Gin is the new tequila, which just a year or two ago was the new vodka. To any sensible person, that statement makes no sense. But it means something to marketers, trendwatchers, and people who read Forbes ASAP. Why gin and why now? In part because high demand pushed the price of tequila to upwards of $75 a bottle—an absurd price, even for the good stuff. Also, the martini, king of the cocktails, continues to enjoy a glorious renaissance. And there is only one way to make a proper martini. Gin, that most versatile of spirits, is it. Gin is hip. Gin is back.
Not that it ever left. Gin has been with us for 500 years or so, and it's the base of some 300 cocktails—no more than two-dozen of which are drinkable. Yet for all its popularity and ubiquity, gin remains saddled with a reputation as a cheap spirit good for nothing but a quick trip to the gutter. "Mother's ruin," temperate Londoners called it. William Hogarth immortalized gin's status as a low-class drink in 1751 with his etching "Gin Lane"—"Gin, cursed fiend, with fury fraught, / Makes human race a prey./ It enters by a deadly draught,/ And steals our life away." The man obviously never drank a martini.
Wine & Spirits magazine reports that "there's a new interest in gin." And how. In the last seven or eight years, more than a dozen new gins have hit the market from such places as Germany, France, Scotland, and the United States, as well as the traditional gin-producing nations of England and Holland. These are hand-crafted, "boutique" gins. You could almost call them "sipping" gins. And they don't run cheap. Gin Lane has finally gone upscale.
It's no secret that the editors of this publication enjoy a good dose of "Dutch Courage" from time to time, whether it be in the martini, the gin-and-tonic, the gimlet, or the strange and wonderful Negroni. We take inspiration from the words of the great journalist H.L. Mencken, who said, "I am prepared to admit some merit in every alcoholic beverage ever devised by the incomparable brain of man and drink them all when occasions are suitable…I am omnibibulous, or, more simply, ombibulous." But with so many choices, even the most ambitious omnibib may have difficulty finding just the right gin for his preferred cocktail.
We decided to do a small, decidedly unscientific tasting. We made one exception to our ombibulism—all French and German gins were ruled out as too odd, too expensive, and possibly harmful to our souls. The following tasting occurred over the course of a few days in early May in Claremont, during an unusual heatwave. There were no blackouts, rolling or otherwise. Here are the results:
- Boodles British Gin (90.4 proof, 45.2% alc. by volume): As smooth as a sheet of black ice on a dark mountain road and almost as dangerous. This is a very well-balanced gin, ideal for martinis. Big flavor, but not overwhelming, with suggestions of lemon and orange, and a fair bit of juniper. Distilled by Seagram's, Boodles cannot be beat for the price: around $13 for a 750ml bottle. The magic of Boodles is its staying power. But be advised: drinking one Boodles martini will warm your heart and make you think happy thoughts about your fellow man; drinking two will induce flights of utopian speculation and could lead you more easily into temptation; drinking three may cause you to forget where you live. We can't recommend it highly enough.
- Beefeater London Distilled Gin (94 proof, 47% alc. by volume): Crisp, fragrant, and a bit sharp around the edges. Lots of citrus and spice. Beefeater is great, mid-priced "utility" gin. It mixes well with just about anything, and doesn't make your brain hurt. Great for gin and tonics, just fine for martinis.
- Bombay Sapphire London Dry Gin (94 proof, 47% alc. by volume): Although on the pricey side—$20 for a 750ml bottle, give or take— Sapphire may well be the queen of gins, ideally suited for the king of cocktails. It lists 10 botanicals on the bottle—everything from Saxon angelic and Italian juniper to Javan cubeb berries and West African "grains of paradise"—but what stands out is the juniper, the citrus, and maybe just a little bit of liquorice and spice. Sapphire is a full-flavored gin, crisp and clean and wonderful.
- Tanqueray "No. 10" (94.6 proof, 47.3% alc. by volume): This is one of the more recent high-end offerings, distinguished by its slender, faceted emerald bottle. The professional magazine tasters all seem to recommend it for martinis, noting its subtle lemon overtones, but we respectfully disagree. If you happen to like martinis that taste like potpourri, then Tanqueray "No. 10" is for you. It makes a fine gin and tonic. At $25 a bottle, however, that's a mighty expensive G&T. At almost half the price, your garden-variety Tanqueray (the one in the squat green bottle) is a perfectly respectable spirit.
- Tanqueray Malacca Gin (80 proof, 40% alc. by volume): Something of a novelty gin, this is touted as "the original 1839 recipe." This may be a case where older is not better. The gin certainly has character, with a peculiar flavor (pine? almond? grapefruit?) and very strong nose—imagine falling face-first into a juniper bush. Seems to go best with tonic; not bad on ice with two or three dashes of Angostura. Not really a martini gin.
- Junipero Dry Gin (98.5% proof, 49.3% alc. by volume): Junipero stands out for a number of reasons. It is the best of the small-batch, handcrafted gins we tasted. It has the highest alcohol content. It's the most expensive gin in the survey, at $30 for a 750ml bottle. And its 100% American. Made by San Francisco-based Anchor Distilling (sister firm of Anchor Brewing, makers of Anchor Steam Beer), Junipero is a medium to full-bodied gin with plenty of herbs and spices, and a subtle citrus flavor. It goes down smooth, and has a nice clean finish. This is a great martini gin, and would probably be wasted on anything else. The price may be slightly intimidating but trust us, it's worth it.
- Plymouth Original Dry Gin (82.4 proof, 41.2% alc. by volume): Plymouth's makers say Winston Churchill used to make his martinis with their gin, a twist of lemon, and nothing else. The story goes that instead of adding vermouth, he would glance toward France and nod in respect. A very nice story. But it's certainly bogus. Churchill enjoyed scotch, brandy, and champagne, and drank his whisky very weak. Alas, he probably never drank martinis. Nevertheless, Plymouth is a very good gin with an otherwise respectable pedigree. It was the Royal Navy officers' gin of choice; gin mixed with Angostura bitters (a.k.a Pink Gin) was their drink. Plymouth gin is mellower than traditional London dry gins. It's a bit sweeter, a bit fruitier, and it has a slightly tangy aftertaste. Somewhat expensive at $24 for a 750 ml bottle, but worth exploring.
- Hendrick's Gin (88 proof, 44% alc. by volume): Another small-batch, handcrafted novelty, described by its Scottish makers as "a most peculiar gin." The gimmick here is that the spirit is infused with cucumber and rose petals. It's actually a nicely balanced gin, medium bodied, lots of juniper, herbs, and maybe a little bit of rose. It sort of dances on the tongue. A fine gin as far as it goes, but hard to recommend for the price—around $27 for a 750 ml bottle. Hendrick's makes for an odd martini, but an interesting gin and tonic. The distillers recommend using a slice of cucumber rather than lime for a garnish. But if you can taste the cucumber in the gin, you're probably drunk.