Ten years ago, when a new generation of cocktail drinkers saved the martini from becoming a historical footnote, nobody worried too much about the spirit—vodka or gin, it didn’t matter. In fact, vodka usually won out, and when I think about the many martinis I enjoyed at then-new lounges like Bar Marmont on Sunset Boulevard in California or classic hangouts such as Musso & Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard, I agonize over all those missed opportunities. I should’ve asked for gin, but I simply didn’t know any better.
Unlike vodka, which in my opinion is characterized by a lack of character, gin has personality. It is made by distilling neutral spirits, usually grain alcohol (primarily from corn and barley), with botanicals: flavoring agents derived from plants. Every gin has a distinct flavor profile and in the hands of a good bartender it isn’t just a spirit—it’s an ingredient.
Which is one reason why the spirit is worshipped at bars that are serious about cocktails. Make two martinis with two different gins and you will have two very different drinks: When stirred with vermouth (a fortified wine also flavored with botanicals), each gin will create a distinct flavor. But gin also leaves its mark, even in a basic cocktail. Mix a vodka Collins and you’ve made spiked lemonade, but mix a Tom Collins with Bafferts and you’re layering the sharp acid of the fresh lemon juice with the sweet lemon-peel flavor of that particular gin.
Most gins start with the same handful of botanicals— angelica root, cardamom, cassia, coriander, juniper berry, lemon peel, orange peel, and orrisroot (a shopping list of items that in the 17th century, when gin was invented, could only be culled in the British Empire). The single botanical that concerns the authorities is the juniper berry, from which, according to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, gin "shall derive its main characteristic flavor." While gin will always taste mainly of juniper, a specific brand’s personality is found in the balance of its other botanicals—in some cases as many as 20 are added to the mix.
It was this possibility for variety that appealed to Fritz Maytag, who in 1998 created Junipero, arguably America’s greatest gin. Maytag also owns the Anchor Brewing Company (and is a scion of the household appliance company), but Junipero is his pet. "Hiking through the mountains in California you come across juniper trees, and I always liked them," Maytag says. "Of course you don’t use California juniper, but it got me thinking how neat it’d be to make gin."
Instead of hiring away a master distiller from an established brand, Maytag and his colleagues at the brewery did a little research, built a still in a corner of the brewery, then made one batch after another, tinkering with the botanicals until they settled on a combination that suited their tastes. Maytag could tweak his recipe the way a chef does because unlike whiskey, brandy, port, wine, and even beer, gin doesn’t require aging. "It was like a science project," he says. "When you distill it, you’re done. You bottle it that day and you drink it. There’s no waiting around."
A gin still is a potbellied copper monster that tapers to a thin pipe (picture an upside-down lollipop), which passes through a closed compartment with copper cages that can be packed with botanicals. When the still is heated, neutral spirits pass through the cages, drawing out the flavor of the botanicals in much the way a percolator makes coffee. Maytag distills his gin to a high proof and doesn’t bother with the baskets—he throws the botanicals right into the still. Junipero is therefore made more like tea and the result is a big gin, muscular and citric. Production runs are small (Maytag continues to use a single still), which only adds to its cult appeal.
Another new gin, Aviation, was launched just this April by House Spirits, a distillery founded by two friends in Portland, Oregon. It, too, is turning heads, in this case because of the distillers’ unusual Dutch-style interpretation of the drink. In their gleaming warehouse a stone’s throw from the Willamette River, Christian Krogstad and Lee Medoff infuse a rye base with lavender, anise, and sarsaparilla and distill the mixture so that long notes of these essential oils and aromatics remain. The resulting gin is more creamy than dry and is complemented by a noticeably floral aroma. Aviation gets its name from the classic cocktail and, according to its distillers, is designed to be used in drinks. "It’s very hard to overcome people’s ingrained preconceptions about gin," says Krogstad, whose title on his business card reads COMMISSAR. "To have a flavorful gin in a cocktail is a real eye-opener."
