PHOTOS BY WILLIAM M. DOWD (double-click to expand images)
At one time, gin was such a ubiquitous liquor it would have been unthinkable to talk about a comeback for the white spirit. What did the drink of both society sophsticates and college sophomores have to come back from?
Then came the Vodka Age.
The virtually global acceptance of vodka as a one-for-one substitute for gin in mixed drinks and as a standalone drink in flavor-infused styles has in the past two decades sent gin reeling. Last year, Americans drank about four times as much vodka as gin.
Ian Fleming's superspy James Bond helped fuel the change, and the comeback of the "cocktail culture," when his vodka martinis caught the imaginations of would-be adventurers and changed what had been a gin-based drink since its inception.
Gin was one of the earliest spirits many of us tried, usually as a gin-and-juice drink that made some of the less palatable but affordable brands more drinkable. I recall it being the leisure libation of choice in the sports car racing circuit I frequented in the late 1960s, as well as a common ingredient in sweet cocktails made for summer barbecues.
The popular gins then were Gordon's, Gilbey's, Beefeater, Plymouth, Bombay, Boodles, Fleischmann's, Seagram's. Some still are hanging in there, particularly Bombay, the English distiller whose Sapphire is the top-selling gin in this country. But, like vodkas, there seems to be a new brand each week vying for the now-limited shelf space the standard gin labels had been clinging to, and they all are trying to differentiate themselves from the pack while tamping down the traditional juniper berry flavor of gin.
Aviation, for example, is a lavender-touched brand cooked up in the Pacific Northwest. Old Raj, from Scotland, has more of the traditional juniper notes but there also is a detectable saffron element. Hendrick's, another Scottish gin, makes quite a point of its distinct cucumber notes.
Incrementally, gin is coming back through better marketing and less reliance on generations-old traditions.
Gins are, essentially, vodka in that each is at the start a neutral grain spirit. Under U.S. law, gin "shall derive its main characteristic flavor from juniper berries,'' so it needs the addition of botanicals to be complete. Conversely, basic vodka must be colorless, odorless and tasteless -- which makes one wonder why lawmakers think anyone would adhere to the letter of that law.
While vodka distillers tend to use only a few extra flavors in lengthening their product line, gin distillers tend toward using a global shopping list to fill their complicated recipes. In addition to the necessary juniper, it is not unusual to find citrus, almond, licorice, orris root, coriander, angelica, cassia bark and cardamom in various combinations.
I recently spent time with Sean Harrison (right) of Plymouth Gin, made in the English port city of that name. He’s the keeper of a coveted two-century-old gin recipe and the master distiller for Plymouth, the English favorite that not only won “best gin” but “best of show/white spirit” awards at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition last summer, which means it also topped all vodkas.
Harrison is a gin man through and through, but he admits there are some very good vodkas on the market that are huge hurdles for gin to clear in its attempt at a comeback. However, he notes of the continual tinkering with vodka recipes, "If they keep on going, pretty soon they'll invent gin."
Not only is recipe tinkering going on, but packaging has become more important than ever in the battle for consumer attention.
Martin Miller's, for example, and Plymouth each have sleek, sharp-angled clear glass bottles contrasting with traditional royal blue labels.
Plymouth, which has a clear, light juniper nose, medium body, and plenty of up-front juniper with a spicy finish, retained the ubiquitous sailing ship logo in its new design.
Miller's, which carries the name of the British designer, has a wonderful combination of citrus and juniper that reminded me of a stroll in the forest. The bottle traces the manufacturing of the gin, from the small-batch distillation in England to shipping the distillate to Iceland to be blended with spring water there.
But not all packaging is restrained and clean. Citadelle, a French entry, has a busily decorated bottle that supports its botanical barrage recipe, trumpeting its 19 flavoring ingredients that include such things as Chinese licorice, French savory and star anise, and Indian nutmeg.
In purchasing gin, avoid the cheaper priced offerings. Good botanicals cost good money, and the retail prices should reflect that. Cheaper gins tend to be flavored with oils and essences. Better gins use fresh botanicals. A good tipoff is the use of the terms "distilled gin," "London dry gin" and "dry gin" and "London dry gin," all of which can be used only if the gin has been flavored through redistillation rather than simply dumping in flavorings and mixing them up. The best distillers are the pickiest shoppers.
As Plymouth's Harrison told me during our private tasting session, “We don’t buy any botanical from just one supplier because you never know the quality from year to year, or how a change in the crop of one botanical can interact with another botanical that also might be slightly different from year to year. We get several samples of each and distill sample batches to see what comes closest to our standard for consistent taste.”
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