The Gin Game
After years of neglect, gin is fashionable again, to the great delight of those who never lost the taste for its body and bredth of flavor.
White spirits—gin, vodka, tequila and rum, the four transparent, distilled beverages that are 70 proof or higher—have never been hotter than they are right now. This potent quartet has enormous global impact for the liquor industry, and accounts for 42 to 44 percent of all spirits sales. Gin, the grain-neutral spirit that’s flavored with botanicals, is regarded as the most elegant, the sleek tuxedo of white spirits. After being passed over for two and a half decades in favor of its distant cousin, vodka, gin is suddenly grabbing more of the limelight.
“There definitely is a resurgence currently building for gin,” says David van de Velde, owner of Luctor International of Reno, Nevada, importer of the beautifully packaged and critically acclaimed superpremium Van Gogh Gin.
To understand why gin even has to make a comeback, we need to first briefly examine its relationship with vodka. I’m always astonished when I come across the statistic that one out of every four bottles of distilled spirits sold around the world—including brandies, liqueurs and whiskeys—is vodka. In 1999, according to Drinks International Bulletin, vodka’s worldwide market share was a whopping 25.24 percent, while gin’s was under 9 percent. One reason for vodka’s dominance is that it is distilled in huge volume in around 20 grain-growing nations in the Northern Hemisphere. Gin, by comparison, is native to fewer than 10 countries. Then, too, vodka’s amiable mixability has been promoted brilliantly since the mid-1950s. Groundbreaking and innovative advertising campaigns, most notably those of Smirnoff during the 1950s and 1960s (“It leaves you breathless.”) and Absolut in the 1980s and 1990s, have touted vodka as the white spirit of choice. Gin has not been blessed with comparable marketing prowess, either as a category or as an individual brand.
In perhaps the most unkind cut of all, the vodka martini (a.k.a. Vodkatini) began lapping the classic dry gin martini in the 1970s. Nor did it hurt that the vodka martini was the preferred cocktail of bona fide cultural icon James Bond. A slew of other vodka-based cocktails, the Bloody Mary, vodka and tonic, the Screwdriver and later the Cosmopolitan, eclipsed many of the traditional gin-based mixed drinks in bar calls. In the span of a single generation, vodka ascended the throne of distilled spirits, and remains ensconced there today.
So, what’s the big deal about whether gin or vodka is the most popular? They’re really the same libation, aren’t they? The answer is, simply, no. The two white spirits are miles apart in aroma and flavor.
Gin and vodka are produced in fundamentally the same manner. Both are neutral spirits made from fermented and distilled grain mash (although a few vodkas, most of which are from Poland, are produced from potatoes). Though they start out in a similar fashion, gin and vodka end up dramatically different. The reason is that gin distillers add botanical flavorings during distillation. Vodka distillers do not. These flavorings can include any or all of the following botanicals: spices, barks, flowers, roots, seeds, plants and the dried peels of fruit. Each gin distiller employs its own unique recipe.
Except for the fruit-flavored varieties, vodka possesses little in the way of aroma or taste when stacked up against gin. Unflavored vodka is, by and large, a plain, unadulterated neutral grain spirit whose slight characteristics come more from the process of filtering than from the base materials. Gin, on the other hand, is neutral grain spirit that has been significantly embellished with the essences of fresh or dried botanicals. Not convinced? Conduct an experiment for yourself. Sniff a premium unflavored vodka—say Absolut. Then immediately do the same with a premium gin—Beefeater, for example. In a nanosecond, without even tasting them, you’ll understand the difference between the two. It’s that basic difference that helps explain gin’s comeback.
As Henry Preiss, president of Preiss Imports of Ramona, California, which imports Old Raj Dry Gin, explains it, “The current consumer is demanding products that offer greater character.” Gin, with its many and varied botanical flourishes, has character to spare.
“Gin has a wonderful advantage over vodka because of the botanicals,” says Desmond Payne, master distiller for Beefeater. “It’s an extra dimension.”
“As any bartender will tell you,” says van de Velde, “gin, especially the superpremiums, offers consumers tremendous taste and complexity. I like to think of drinking a high-end gin neat as an experience all its own. The botanicals make gin a far more interesting drinking experience than vodka. And the reality is that today’s consumers are searching for more refined taste experiences.”
