No doubt about it: gin has had a year. Small batch producers are sprouting up in greater numbers than ever – in the US but also the UK. Though Bay Area local, Old World Spirits, made waves with their barrel aged gin, Rusty Blade, years ago, the aged gin trend has taken off, with even legendary Beefeater (who I had the privilege of spending a week with in London a couple years ago) releasing a barrel aged gin, Burrough’s Reserve.
This year I delved deeper into gin’s predecessor, genever (read about the first Belgian genever imported to the US here) by visiting Bols in Amsterdam this May (articles on that trip in upcoming newsletters). On the American side, I tasted through a dense array of new American, small batch gins flooding the market during ADI’s Judging of Craft American Spirits in Kentucky this spring.
As I reflect on the year in gin, here are few trends:
American Craft Gins Explode
Over the last decade and even before, many of the best small batch gins are from my home of the Bay Area, including Anchor Distilling’s great Junipero, pioneering in 1996 (even the gin martini master of London raved about Junipero when I visited London’s legendary gin bar, Duke’s), elegant 209 Gin, experimental Blade Gin from Old World Spirits, and since 2011, St. George’s remarkable gins.
Around the country, Death’s Door Gin from Wisconsin is a longtime favorite, and in Washington, Voyager remains an excellent gin. In the last couple years, FEW in Evanston, Illinois, is a newer standout, both FEW American Gin, wild and wooly in spirit but not lacking in finesse, and FEW Standard Issue Gin, an intensely vibrant beauty at 57% proof.
While more is not always better, and, in fact, there’s much more to wade through now, “more” does mean interesting interpretations and potential greats. Not making any claims of lasting greatness yet, of the over 40 new American gins I tasted this spring alone and from what I continuously find in my travels, these gins displayed interesting characteristics: Green Hat in DC, for unique packaging and sweet lemongrass notes; Myer Farm Gin from Orid, NY, had a strong but pleasurable juniper bite; and Valentine Distilling Co.’s Liberator Gin from Detroit, offered dusty, vibrant character. However, my top two of the newcomers are:
Rob’s Mtn Gin, Formula No. 44 – Loveland, CO: Rob Masters, President of the Colorado Distillers Guild, produces this gin at Spring 44’s distillery (see Old Tom section below). It is balanced, blessedly juniper-heavy, subtle with unique botanicals of kaffir lime, basil and peppermint. Floral aromatics open up when mixed with a quality tonic like Fever Tree.
BelleWood Gin – Lynden, WA: While I enjoy Tuthilltown’s Half Moon Orchard Gin, distilled from NY State wheat (80%) and apples (20%), and I love Scottish Caorunn Gin with Scottish apples added, the best of apple-inflected gins I’ve tasted is BelleWood, distilled on a farm growing most of its ingredients. Though apple based, offering a dusty, cinnamon-inflected nose, the taste is still juniper-heavy, with a crisp apple finish.
Old Tom Gin might still have its day
A few years back, everyone was talking Old Tom Gin, the dominant, malty, whiskey-like gin that was commonplace in America in the 1800’s before London dry became the popular style. It bears more relation to gin’s predecessor, genever, than it does to London dry gins, yet it is also quite different from genever. During the last Old Tom revival years ago, the only brand with staying power has been Ransom from Oregon, to this day the brand I see used in Old Tom cocktails menus in countless cities.
This spring during ADI’s Judging of Craft American Spirits in Kentucky, we had enough Old Tom submissions to form its own sub-category, an unexpected sign of Old Tom’s revival (again). Most were better than expected, these three being the most interesting:
– Spring 44 Old Tom: A new distillery in Loveland, Colorado (their gin was just released in California in the last few weeks), Spring 44 was my favorite of the new Old Tom gins (and silver medal winner with ADI). Citrus and spice marry with ginger, oak notes for the most elegant, realized Old Tom of the new releases.
– Downslope Distilling’s Ould Tom Gin: A distillery founded in Centennial, Colorado, in 2008, Downslope considers their Ould Tom somewhere between genever and dry London-style gins, infused with 11 botanicals and an unusual base of US sugarcane. Being somewhere between, it is more dry, citrus and juniper-forward than Old Tom typically is, but has caramel-oak notes and full-bodied texture reminiscent of genever and Old Tom.
– Corsair’s Major Tom: Though my least favorite of the three and possibly just an experimental, one-time release, this Old Tom-inspired gin landed on the funky, green side, savory and heavy with celery notes. I typically love that sort of profile but somehow it didn’t quite gel here.
The arrival of even these three begs the question: might Old Tom still have its day? It may never be mainstream again, but with talented distillers crafting new versions and reviving old recipes, it seems we might not yet have tasted the peak of this all-American spirit.
