PROOF POSITIVE August 2004
A Kindred Spirit
In a very literal sense, gin is nothing more than flavored vodka.
After it is distilled from rye or wheat, gin is basically a high-proof unflavored vodka. Producers traditionally use juniper as gin's main flavoring agent, adding other botanicals, such as angelica, orris root, fennel, cardamom, cassia, ginger, cinnamon, licorice, caraway seed and citrus zest for complexity. These ingredients can be distilled into the spirit, infused into it, or, in the case of low-end bottlings, added into it, in the form of essences. Juniper's highly perfumed, bone-dry flavor has been a love-it-or-hate-it character to many spirits drinkers. All that, however, is changing: Gin isn't as predictable anymore, and as a result some professed gin haters are changing their tunes.
Four years ago, Tanqueray No. TEN, using whole fruits for flavor rather than the traditional citrus zest, was one of the first of the new kinder, gentler gins to hit the market. It gathered fans like wildfire, garnering a "Classic" rating in Wine Enthusiast and a "Best White Spirit" award at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Other gin producers took note.
In 2004 we can now choose among gins such as Hendrick's, a Scottish product that lists cucumbers and rose petals among its botanicals; WET, a sister to Beefeater that's flavored with pears; Damrak, a Dutch product touted as having "very mild botanicals with a hint of citrus," and Zuidam, from Holland, that boasts, "a beguiling hint of spice and vanilla." More than once in recent years we've heard people say, "Oh, I never liked gin until I tried…."
Seasoned drinkers who prefer the more traditional style of gin needn't worry. Brands that have been available for decades, and in some cases, centuries—Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire, Boodles, Plymouth and Tanqueray—aren't going away. They are, however, being joined by some newer kids on the block who are sticking to the traditional, no-frills style: Junipero, from San Francisco; Miller's, an English gin; and the Dutch product, Van Gogh. While relatively new to the market, with the exception of Miller's, these rookies have now been around a year, just long enough to prove they aren't going away. Miller's got distribution in 40 states within a year—that's quite a coup for any new spirit.
There is a third category of gin out there, too: mid-pungency. These spirits aren't quite as pungent as bottlings such as Beefeater, but neither are they as soft as Tanqueray No. TEN. Just because this category is between the two extremes doesn't mean that these gins are middle-of-the-road products. Old Raj, for instance, is a soft, golden yellow in color that uses saffron to differentiate itself from the rest of the gins on the market. And there's a blue gin too—Magellan, a recent addition to the gin world that uses iris roots and flowers to achieve its hue. Citadelle, from France, is also in the mid-pungency range, but it's an incredibly well-balanced gin that traces its roots back to 1771.
Simply put, there's now a gin for everyone, and every minute more people are being turned on to gin-based cocktails. So if you're one of those people who claims categorically to dislike this wonderful spirit, we urge you to try it again. You could be in for a very pleasant surprise.
One of the reasons that gin has made such a rebound in recent years is that mixologists love to work with this complex spirit. Julie Reiner, one of the owners of New York's Flatiron Lounge, enjoys converting gin haters by offering to exchange her gin-based Lychee and Lemongrass Fizz for any other drink on her cocktail list if the customer doesn't like it. And not one has ever been sent back to the bar. Reiner explains, "My theory is that people hate tonic, not gin. Our first experience with gin is usually with tonic, and I myself was a gin hater for awhile until I realized it was the tonic that I didn't care for."
Seattle-based cocktail consultant Ryan Magarian develops drinks for the Holland America Line of cruise ships, and he, too, has had tremendous success with some gin-based cocktails. Says Magarian, "Four years ago I would have shied away from developing gin cocktails for [companies such as] Holland America, but now they are an integral part of what I do."
We've had quite a few decent drinks at airport bars, but it's seldom that one of these watering holes for weary travelers serves superlative, creative cocktails. If you find yourself at the San Jose International Airport, though, you might want to seek out the Martini Monkey Bar & Lounge, where bartender Jay Crabb and his coworkers take great pride in their work. "Our philosophy is that you should be able to get great cocktails, spirits and service, even in an airport bar—especially these days, when you can be sitting in an airport for an hour, oftentimes much longer," Crabb says, adding, "Gin is most certainly 'in' at the Martini Monkey."
You'll find some very interesting cocktails at Martini Monkey, including dry gin martinis made with an assortment of bitters: "Simply adding orange, peach or mint bitters to a gin martini really adds depth and flavor to the drink, and our guests love it," Crabb observes. Orange bitters was a staple ingredient in martinis right up until the 1940s, so he's drawing on a tried-and-true formula for inspiration.
Eben Klemm, director of cocktail development at New York's B.R. Guest restaurant which includes trendy spots such as Ruby Foo's and Park Avalon, has had a hard time getting his bartenders to sell gin-based drinks, noting that most of the young bartenders he works with have a sweet tooth and tend to do a better job selling raspberry- or vanilla-flavored vodka. But even Klemm sees a light at the end of the tunnel: "I recently listed a drink that could be made with either vodka or gin, and when our bartenders sampled both versions they all agreed the gin version was superior," he said. Of course they did—gin is just flavored vodka, after all.
For great gin cocktail recipes, see this month's issue of Wine Enthusiast.