With all due deference to vodka’s longstanding market dominance—which now accounts for almost 35% of all distilled spirits sold—drinking patterns do inevitably shift. The question then becomes, what will be the largest beneficiary of ex-vodka drinkers looking for something different in a light spirit experience?
Those in the gin camp conjecture that potential converts are being created on a nightly basis in the form of lapsed vodka drinkers, consumers who’ve grown disenchanted with its austere, aloof personality and overwhelmed by the continuing surge of new flavors. To explain gin’s nearly universal appeal, aficionados point to its trim, lightweight body, singular array of flavors and wafting aromatics.
“Frankly, gin is not for everyone and the category will never be as large as vodka,” says Andy Taylor, director of marketing for Vin Vino, Ltd. “That being said, the renewed interest in gin can be attributed to two factors. The first is the new brands on the market, most of which are well-conceived and of good quality, are sparking renewed interest in gin. It is a relatively small category, one still dominated by inexpensive domestic brands. Although the category volume is declining slightly, premium brands and imports are growing. The other factor is that younger, Millennial drinkers are experimental and willing to try all categories and types of drinks before deciding their favorites.”
The resurgence of the cocktail has attracted smaller artisanal brands of gin to enter the marketplace, as well as prompting established brands to introduce snazzy new variations on their centuries-old themes. So which brands have what it takes to become instant classics?
Every great gin must possess a singularly appealing quality that makes it standout from the crowd. Especially when it comes to gin, individuality is a must.
Caorunn Small Batch Scottish Gin is an excellent example. This super-premium release is handcrafted in the Scottish Highlands using a handful of botanicals indigenous to the Speyside and pristine spring water drawn from the surrounding boreal forest. So if you’re looking for a singular gin experience, Celtic-borne Caorunn is just the ticket.
The brand is distilled in small batches by famed whisky producer, Balmenach Distillery. There, gin master Simon Buley assembles a botanical blend featuring six traditional botanicals—juniper, orange peels, coriander seeds, cassia bark, angelica root, lemon peels—and five native to the Speyside.
“Caorunn is Gaelic for “rowan berry,” which thrives on the hills and rocky, peaty soil of the Speyside and adds notes of bitterness to the flavor profile,” says Caorunn Global Brand Manager Ibolya Bakos-Tonner. “The botanical blend also includes coul blush apple, dandelion, bog myrtle and Scottish heather. The combination of these five ingredients, in addition to the six traditional botanicals, work in harmony to create the balanced and delicate fruit and floral notes that define Caorunn.”
Another innovative brand—Brockmans Premium Gin—contains botanicals not normally found in a London Dry Gin. Produced in small batches, Brockmans is made on a foundation of continuously distilled, neutral grain spirits. The all-important botanical mix includes—among others—coriander, angelica, orange peels and juniper berries from Tuscany. The botanicals are steeped in the pure grain spirits for 24 hours prior to it being batch distilled in a copper alembic still that’s well over 100 years old.
And there’s a creative twist. After the second distillation, the spirits are infused with wild mountain blueberries and blackberries from northern Europe. The fruit imbues Brockmans and smoothness uncommon in distilled spirits.
“In Brockmans you get less of the pine and lavender nose as we let other tastes come to the forefront,” says Bob Fowkes, co-founder and director of Brockmans Gin. “Our floral notes are quite unique in that we use blueberries and blackberries from Northern Europe as our top notes combined with the coriander from Bulgaria and orange and lemon peel from Murcia in Spain. The coriander imparts a tangy/sage flavor whilst the citrus provides sharpness and refreshment. The overall effect is an intensely smooth gin that appeals more broadly to emerging gin consumers who may have rejected the juniper-led style of gins in the past.”
If your batteries are running low, treat yourself to a dram of artisanal Uncle Val’s Peppered Gin. The gin is infused with four highly distinctive botanicals—juniper berries, roasted red bell peppers, black peppercorns and pimentos, which are also referred to as cherry peppers.
The brand’s range also includes Uncle Val’s Restorative Gin, which is crafted in the same manner as American compounded gins, a traditional style of gin at the height of popularity leading up to Prohibition. The botanicals used to flavor and aromatize compounded gins are infused into neutral grain spirits after distillation, whereas with a conventional London Dry Gin, the botanicals are introduced during distillation.