Gin was an instant success when it first appeared in Great Britain in the late 17th century. The Dutch had been making genever, an aged juniper-flavored spirit, since 1650, and when William of Orange was crowned King of England in 1689 the drink leaped across the Channel with him. Londoners kept the juniper, abandoned the aging, and started in on a century-long drinking binge. Thousands of mom-and-pop stills appeared in working-class neighborhoods and turned out enough of a daily supply to keep the entire city soused. Because quality control was nonexistent, most of the gin poured back then was relatively deadly. But whenever the crown tried to regulate the industry with different gin acts, there was a price spike and Londoners rioted. In the early 1800s stills were finally licensed; by the 1830s gin was produced only by certified distilleries that often sold the drink in "gin palaces," grand halls decorated in tawdry vaudeville-theater style.
It wasn’t until the Royal Navy took to gin that the spirit shed its lowly associations. Gin was a good choice for long ocean journeys: An English-made brew, it traveled easily and packed a high-proof wallop (to this day some gins are also made in a second, higher-alcohol "naval strength"). The standard Royal Navy drink was a Pink Gin, gin brightened with a dash of angostura bitters, but the gin and tonic soon became a favorite and had the added bonus of being "medicinal"—there was quinine for malaria, lime for scurvy, and gin to help it all go down.
For the next 100 years, gin enjoyed its status as the drink of colonial enterprises and officers’ clubs. It had enough dash to survive Prohibition, but it didn’t fare as well during World War II, when production slowed to a trickle and almost no bottles made the journey across the Atlantic. It never regained its footing in the United States.
"We were unloved for decades," says Sean Harrison, the head distiller for Plymouth Gin, which has been making gin since 1793. "We stopped exporting to the States in the seventies. Nobody was buying it." That’s a long fall for one of England’s great gins, a brand that was cited in A. S. Crockett’s classic The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. By the time Plymouth was reintroduced in the nineties, hardly anybody knew what it was.
Like many devout gin lovers, Harrison drinks his with only a splash of water and an ice cube, but gin’s botanicals belong in a cocktail, preferably one with a good pedigree and an interesting history. More bartenders are rediscovering classic drinks, and this could be the year of the French 75. Named for the favored World War I light artillery piece, the cocktail is gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup mixed in an ice-filled glass and topped with Champagne (the weapon was a quick-firing cannon that could launch a 15-pound shell four miles). Both are elegant and deadly, though neither did much to end the war.
Pegu Club in Manhattan’s SoHo is a temple to gin. Some 20 kinds are stored on three shelves of their own (the vodka is kept under the counter because somebody might ask for a Somethingpolitan and a good bar is always accommodating). A signature drink is the Earl Grey MarTEAni, a martini made with Tanqueray Classic steeped for two hours with Earl Grey tea. The bergamot in the Earl Grey marries the juniper in the gin, and the black tea gives it a tannic pucker. The invention of owner Audrey Saunders, it’s possibly the most delicious drink in New York.
Unfortunately, the most common cocktail made with gin is also the most banal, the gin and tonic. Store-bought tonic smothers the flavor of the gin—it’s akin to drowning sashimi in soy sauce. The one lofty exception to the rule is found on the fourth floor of New York’s Time Warner Center, where Per Se bartender Brian Van Flandern makes his Gin and Tonic Per Se: Junipero gin, lemon juice, and a splash of simple syrup mixed with pharmaceutical-grade quinine powder imported from Brazil and topped off with soda water. You don’t need a reservation to enjoy a drink there, and an idle hour looking out over the trees of Central Park is a civilizing start to an evening.
More bartenders may be embracing gin’s subtle possibilities and more distillers may be developing new recipes, but the gin revival is in its infancy. Most people won’t order a gin drink on their own simply because they never have before. My trick is to start a dinner party with French 75s or Aviations, and only after the second round do I tell my guests what’s in them. You can see the confusion on their faces because even though they loved the drink, they thought they didn’t like gin. Now they know better.
