How well the gin category is doing depends on how you look at the numbers. Overall gin volume actually declined in 2011 by 1.7% (according to DISCUS) and the 2012 numbers are trending in the same direction. It would be easy to look at these numbers and write off gin as a struggling category with small annual gains or losses that never really goes anywhere. It’s when you begin to really dig into the numbers that you see the real story of what’s happening in gin: while the volume of gin sold may be decreasing, the total dollar volume is on the rise. When you break things out, the upper end of the gin category, the premium and ultra premium gins, are seeing double digit growth.
Beyond growth, the higher end of the gin category has begun to see a level of excitement and engagement that the category hasn’t experienced for quite some time. “Gin has settled into the mainstream,” explains Jamie Gordon, chief mixologist for Pernod Ricard. “It’s finally entered into a safety zone for many drinkers, and gin cocktails have become ubiquitous at most of the top accounts.” For many years, gin meant a neutral grain based, juniper forward, dry style spirit that was often mixed with tonic. The gin category has blossomed with gins using a wide variety of grains and diverse botanicals, and some being offered at high proof or barrel aged. “Without a doubt there is more great gin on the market today than any time in history,” says Jon Santer, co-owner of the highly acclaimed Prizefighter Bar in Emeryville, CA.
With so many choices in the ever-expanding gin category, it can be difficult to understand the ins and outs of all the new choices, so we’ve broken it down with some of the more notable entries in each category:
High Proof or Navy Strength Gin
Plymouth Navy Strength Gin
For the most part, gin in American has been typically sold between 40%-47% ABV (in the UK the proof is often on the lower side due to the way alcohol is taxed). In 1993, master distiller Desmond Payne created a special bottling to celebrate the 200th year anniversary of Plymouth Gin. Desmond bottled it at a high ABV (57%), and dubbed it Navy Strength. “Navy Strength was chosen because of the historic association Plymouth Gin had with the Royal Navy and the fact that people already knew how strong Lambs Navy Rum was,” says Sean Harrison, Master Distiller for Plymouth Gin.
Some popular gin cocktails, including the Martini and the Negroni, benefit from the greater intensity in flavor and strength of spirit that a higher proof offers. “Navy Strength has more alcohol, and therefore more essential oils and more flavor, particularly with reference to the lemon and orange,” explains Harrison. Plymouth Navy Strength Gin uses the same botanical mix as its standard product, with the biggest difference being its higher level of alcohol. Tasting them side by side, the difference in flavor is dramatic, with the Navy Strength delivering much bolder and expansive flavors while the standard is much softer and subtler.
[Read our Behind The Scenes of Plymouth Gin]
[Read our picks for the Top 10 American Gins]
Aviation American Gin
In 2009, after launching Aviation Gin with House Spirits Distillery, award winning mixologist Ryan Magarian wrote one of the most significant pieces about gin in decades. The piece “New Western Dry Gin Category Summary” heralded an entire new generation of gin now referred to as either as “New Western” or “American Gin”. Ryan Magarian saw this new category as “a greater opportunity for artistic ‘flavor’ freedom in this great spirit: creating gins with a shift away from the usually overabundant focus on juniper to the supporting botanicals, allowing them to, ‘just about’, share center stage.”
Aviation American Gin is a quintessential entry in the category that Magarian so astutely helped codify. Aviation American Gin is a softer, more approachable and mixable style of gin. While it does feature juniper, the prominence of the botanical has been dialed back in “botanical democracy” to make way for a host of other botanicals including lavender, Indian sarsaparilla, cardamom, anise seed, coriander, and dried sweet orange peel (versus the bitter orange often found in gin). By dialing back the juniper a few notches, Aviation American Gin reduces the initial juniper kick that often turns off new gin drinkers.