The original—Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin—is a classically structured spirit with a few creative twists. Its proprietary mix includes, among others, lavender, sage, lemon peels and cucumber. Some botanicals steep longer in the alcohol than others to impart a more pronounced flavor and aroma. All told, the gin undergoes five distillations in a copper pot still.
Bulldog London Dry Gin is an ultra-premium spirit produced in small copper pot stills from English grain and a proprietary blend of 12 aromatics. In addition to juniper berries, the invigorating botanical mix includes poppies, lotus leaves, licorice, lavender and Longan, or Dragon Eye, a fruit indigenous to Southeast Asia long renown for its aphrodisiac properties. The gin is delicately filtered three times for essential purity before being bottled at 80 proof.
“We’re seeing new consumers actually moving away from the traditional brands with their standard botanicals and heavy juniper focus and moving towards more individualistic gins,” comments Rosie Lee, Bulldog’s national American brand manager. “While a traditional London Dry is distilled at 94 proof, Bulldog has dialed back the alcohol content to 80 proof, creating a much more mixable and approachable spirit. Beyond this, we’ve shifted the focus in the botanical mix from juniper and coriander to more interesting flavors like lotus leaves, dragon eye and white poppy.”
London No. 1 Gin is made by the 180-year old firm of González Byass, the renowned Spanish winery, makers of Sherries and brandies in Jerez. Few brands can claim such a lofty pedigree. Another point of distinction is the gin’s intriguing blue hue. During development, the brand team discovered that adding gardenia flower extract to the botanical mix imbued the finished gin with a turquoise hue and the enticing aroma of jasmine.
London No. 1 is produced in London under the direction of 8th generation Master Distiller Charles Maxwell. It is quadruple-distilled in a copper pot still with a 13 botanical mix that includes juniper berries, orange peel and bergamot.
For those who seriously appreciate the attraction of a traditional London Dry Gin, a small London micro-distillery has released Sipsmith V. J. O. P. (Very Junipery Over Proof) London Dry Gin, a 115.4-proof homage to the juniper berry. To create the gin, master distiller Jared Brown first macerates juniper berries up to 45 hours in neutral spirits. Before distillation, more juniper berries are added to the maceration to further concentrate its flavor. The final step takes place inside the still as the alcohol vapors pass through the botanical trays also containing juniper.
The finished gin is exceedingly dry with a focused juniper nose and a brilliant piney, spicy and citrus palate.
The family-owned firm of Duncan Taylor Scotch Whisky Ltd. lays down casks of single malts and single grain whiskies sourced from Scotland’s most famous distilleries. Located in the Speyside, the independent bottler oversees one of the largest collections of vintage Scotch whisky and has slowly expanded into creating other ultra-premium, small batch spirits. After years in development, the company has introduced Indian Summer Saffron Infused Gin.
This gin combines ten individually macerated botanicals, the most notable of which is saffron, the scarcest and most expensive spice in the world. The steeped spirits are then redistilled in a traditional copper pot still and bottled at 92 proof. Its elevated proof helps the aromas and flavors of the constituent botanicals to fully integrate.
“When we set out to create our saffron-infused gin, we decided to only use the finest quality spices, which was why we selected Persian saffron,” states Chairman Euan Shand. “We believe that using the highest grade of saffron, coupled with the other premium botanicals, helped us develop a unique, highly desirable gin that will be appreciated by spirit aficionados everywhere.”
Finally, it’s not how many botanicals are used to create a gin that counts, but how seamlessly those botanicals meld together. As way of proof, Death’s Door Gin is made with only three botanicals—coriander, fennel seeds and wild juniper berries. Master Distiller John Jeffery is clearly a man who subscribes to the concept that less is more. Before the third distillation, the botanicals are placed in a chamber in the neck of the distillery’s state-of-the-art still.
“Our gin is highly distinctive in its three botanical blend,” contends Brian Ellison, founder and president of Death’s Door Distillery. “Using whole botanicals and vapor extraction, we are able to produce an exceptional spirit that has bright traditional botanical notes without overpowering flavors. Wisconsin-made from locally sourced botanicals, Death’s Door is an All-American gin.”
ROBERT PLOTKIN is a judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and author of 16 books on bartending and beverage management including Secrets Revealed of America’s Greatest Cocktails. He can be reached at www.AmericanCocktails.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.