If you're looking for something new in gin, neo is the one.
21st Century Gin
Gin, the world's most sophisticated white distilled spirit, is staging a welcome comeback in 2003. For decades, gin has had to live in the shadow of vodka, the rival white spirit that has nearly three times gin's global sales.
With increasing numbers of consumers under 40 hankering for libations that offer more flavor impact and intrigue than unflavored vodka, gin is being rediscovered.
The deluge of flavored vodkas has piqued interest in white spirits among a new generation of mixed drink aficionados. But few, if any, of these dressed-for-town fruit- or spice-infused vodkas exhibit the type of timeless, understated polish of better gins such as Tanqueray, Old Raj or Beefeater. Indeed, bartenders are telling me that some of their regulars in their late 20s and early 30s who used to sip vodka cocktails are now moving to mixed drinks that feature gin as the foundation spirit. They point to this emerging trend not to denigrate vodka, but to illustrate that as the palate matures it naturally seeks more intense flavor impact.
Professional mixologists can't ignore consumers' subtly changing attitudes toward gin, particularly in major cities like London, New York, San Francisco and Chicago. Seasoned palates are quick to recognize one ironclad truth when it comes to finer clear distilled spirits: vodka is the category's cheeseburger, while gin is its prime rib.
Yet, like with many alcoholic beverages, there still exists considerable confusion regarding the natures of gin and vodka. Few people who regularly imbibe them can explain the difference between the two spirits.
Vodka is the uncolored, almost always neutral-smelling and -tasting distilled spirit made mostly from grain, potatoes or sugarcane. It is not aged in any type of aging vessel, and it is bottled soon after it is filtered. Except for flavored vodkas in which the highlighted flavor (raspberry, vanilla, citrus, etc.) dominates, unadulterated vodka owns few noticeable characteristics, making it a compatible mixer.
Gin starts out, like vodka, as a clear, grain-based, neutral-smelling and -tasting distilled spirit. Then, assorted botanicals, or natural flavorings, are added in one or more additional distillation steps. Traditionally, juniper berry is the predominant botanical. Other common botanical flavorings for gins include angelica root, orris root, coriander seed, orange peel, lemon peel, cassia bark, cardamom pod, grains of paradise berries, cubeb berries, ginger root, nutmeg and licorice.
The substance of styles
Gin is made in three traditional styles. London dry gins are a subtle, elegant and lithe variety that feature juniper and coriander. They evolved in the 18th century in and around London in answer to the heavy, unctuous, sweet style known in the period as "Old Tom." Gins referred to as Old Tom were typically doused with large amounts of sugar in order to mask the repugnant flavors of the often impure, oily and harsh spirits base. Today, London dry is viewed only as an individual style of gin, not as identification of a place of origin. In fact, in 2003 there is but a single London dry gin still produced within the city limits of London: Beefeater. London dry gins, then, can legally hail from Illinois, Singapore or Edinburgh as well as London.
The second style of gin, Plymouth, encompasses one particular location, the seaport city of Plymouth in England's pastoral southwest; one distillery, the Black Friars Distillery; and one brand, Plymouth Gin. Sean Harrison, Plymouth's current master distiller, describes the Plymouth Gin style as being "somewhat earthier than London dry. We've found over the years that bumping up the angelica and orris root flavorings brings a wonderful balance to the juniper." Plymouth is also released at a lower alcohol-by-volume rate, 41.2 percent, than most London dry gins, most of which fall in the 43 percent to 47.3 percent range. This style has been around since 1793, when the first batch of Plymouth was distilled. It has been officially secured by a PDO, or Protected Designation of Origin, bestowed by the British Government. The United Kingdom's PDO ruling is akin to France's appellation d'origine law and is enforced to maintain the integrity and authenticity of the product.
"I always associate Dutch genevers in the same category as I would schnapps," says Desmond Payne, master distiller at Beefeater in London. "They both tend to be consumed as a shot, whereas London dry and Plymouth gins are used in mixed drinks. Genevers are richer, sweeter styles of gin that are actually much closer to the original styles of gin from the late 1500s."
Gin's emerging neo-styles
Over the last two decades, adventurous gin distillers have been trying to make their gins stand out from the pack. Their new, creative botanical mixtures are transforming the gin scene, leaving the long-established London-Plymouth-genever troika in the dust.
Most prominent among the emerging neo-styles are variations of London dry, in which the botanicals are manipulated or proportioned in different ways, and the alcohol content is lowered. This creates gins that are less intense and lighter to the taste than traditional London dry gins. A superb example is Tanqueray No. Ten Small Batch, which is lighter, fruitier and more nimble on the tongue than the traditionally creamier and juniper-keen Tanqueray Special Dry.
Another showcase for traditional versus contemporary styles is found in the Beefeater family. Regular Beefeater is a London dry classic; the newly launched Wet by Beefeater is significantly lighter (12 percent less alcohol by volume) and noticeably fruiter because of the infusion of pear essence.
From France come two excellent, superpremium gins, Citadelle and the brand-new Magellan; both can only be loosely categorized as London dry styles. Bartenders admire Citadelle for its ethereal, floral qualities, which sing in cocktails. Magellan, new to the U.S. market this year, was created by Michel Roux, who in the late 1980s introduced Bombay Sapphire and, before that, Absolut vodka. These two lovely French gins are lighter and more flowery than traditional London dry or Plymouth styles of gin.
Are the neo-gins better than the traditional varieties, or are they simply different? That is entirely subjective, but I believe that many younger drinkers, particularly those 25 to 30, will want to give them a try. These lighter, more agile neo-gins are a bridge between unflavored vodka and traditional gins for admirers of white spirits. Young adults generally enjoy less demanding spirits for a few years before their preferences shift to more challenging, traditional spirits.
Traditional gins have been around for centuries, so it's doubtful that neo-gins will trump them in the marketplace. The true gin enthusiast, though, will want to sample the entire spectrum of old and new style—all in the name of scientific research, of course.