. After distillation, the 85-proof gin is briefly rested in oak.
Damrak — Made by the Lucas Bols Company of Amsterdam, Damrak is crafted from a proprietary recipe dating back to the early 1700s. It combines 17 fruits, berries, herbs and spices, each individually distilled to lock its distinctive flavor and fragrance. The 83.6 proof gin is juniper-forward with a crisp and flavorful finish.
Gabriel Boudier Saffron Infused Gin — Based on an artisanal colonial French recipe, this saffron infused entry is made in small batches in a copper pot still. The result is a bold gin, 80 proof, with a golden hue and a pronounced herbal essence.
Junipero — Made by the Anchor Distilling Company of San Francisco, Junipero, 98.6 proof, is a small batch spirit alembic distilled and flavored with over a dozen botanicals. It has a spicy, juniper-forward bouquet and a flavorful lingering finish.
Leyden Dry Gin — Produced at the Dirkswager Distillery in Schiedam, Holland, Leyden Dry Gin is triple-distilled in small batches, twice in column stills and lastly in a traditional pot still. The column still produces an essentially pure, high proof spirit, while the pot still endows the 80-proof gin with a bold, pronounced flavor.
Martin Miller’s Reformed — After being distilled in England, every drop of this London dry gin is shipped 3000 miles to the remote Icelandic village of Borganes. There the spirit is diluted to 90.4 proof using the glacier-fed waters of the Selyri Spring. The pure, soft water imbues the gin with a satiny body to complement its floral and citrus character.