Jumping Juniper

Are you tired of hearing gin hyped as the next ultra-hot spirits category? Have we in the spirits industry cried wolf far too many times? The truth is that I would love to proclaim gin to be the next great trend. The problem is that gin is just too controversial, too personality driven and far too misunderstood.

Gin is the perpetual bridesmaid — even failing to be promoted to the maid of honor role — and seemingly eons away from being the star of the show. Ironically, the spirit defined by its mélange of botanicals has never been able to snag the bouquet. However, all things considered, gin is the ideal spirit for our time. It’s well suited for the cocktail renaissance that we now enjoy, the category’s newcomers are primarily in the premium arena that satisfies the quality spirits trend, and the subject of gin is great fodder for analysis and debate.

So who cares if gin is the next “hot” thing? Ricky Martin was once hot, and I don’t recall that working out so well.

Sometimes a topic or category is defined by its detractors, but gin is undoubtedly measured by its enthusiasts. Gin drinkers are manic and fiercely loyal, which is not to say that they are above experimentation. To my eye, gin drinkers are more in love with their chosen style of gin; a preferred brand is simply the purveyor of their chosen style. The other side of the coin is equally true. Gin lovers are more opposed to certain styles than even a committed gin hater is to the category.

Bourbon drinkers may prefer a wheat-heavy recipe to a rye centric formula, but they tend not to rail against the other. Scotch whisky lovers may prefer the smoky peaty drams of Islay, but they will cheerfully sip a malty, sherry infused Speyside with vigor. Gin forces one to choose sides. Gin is the polarizing, partisan drink of our time.

Bartenders Love Gin
Gin’s greatest advocate is the modern bartender. I talk to bartenders all of the time. It’s an occupational hazard as a writer in the drinks business. Besides, I love talking to them. They are typically the most eclectic, interesting, opinionated and entertaining people on the planet. The common refrain among the gin enthusiast mixologist set is that the fine folk sitting on bar stools have convinced themselves they don’t like gin, in many cases before they’ve actually tried it.

“I think that if people approached gin as they approach coffee and tea, they’d realize the complexities and nuances that each brand offers,” explains Dominic Venegas, who has manned the bar at several of San Francisco’s hottest drink spots, including Stars, Trader Vic’s and Bourbon & Branch. More recently, Venegas designed drinks for Gitane. “People need to be out trying these different styled gins like you would a whisky or tequila. I’m sure it took a few times for people to get into those, but their palate adapted. We need to educate the public!”

"Gin is well suited for the cocktail renaissance we now enjoy, and the category’s newcomers are primarily in the premium arena."

Peter Vestinos, the newly hired beverage development director for the Chicago-based $1.5-billion-a-year distributorship Wirtz Beverage Group and formerly mixologist at Sepia, sees it like this: “Unlike vodkas, gins can vary greatly from producer to producer depending on their set of botanicals. So just because you don’t like one gin doesn’t mean you don’t like them all.”

Gin doesn’t present the neutral profile that vodka so willingly provides, but it is a terrific base. Using gin versus vodka in your cocktails is akin to using a flavor stock in your sauce as opposed to water.

“You can pretty much replace gin in any cocktail that calls for vodka and end up with a more distinct and ultimately better result. I’ve even put it in a Bloody Mary,” says Charles Joly, chief mixologist at The Drawing Room, Chicago.

It’s fascinating that every serious bartender I quizzed about gin confesses to tricking patrons with gin cocktails. They all share stories of meeting the customer who boldly states a disdain for all things gin and responding by building him a gin cocktail without revealing the secret ingredient. In most cases, the customer is stunned to learn that he’s enjoying a gin cocktail.

Of course, you have to be pretty talented and confident to pull this off, but it does demonstrate how unfounded the aversion to gin is and attests to the power of providing your clients with a great experience. That newly minted gin drinker has undoubtedly told that story a dozen times and can’t wait to return.

Creating Gin
Gin producers have their own set of rules and practices, and each producer is convinced that its method is superior. It’s the great chili cook-off of the spirits world.

Gin is typically made from neutral spirits that are infused with a concoction of botanicals, starting with juniper and often including coriander along with any number of herbs and spices such as ginger, orange peel, cardamom, angelica root, nutmeg, clove, cassia bark and nearly anything else one could imagine.

The method used to introduce these herbs and spices into the spirit is another matter of great debate. