Gin has always had adistinctive taste, born of the blending of juniper berries and other botanical flavorings. But now gin makers are getting even more creative, adding a spice rack of exotic new ingredients such as cucumber, cinnamon, and saffron. (That last one is an interesting idea provided you can get past the yellow color.)
As odd as these combinations might sound, they represent the latest attempts by distillers to reclaim the spotlight from gin's archrival, vodka. Much to their chagrin, gin has been the wallflower of the current cocktail craze. The more neutral-tasting vodka has edged it out in such famous concoctions as the gimlet and martini, even though gin got there first.
As Absolut, Stolichnaya, and Grey Goose have been doing for years with vodka, gin makers are now infusing their spirit with ingredients to give it more character, then packaging the end results in stylish bottles that carry premium price tags. Bartenders love the idea of a gin renaissance because it gives them a chance to stir up new recipes with a liquor they see as more complex than vodka. "We're big gin pushers," says Tim Staehling, bar manager at the Hungry Cat, a restaurant in Los Angeles that carries five brands of gin and only three vodkas. "You notice it. It contributes something to the drink."
The 19 ingredients, such as coriander and violets, are what attract reviewer F. Paul Pacult, publisher of Spirit Journal, to Citadelle Gin. Retailing for $24 a 750 ml. bottle, more than twice what a similar size of Seagram's or Gordon's gin costs, it was created by the two French entrepreneurs behind Cognac Ferrand spirit house. "It's good for mixing gin and tonics," Pacult says, because "the quinine in tonic has a very bitter taste. It is best to counter that with fruit and flowers."
SOFT AND BOLD TASTES
Some of the distillers approach the process with a down-home feel reminiscent of the making of old-time bathtub gin. Partners David Hughes and Scott Krahn launched their new D.H. Krahn label after conceiving of it in a class at Cornell University. Hughes claims the small batches he produces are smoother and more appealing to younger drinkers schooled on vodka. Currently, it is available only in New York and New Jersey. Anchor Brewing owner, president, and brewmaster Fritz Maytag mixes his $30 Anchor Junipero Gin in a small copper kettle in the rear of his San Francisco brewery. His staff fills each bottle by hand. "I think it's very distinct," Maytag says. "I want to call it backbone. You make a martini, and you are really tasting the gin."
Mike Miller, owner of Delilah's bar in Chicago, is a fan of two softer-tasting gins. Hendrick's, $25 for 750 ml., from Scottish distillery William Grant & Sons, features cucumber as its most distinctive ingredient. Zuidam, $30, is made in Holland, using vanilla beans from Madagascar and the fruit of whole oranges, lemons, and limes rather than just dried rinds. Each of the nine ingredients is distilled separately to give the gin a smoother, citrus flavor. Miller advises using either brand in straight-up drinks such as martinis and gimlets where the gin won't get overpowered by mixers.
Folks desiring a bolder taste can pour Cadenhead's Old Raj Gin. This $60 spirit from Scottish whisky maker William Cadenhead contains saffron, which gives it a spicy flavor and yellowish color. At 110 proof, it's about one-third stronger than even some of its premium-gin rivals. If you want to compete with vodka, you have to make a statement.
By Christopher Palmeri