Berkshire Mountain Distillers Greylock Gin
Although the distillery classifies the Greylock Gin as a London Dry style gin, it’s defined more by the integration of botanicals over the dominance of juniper. Juniper pine is clearly present on the nose, but it’s the lemon and orange notes that really jump out of the glass. Also, underneath the juniper is clear coriander and pepper spice that all come together for a deeply integrated and aromatic nose. The entry for Greylock Gin is nothing short of astounding – there’s nothing assertive or singular about this gin. Sweet citrus leads the pack as a top note with juniper following quickly behind, along with a bottom note of pepper and coriander. The way these flavors present is layered rather than sequential, creating immense complexity that you just don’t find in many gins. The mouthfeel is perfect and manages a balance between soft, fine, and light. The midpalate is a further exploration of flavor integration with all the flavors intensifying almost equally. The juniper and pepper spice peak but they are in lockstep with sweet citrus and an earthy undertone. The finish maintains all the flavors from the midpalate in a long and pleasant finish.
Greylock Gin is easily sipped neat. Although the flavors are intense, the delivery of them is so elegant and well crafted that there isn’t even the suggestion of harshness. Greylock Gin is an amazing gin and is not only one of the best of the American Gins, it’s one of the best gins, period.
Tanqueray Malacca Gin in many ways is a mythical beast. Originally released in 1997, this softer and sweeter expression of gin found an audience but not enough to sustain it and was discontinued in 2001. The gin found a new life in the hands of “alcoholic archaeologists” who discovered and fell in love with the discontinued gin, including David Wondrich, who cited the gin as a stand-in for Old Tom Gin in his book, Imbibe, and Bobby Heugel, who discovered old cases of the gin in back rooms of liquor stores. “It started to get a mythical status with bottles getting $200 or more on eBay,” explains Angus Winchester, Tanqueray Global Brand Ambassador. The call for the gin from the craft cocktail community was so strong that Tanqueray decided to bring it back in February 2013 for a limited run of 9,000 cases. Tanqueray Malacca Gin is a softer gin, released at 40% ABV. It’s more citrus forward than Tanqueray London Dry and is great on its own as a sipping gin, with tonic, or in a Martinez or Hanky Panky.
Simon Ford is perhaps one of the most recognizable faces in the gin category. After leaving his highly visible post as Brand Ambassador at Pernod Ricard, he went on to become a founding partner of The 86 Company. One of their first products, Fords Gin, is a collaboration between 8th generation Master Distiller Charles Maxwell and Simon Ford. “The first thing I wanted when creating Fords was a gin that really celebrates juniper. After many years of hearing people say they didn’t like the pine needle flavor of juniper, I wanted to create the gin that made people fall in love with juniper,” says Simon Ford. Fords Gin draws from many of the classic gin botanicals with the addition of grapefruit peel and jasmine flower. “Half of the botanical profile of Fords Gin is juniper which is supported by sweet spices and plenty of citrus to take away the juniper bite, and then we use jasmine to give dryness.”
Full flavored with a strong structure, Fords Gin is clearly designed as a mixing gin designed specifically for the bartending community. “The key inspiration was working with bartenders who wanted a multi-purpose gin, so Fords was created to be a ‘Jack of all trades’. We worked on creating a full oil content so it would work well in stirred drinks, and we worked on a citrus profile that would work well with both lemon and lime citrus-based cocktails.” The stakes for Fords Gin couldn’t be higher and early reception, especially among craft cocktail bartenders, has been extremely positive.
Don’t let BULLDOG’s imposing black bottle with dog tags and studded collar fool you. BULLDOG gin may look tough but in fact, it’s as gentle as a puppy. The key to BULLDOG’s approachability is the mix of botanicals it uses including dragon eye (cousin of the lychee), white poppy and lotus leaves. While BULLDOG gin is a London Dry style gin, the juniper has been dialed back slightly and balances out with the other softer and sweeter botanicals. BULLDOG firmly positions itself as a premium gin – “The quality of the product and the exotic botanical makeup of the product are the cornerstone of BULLDOG,” explains Daniel Udell, Global Brand Manager for BULLDOG gin. To date, BULLDOG has largely only been available along the eastern seaboard but the company has plans to aggressively expand its distribution westward in 2013.
The Botanist Islay Dry Gin
Islay, Scotland is best known for their Whisky, and so it’s an unlikely place for one of the most buzzed about premium gins. Bruichladdich and former owner Jim McEwan are used to the buzz, and the distillery has become well known for marching to the beat of their own drum. The Botanist is made from 22 wild native Islay botanicals “hand-picked by our expert foraging team from the windswept hills, peat bogs, and Atlantic shores of this Hebridean Island of Islay” and distilled in a unique Lomond Pot still, nicknamed “Ugly Betty”. The botanicals for the Botanist Gin include such oddball things as mugwort leaves, creeping thistle flowers, and bog myrtle leaves. The taste is exceptional with a symphony of flavor that manages to keep perfect harmony.
No. 3 London Dry Gin
The Berry Bros. & Rudd are some of the oldest wine and spirit merchants in London. Located at No. 3 St. James’s Street in London since 1698, they have over 300 years of wine and spirits experience. They brought this extensive experience to bear for their gin, named after their iconic address and featuring a key similar to the one which opens the door to The Parlour at the heart of the shop. The Parlour, in many ways, is the inner sanctum of No. 3 St. James’s Street. It is one of the oldest chambers in the shop; a room that is steeped in history and tradition, a place where Berry and Rudd family members have selected and even created some of their finest wines and spirits. Although the shop is located in London, The Berry Bros. & Rudd turned to one of Holland’s oldest distilleries (De Kuyper) owned by a family who also had over 300 years of experience to make their gin. “No. 3 London Dry Gin was created to be the last word in gin for a classic dry martini. It is distilled with a simple recipe of just six natural botanicals – three fruits (juniper, grapefruit, and orange) and three spices (angelica root, coriander, and cardamom). With juniper at its heart, No. 3 unashamedly celebrates the integrity and character of traditional London Dry Gin,” says Dr. David Clutton, creator of No. 3 Gin.
Ultra Premium Gins
Building on their immense success with Ketel One Vodka, the Nolet family has entered the gin category with two high-end premium gins. Nolet’s Silver Gin builds on the classic gin botanical mix (including juniper) with Turkish rose, raspberry, and peach. Nolet’s Silver is made by hand in a very small copper still built specifically for the gin. “We wanted to create something really beautiful,” comments Bob Nolet. Nolet’s Silver is an elegant gin with an almost ethereal mix of floral and herbal notes. Mixed together with Dolin Dry Vermouth, it makes perhaps one of the best Martinis.
Nolet’s Reserve Gin virtually establishes the Super Ultra Premium category of gin. One of the most expensive gins on the market at $700 a bottle, Nolet’s Reserve was created to represent the finest expression of gin. While the exact botanical mix is a secret, Nolet’s Reserve features a tremendous amount of saffron (one of the most expensive botanicals in the world) along with verbena. The result is an immensely complex gin with deep layers of flavor. “My dad wanted to make something he could sit with, after work, and really enjoy, contemplating as he worked his way through all the layers of flavor.” Nolet’s Reserve is extremely limited in production with less than 1,000 bottles produced annually. Each batch of Nolet’s Reserve is personally supervised by Carolus Nolet, Sr., who hand signs and numbers each bottle.
[Read our Behind the scenes of Nolet Gin]
Barrel Aged Gins
Few Spirits Barrel Aged Gin
Barrel aged gin isn’t a new sub-category of gin – there is a long tradition of aging gin, especially in Europe. The practice is relatively new for the American market, however, and it’s finding some traction among craft distillers. For their Barrel Aged Gin, Few Spirits in Evanston, Illinois decided to use an entirely different botanical mix than they use for their un-aged gin, simplifying the number of botanicals from 11 down to 5. “We know the gin is going into a barrel and we want to make sure that the barrel shines through. Too many botanicals plus barrel impact could equal a big hairy mess,” says Paul Hletko, Founder and Master Distiller of Few Spirits. “We are going for a gin that drinks like a whiskey.”
Citadel Reserve Gin
Between Citadel Gin and Plantation Rum it’s easy to forget that Pierre Ferrand is best known for their cognac. We’ve been long time fans of Pierre Ferrand’s Citadel Gin, which is distilled on the very same stills used to make cognac. For the Citadel Reserve Gin, Pierre Ferrand added three botanicals (yuzu, genepi and bleut) to the 19 other botanicals used to produce this gin. This gin was aged for several months in French oak barrels before being bottled. “Barrel aging tends to tame the flower and citrus feel of the gin and enhances the rounder, softer notes,” explains Alexandre Gabriel, owner and president of Cognac Ferrand.
Are there new gins you love? Be sure to let us know in the comments below.