By Bruce Collier
Last year I reviewed Dave Broom’s book Gin: The Manual. It revived my old interest in the spirit, which was my liquor of choice throughout college and some time afterward. I had never thought of gin as a complicated drink—just alcohol that tasted kinda like pine needles and was good with tonic on a hot day. It was cheap, too. At least the brand I drank was.
Gin is old—really old. Its primary flavoring ingredient, Juniper, a coniferous plant, has been around since the end of the Ice Age. Juniper has been used for a variety of health-related purposes since the ancient Greeks, who may have distilled it. In the Middle Ages Dutch alchemists started writing down recipes and putting out the word that gin not only was good for you, it made you feel pretty special, too.
Like whiskey and the Scots-Irish, gin and the Dutch was a match made in heaven. In Dutch hands, Genever (from jenever, the word for juniper) became the father of gin. Genever was also called “Hollands,” but the practical British shortened it to “gin,” then made it their own way.
The base of gin is distilled spirit—from grains like corn or wheat, potatoes or fruits. There are different ways to make gin, but the main flavoring agent has to be juniper. Other permitted flavorings include botanicals such as citrus, coriander, or almond, spices like cardamom and ginger, or herbs and flowers. Flavor can simply be added to the spirit, the spirit can be distilled or redistilled passing through flavoring agents, or steeped like tea.
One bottle of gin I tried lists 47 flavorings. Others state that only juniper is used. Ah, but juniper has multiple flavor characteristics, so… confused? Well, forget all that—it’s time to commence tasting.
For this article I sampled gins from England, France, the Netherlands, the USA and Germany. Some I bought locally, others from a store in Jacksonville. I drank them all neat, though gin is a classic cocktail spirit.
Beefeater London Dry Gin ($18.99), England, 94 Proof. I doubt there’s a liquor store that doesn’t stock Beefeater. This is my go-to gin, and a true value. I drink it from the freezer, especially for martinis. It’s dry, but with an oily quality that lends a fleeting piney sweetness. Like simplicity? Here’s your gin.
Citadelle ($21.99), France, 88 Proof. An infused wheat-spirit “Dunkirk-style” gin, distilled in a copper pot still “with a naked flame” (I’d have said “open flame,” but I’m not French). It’s produced by Maison Ferrand, a famous cognac house. This is dry, delicate stuff, unobtrusive and subtle. It’s thinner than Beefeater, but equally desirable for a martini. I think it would disappear in tonic. Beautiful blue bottle with copper accents.
Bols Genever ($34.99), the Netherlands, 84 Proof. This is classic unaged Dutch Genever, a blend of malt wine and distilled juniper. It has a fruity, slightly metallic nose. It starts sweet, then dries. The list of flavorings does not include cranberries (it only lists Juniper) but I tasted them. Chilled in a freezer, Bols gets rather viscous. Not as subdued as the Citadelle, it would probably maintain its personality when mixed. Try a shot of it with Dutch beer.
Ransom Old Tom Gin ($37.99) USA, 88 Proof. This is a blend of malt and corn spirit, in which the botanicals (among them citrus peel and cardamom) are steeped. It’s aged in oak wine barrels, which lends it a coppery color. Old Tom is an English style of sweetened gin from the 19th century. Ransom smells and tastes like lemon candy and honey at first, then there’s a 7-Up scent, then cupcake icing, almond extract, duck sauce and marmalade. The funny thing is—it isn’t actually sweet. It fools me every time.
Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin ($49.99 for 375 ml bottle), Germany, 94 Proof. Expensive stuff. This purports to be a recreation of a heretofore “lost” gin. The 47 refers to the list of botanicals, which boasts six kinds of pepper, blackberries, cinnamon, licorice, hibiscus, rosehips—pretty much everything except bananas. The Monkey is oily, perfumy, loaded with citrus essence and lavender. Like Ransom, it seems sweet, but it’s that mob of botanicals, like a mall bath-and-body shop, that fakes you out. It’s a powerhouse gin experience, and you can re-use the bottle.
Having read Broom’s book and sampled these gins, I can see why it rates a manual. For sheer complexity, there are few alcoholic beverages that come close to gin. If you think of gin, Broom suggests, as the product of “the crossroads of chemistry and artistry,” you begin to get the idea. Upping the ante further, gin has become the Next Big Thing. The craft spirits movement has joyfully embraced gin, reviving old styles and recipes. Expect to see even more of a selection, and soon.