In the last few years, hundreds of new gins have hit the market, each featuring an esoteric botanical selection, standalone appeal ("so good you don't need a mixer"), a sense of terroir, or something else that makes it sound one-of-a-kind. Most of the bottles are sold regionally at first—in a few select states—and then branch out nationally, making them, for all intents and purposes, brand new in your neck of the woods.
Here's the story behind why there's a glut—and which ones are actually worth seeking out.
The Recent Deluge of Gin
Since the turn of the millennium, the return of classic cocktails brought with it a renewed attention to gin and several new and interesting brands, mostly from overseas. Even more recently, the craft distilling movement (and loosening of laws preventing small-batch distillation) brought a whole new slew of American gins to the market. The actual number is mind-boggling: More than 500 new distilleries opened in the US in the last decade—and it seems like all of them are pumping out a juniper spirit.
Making gin doesn't require any great skill or even effort. You can add juniper oil to vodka, or soak juniper berries in neutral spirit (like Crater Lake gin does) and call it gin. Even in gins that are neutral spirits redistilled with juniper and other botanicals in the traditional way, the distiller nearly always buys the base spirit from somewhere else rather than making it in-house.
Making good gin, however, is hard. The balance of botanicals, some of which are only in the mix to make other botanicals stand out, can take years of experimentation to get right. Most distillers try to replicate what established brands are doing, and then add extra botanicals from there.
And unlike bourbon, gin doesn't need to sit around aging in barrels (though barrel-aged gin is now a thing) before distillers sell it. Many new small-batch distillers really want to make whiskey that they can sell in a few years time, but in the short term they put out a gin and vodka. And since it's more about paying the rent than a labor of love, these new gins are boring at best and inconsistent from batch to batch.
Better gins, like the ones mentioned below, are made by people with a cocktail background—bartenders, brand ambassadors, and liquor reps have all donned the distiller's cap and launched their own companies. So how do you know which of these new gins are any good before you spend your hard-earned money on them? I asked a whole bunch of bartenders for their favorite brands. These are the chosen few.
From: The Black Forest, Germany
What makes it special: Gin only needs to include one botanical, juniper, but this brand tosses in 46 extras that include marshmallow, spruce shoots, and cranberries from the Black Forest region. Though made from molasses, it's not sweet as much as complex—from pine forest flavors to mushy earth to fruit. It's kind of expensive at $45 for a half-sized bottle. But bartenders are crazy about it, so it's worth picking up a bottle for special occasions or a gift. The packaging, with cork and stamp-like label, is gorgeous.
|Sun Liquor Gun Club|
From: Seattle, WA
What makes it special: Higher in proof at 50 percent ABV than most gins, Gun Club smells citrusy but tastes like dried cereal berries and a pile of leaves, no doubt coming from the birch leaves and cranberries in the mix. Its unusual astringency helps it dry out sweeter cocktails.
From: The Highlands of Scotland
What makes it special: Containing Scottish botanicals including rowan berry, bog myrtle, heather, dandelion leaf, and coul blush apple, the gin is mild in aroma, citrusy, and crisp, with a subtle herbaceousness, sweetness, and brininess. It lies firmly on the "pleasant" side, rather than the bombastic (unlike many newer gins).
|Nolet's Silver Dry Gin|
What makes it special: Don't let the macho bottle design or "dry" gin designation fool you: This one is about as juicy and creamy as gins come. The dominating flavors of rose, peach, and raspberry make it a great match for cocktails with citrus, while in a Martini you might think you're drinking flavored vodka.
|Sipsmith London Dry Gin|
What makes it special: Every cocktail bar in Europe I've been to over the last couple of years carries this brand—it's a bonafide sensation across the pond. It's impressive that they're able to make enough to supply the continent with their one small still, let alone the US market. Sipsmith's botanical mix is super traditional so no big surprises there, but the gin manages to be both big in its juniper-citrus mix and soft in the underlying spirit.
|Perry's Tot and Dorothy Parker Gin|
From: Brooklyn, NY
What makes it special: These two very different gins were created by one former liquor sales rep, and are made in a distillery that doubles as a Brooklyn bar. The Dorothy Parker is an American-style gin (meaning not super dry) with elderberries and hibiscus in the mix, so it's a fairly floral yet all-purpose mixer. The Perry's Tot (pictured) is a monster of a traditional "navy strength" gin—57 percent ABV in this case, which is the historical proof at which gunpowder ignites. Bartenders love these high-proof gins as they bring forward other flavors in cocktails, plus you can use less of it since it's so boozy.
From: London (and bottled in California)
What makes it special: This gin was created by and named for former Plymouth and Beefeater gin brand ambassador Simon Ford, who tested its formulation in a number of cocktails to ensure maximum mixability. He calls it a "workhorse" gin—designed to be the house gin at cocktail bars rather than a top-shelf call. It includes grapefruit peels and jasmine flowers in the mix, and as you might imagine makes a lovely Bee's Knees.
|St. George Spirits Terroir Gin|
From: Alameda, CA
What makes it special: This distillery has been making excellent brandies and Hangar One vodka for decades, so when they finally put out a gin they decided on a splashy entrance and launched three at the same time. Bartenders seem to have settled on the Terroir Gin as the favorite of the group, though they're all excellent. Terroir Gin includes locally-sourced ingredients like Douglas fir, California bay laurel, and coastal sage, and smells like walking the nearby dusty mountain trails.
From: Islay, Scotland
What makes it special: Whisky fans tend to dismiss gin outright, but Jim McEwan—famed for his work with the Bruichladdich Scotch distillery—created one with 22 local herbs and flowers, foraged by hand from the hills, shores and bogs of the fertile Hebridean island by "botanical scientists." It ends up tasting minty and floral.
|Spirit Works Sloe Gin|
From: Sebastopol, CA
What makes it special: In the UK, everybody's grandmother infuses gin with sloe berries (plum relatives that grow wild on bushes) and sugar to make an annual homemade sloe gin. And while there have been several quality sloe gins launched in the US and UK over the past few years, California bartenders in particular have gone nuts for this citrusy one from Spirit Works, using it in cocktails not just limited to the Sloe Gin Fizz.
From: Brooklyn, NY
What makes it special: With chamomile, elderflower, and elderberry, you know this gin is going to be fragrant. It's also distilled in a custom-made copper still hooked up to a vacuum, allowing them to distill it at lower temperatures and avoid over-cooking the delicate floral flavors. The resulting gin, bartenders claim, tastes "fresher" than others, but it still has a spicy body enhanced by the ginger that's also in the recipe.
|Barr Hill |
From: Hardwick, VT
What makes it special: This gin contains only juniper, distilled in a traditional manner, with honey added afterward. But that honey carries with it the taste of whatever the bees were snacking on recently; and those flavors are transmitted to the gin. Letting bees do all the work was smart and results in a mild juniper and creamy margarine nose, a dry juniper hit on the palate, and a finish of fresh grass and green herbs. (At least this bottle did.) The taste of honey clings to your lips afterward.
From: Ballard, WA
What makes it special: The name is a clue. This bartender-made gin in the London dry style is made with "gobs of juniper" and has notes of bitter orange peels. Tasmanian pepper berry—an uncommon botanical to include—is the likely reason my tongue is vibrating as I write this.
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