He credits a single brand with sparking gin’s resurgence. “The first crack in the ice doubtless was Bombay Sapphire, with its light blue bottle,” he says. “Packaging became just as important as product quality. Credit where credit is due, Sapphire offered both.”
It was a lesson that took a while to sink in.
“Gin has been on the verge of breaking free for the last two or three years,” says Ron Bonder, whose company, Ronné Bonder Enterprises, distributes the successful Hamptons Vodka. “But too many standard and premium gins taste medicinal, at least to me, because of the botanicals, which frequently stress juniper berries.”
When Bonder decided to expand his horizons by offering a superpremium gin under the same Hamptons brand name, he knew that he wanted to go in a different direction. “I strove to make a gin that tasted fresh. So, I played down traditional botanicals and tried an infusion of lemon peel in my gin for a zesty aftertaste. That’s what we’ve got. Today’s consumer, in my opinion, doesn’t want to be burdened with heavy, earthy tastes. They want freshness and that’s what many of these new gins are offering.”
Suddenly, gin has become a medium for creativity. Ned Hurley, an enterprising New Yorker who is importing Mercury, a superpremium London Dry Gin from the United Kingdom, recognized the potential growth of gin more than two years ago. He commissioned a distillery to send him samples and he went through 120 before deciding on the recipe that ultimately became Mercury.
“The best gins are very open about which botanicals they use and how they’re employed in the production process,” says Philip West, brand manager of Beefeater. “Consumers then have the pleasant job of trying different premium gins to locate the style that they like the most.”
And they’ll have the pleasure of learning about the art and craft of gin. “It’s important for the gin industry to get across how the botanicals are introduced into the process,” says Payne. “The more complex gins distill the spirit with botanicals. That part of the story is extremely important and should be told at every opportunity.”
At present, there is a spate of top-drawer gins entering the marketplace. Does this commercial reality ignite concern within the gin industry that all these gins will cannibalize each other’s market shares and deflate the current minirenaissance?
Paul Francis, senior marketing manager for Bombay Sapphire, thinks not. “Following the lead set by Bombay Sapphire, there’s been a proliferation of premium and superpremium gins entering the marketplace. I think that it’s good because as new brands enter the scene, it raises the awareness for the gin category as a whole.”
So, the bottom line is this: There’s never been more very-good-to-downright-excellent gin around than there is right now. Advanced technology, careful selection of the finest botanicals from exotic places, the demands of a more exacting consumer audience and even creative packaging are combining to set the stage for—perhaps—a new golden age for one of the world’s most satisfying and versatile alcoholic beverages.
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A Short History of Gin
The invention of gin is widely attributed to a native of the Netherlands, Franciscus de la Boe, also known as Dr. Sylvius of Leyden. The good doctor, a physician and professor at the University of Leyden, developed genever in the 1600s, while searching for a soothing liquid to help with ailments of the kidneys, stomach and bladder.
The term “genever” is derived from the French word genièvre, or juniper, the plant whose berries have traditionally been the major flavoring ingredient in most gins.
While the Netherlands is the birthplace of gin, ultimately it was the zealous imbibers in Great Britain who turned it into a phenomenon. In the mid-18th century, London was estimated to have over 7,000 gin joints, commonly referred to back then as “grog shops.” Following decades of scorn and scandal because of widespread public inebriation and reckless distilling practices, the United Kingdom’s gin industry eventually righted its ship in the early 1800s. This turn to respectability was due, in large measure, to the introduction of the column still, which proved to be far more hygienic and efficient than other cruder gin stills.
With the expansion of the British Empire, gin became a favorite international tipple. So-called “London Dry Gin” emerged between the 1860s and 1880s as the people’s choice from Bombay to Singapore to Cape Town. London Dry Gin was viewed as the clear, limpid counterpart to Britain’s other wildly successful spirit, amber-colored Scotch whisky. Indeed, in Britain’s tropical colonies, quinine was widely added to gin, creating the gin and tonic, as much a combatant of malaria as a late afternoon cocktail.
The “Best of Gin” Portfolio 2001
This portfolio of 18 gins and genevers is divided into three styles:
Traditional, boldly botanical and richly textured
Next Wave, botanically less aggressive and lighter in body
Genever, the customary style of the Netherlands
Our portfolio lists medium-priced ($15-$20) to high-end ($20 and up) bottles alphabetically, not in order of the author’s preference. All suggested retail prices are for 750-ml bottles.
Beefeater London Dry Gin (England) 47% abv; $15. Stone dry. Juniper berries stand out. A sinewy beauty that’s an international icon. A genuinely superb martini base.
Bombay Dry Gin (England) 43% abv; $17. The oft-neglected, granite-solid sibling of the racier Sapphire. Noted for its cream, vanilla bean and spice flavors.
Boodles British Gin (England) 45.2% abv; $17. A sturdy, blue-collar gin that’s tangy with juniper, coriander and cassia. Regrettably overlooked.
Cadenhead’s Old Raj Dry Gin (Scotland) 55% abv; $50. Cult fave Raj is a detonating 110 proof, and has an atypical straw color (because of the saffron in its recipe) and more giddyap than Seattle Slew on espresso. The Raj and Tonic is a deviously ribald cocktail around which one could build an entire summer.
Horse Guard London Dry Gin (Scotland) 40% abv; $16. An unexceptional gin that’s best employed as an innocuous mixer.
Junipero Gin (USA) 49.3% abv; $32. Go directly to tasting this smashing, luscious, herbal and spirity gin…that’s where all the action is. The juniper flavors evolve in stages.
Plymouth Dry Gin (England) 41.2% abv; $26. An exciting, take-no-prisoners style with a pronounced emphasis on juniper berries, rose petals and citrus peel. A 750-ml clinic on how to make outstanding traditional gin.
Tanqueray Special Dry Gin (England) 47.3% abv; $18. The touchstone customary brand that everyone—even its competitors—admires. Stately, aristocratic, even grand. The creamy-textured, aromatic Godfather of modern gin.
Bombay Sapphire London Dry Gin (England) 47% abv; $20. Fetching blue bottle attracts all the attention. Tangy, peppery, piquant, but agile gin. And, no, Einstein, the gin’s not blue. Credited justifiably as the trailblazer of the Next Wave.
Citadelle Gin (France) 44% abv; $23. A velvety, seductively perfumed gin that’s best consumed on the rocks with a twist while sunbathing nude on a beach in the south of France in the month of June on a…. You get the idea. Bliss.
Hampton’s Gin (United States) 47% abv; $30. An austere, steely, raw domestic gin that shows all-too-brief flashes of lemon peel and all-too-long flavors of minerals.
Hendrick’s Gin (Scotland) 44% abv; $28. A sweet, well-crafted gin that leans more toward orange peel and flowers than to the customary quartet of juniper, coriander, angelica and orris.
Mercury London Dry Gin (England) 47% abv; $30. Mojave Desert dry. The bouquet swells with juniper berry and lemon peel. The austere, gravelly taste echoes cassia, orris and musty, forest floor-like angelica. Intriguing.
Quintessential Warrington Dry Gin (England) 45% abv; $30. Designed to be a gin/vodka hybrid. Fails to be either, possibly because it tastes overdistilled. A mixer.
Tanqueray No. 10 Batch Distilled Gin (England) 47.3% abv. $25. Perfumed, crackling fresh and harmonious from top to bottom. Don’t you dare mix it—it’s too delicious. Deservedly the critics’ pet of 2000. An authentic gin milestone.
Van Gogh Gin (Holland) 44.7% abv; $30. Along with Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray No. 10, this is the defining superpremium gin for Generations X and Y. Best served neat with a twist. A mouthwatering masterpiece from Holland.
Boomsma Junge Genever (Netherlands) 40% abv; $15. Sassy and loaded with rambunctious herbal and seed-like aromas and flavors. Bawdy. Assertive.
Boomsma Oude Genever (Netherlands) 40% abv; $16. Slightly subtler than the Junge. Focal point is more on citrus peel. Tasty.