The Cocktail Connoisseur’s Guide to Top-Shelf Gins
First distilled in April of this year, Aviation is named after the classic cocktail, but some of the botanicals, such as lavender and sarsaparilla, are anything but old-fashioned. The gin is made from rye alcohol, which gives the drink a lingering roundness. Right now it is available only on the West Coast. $28
The torqued bottle of Bafferts has a contemporary flair, but what’s inside comes from a 200-year-old recipe. The London gin has long citrus notes and a lingering sweetness, and at 80 proof it’s one of the lightest gins out there. $22
This gin, which has been dis-tilled since 1845, has the fusty, distinguished appeal of a seersucker suit. A dry, nimble spirit with the faintest taste of dried herbs, it’s a good mixer and fits nicely into any cocktail. $18
Distilled with rose petals and cucumbers, Hendrick’s carries a distinct taste that’s dangerously drinkable. Don’t let the old-school bot- tle and the fact that it’s made by William Grant & Sons, the venerable Scotch whiskey house, fool you—Hendrick’s has been around for only six years. Light and aromatic, this is one of the few gins that could get anybody to try gin on the rocks. $33
Cadenhead’s Old Raj
With a subtle balance of botanicals, Old Raj has a luxurious mouthfeel reminiscent of whiskey’s. The delicate flavors unfold with every sip. The yellowish tint comes from saffron, and almonds are also in the mix, but they’re blended seamlessly into a balance so complex, the spirit could be enjoyed straight. This is the most expensive gin on the market and, at 110 proof, the most lethal. $60
A clean and bright gin made with seven essential bo-tanicals, Plymouth possesses a forward flavor anchored by angelica root and orrisroot. The juniper disappears in the balance, and it mixes well into any cocktail. This could be gin’s first crossover hit. $22
This is a London dry gin created using 100 percent organic grain spirits and botanicals. It counts savory among its botanicals and has a prominent spiciness with a peppery note that sits on the tip of the tongue. $22
No. Ten by Tanqueray
This is the gold standard by which the rest of the industry measures itself. No. Ten by Tanqueray’s blend is dry, balanced, and unified, though you can tease out a distinct layer of coriander. $30
With long citric notes and a spiciness that settles in the back of the mouth, this spirit has only been distilled since 1998. Despite the young age, it has become a cult favorite among the country’s best bartenders and is arguably America’s greatest gin. $30
The best resource for gin drinks are classic cocktail books such as The Gentleman’s Companion, Vol. II by Charles H. Baker Jr., The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book by A. S. Crockett, and Lucius Beebe’s The Stork Club Bar Book. The introductions and asides have a sense of humor as dry as the drinks they describe and make for an entertaining read on their own. Some, The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book for one, have been reprinted. Vintage copies of the others, with their snappy illustrations and sage mixing advice, are now collectibles and fetch prices as high as $300.
Two to Win Over Gin Skeptics
The Pegu Club cocktail lounge in New York has a working library of old bartending books, and the owner, Audrey Saunders, regularly tries out recipes then adjusts them for 21st-century palates. From The Savoy Cocktail Book she revived the tart and refreshing Aviation, a perfect example of the versatility of gin. Of course the ideal forum for the spirit is a martini. James Bond had it wrong—it should be stirred, not shaken, so you’ll need a martini pitcher, very cold ice, and a bar spoon or glass stirrer.
The Fitty-Fitty Martini, a Pegu Club signature, is equal parts gin and vermouth, and Saunders’s preference is to match Tanqueray with Noilly Prat, a dry vermouth so elegant and floral, you could drink it on its own; with a dash of Regans’ Orange Bitters it becomes a masterpiece of botanicals. Plus, because the drink has less alcohol than a standard martini, it’s easy to indulge in a second glass.
Adapted from The Savoy Cocktail Book, compiled by Harry Craddock
3/4 ounce lemon juice
3/4 ounce Luxardo maraschino liqueur
2 ounces Plymouth gin
Combine the ingredients in an ice-filled cocktail shaker and shake vigorously, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Adapted from Pegu Club’s recipe, New York
1 1/2 ounces Tanqueray Classic gin
1 1/2 ounces Noilly Prat dry vermouth
Dash of Regans’ Orange Bitters
Add the gin, vermouth, and bitters to a martini pitcher filled with ice and stir vigorously. Strain into a martini glass. Garnish with the grapefruit twist.