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Major Brand Experiments with New Product
At the beginning of October, I experienced a magical evening in the historic Haas-Lilienthal House with Hendrick’s Gin’s Master Distiller, Lesley Gracie, during her first visit to the US (she only hit 5 or 6 cities). No, the beloved cult gin that became one of the world’s leading brands, is not coming out with a new gin. Gracie and the William Grant & Sons team shared Hendrick’s quinine cordial, Quinetum, which Gracie has been working on for nearly five years in Scotland at the distillery where Hendrick’s is made.
With around 4,000 bottles produced, the cordial is only available at two dozen cocktail bars across the U.S. and is not for sale. When I asked Gracie if it eventually might be, she said it is possible but the objective right now is to have key bars and bartenders experiment and provide feedback before they decide on a second batch or broader distribution in the future. The personally-selected San Francisco bars carrying a limited amount of Quinetum quinine cordial are Trick Dog, 15Romolo, Prizefighter in Emeryville, Jaspers, Rickhouse, and Coqueta. If lucky enough, you just might be able to sample an experimental cocktail made with the cordial at one of these bars.
Quinetum adds subtle notes to the cocktails I tried that evening and am experimenting with at home, but I enjoy sipping it neat. At a low 4% ABV, it is easily quaffable. Like any cordial or liqueur, it is viscous with sugar yet bracingly tart and lively with a soft bitterness, keeping it from sweet overkill. Floral lavender and bright orange distillates come through. It’s also made with caraway seed, cubeb berries, wormwood, holy thistle, and the key ingredient of cinchona succirubra bark.
Gracie’s recipe was inspired by pioneering mathematician/chemist, Thomas Whiffen, who made great advances in the use of quinine in the 19th century, known for its curative powers, particularly in regards to malaria. Also of note: the lovely, angular Quinetum bottle is modeled after a 1940s poison bottle found in an old London shop.
Craft London Gin Finally In the US
Spending two weeks in London and Plymouth in 2011 exploring gin distilleries, cocktail bars and labs, restaurants and food markets, was one of my all time favorite trips. One of the distilleries I visited in London, Sipsmith, was the first small distillery to secure a license in 2009 to produce in London since Beefeater nearly 200 years before. They have changed the distilling landscape in London/England as numerous small distilleries have cropped up since.
In a neighborhood garage once the workspace of famed drinks writer Michael Jackson, Sipsmith’s intimate distillery reflects the best of the craft spirits movement: a place where passionate individuals create thoughtfully-made, delicious product on a small scale. They produce using the rare one-shot method with no neutral alcohol added (spring water is added post-distillation) in Prudence, their custom-designed copper pot alembic still. Making only 400 bottles at a time, each is hand-labeled. Sipsmith is about to move from their garage to a slightly bigger space around the block in Brackenbury Village near Hammersmith.
Of all the small-batch gins I tried in England that we could not get in the US, Sipsmith was my favorite. I’ve held on to bottles from my last trip and have tasted friends on it, waiting for the day it finally came to the US. That day came this September. Of the number of US cities it is now available in, it came first to San Francisco, and specifically the Mandarin Oriental’s Brasserie S&P gin-centric bar where it was available for over a week before its September release.
On the 40th floor of the Mandarin Oriental before breathtaking views of the Bay and America’s Cup races happening during our event, we took in a gorgeous, warm September day sipping Sipsmith neat, in a gin and tonic and a specially-made cocktail. Sipsmith Gin is bold, but also dry and clean, made with 10 botanicals: Macedonian juniper berries, Seville orange peel, Spanish lemon peel, Italian orris root, Spanish licorice root, Belgian angelica root, Madagascan cinnamon peel, Chinese cassia bark, Spanish ground almond, Bulgarian coriander seed. Sipsmith is $39.99 per bottle and distributed in the US exclusively by Wilson Daniels in St. Helena, CA.
It was lovely seeing Sipsmith founders again at the event: Sam Galsworthy (formerly in wine in Chile, then 10 years at Fuller’s London Pride), and Jared Brown, one half of the writing/cocktail/spirits husband/wife team, Mixellany (on the financial side, Fairfax Hall is the third founder).
You can now find Sipsmith at numerous bars around the US. Sipsmith also produces vodka and the best sloe gin I’ve ever had (less sweet and candied, more tart and bright), which hopefully will eventually be imported to the US.
BONUS UK Export: Master of Malt’s Drinks by the Dram series is an excellent opportunity to order sample sizes of countless spirits, the best way to educate one’s palate and find new favorites. They offer many gin and genever samples and also a brilliant concept of a Ginvent (and a whisky) advent calendar with a sample size drink for each day of advent – a perfect holiday gift for the gin aficionado.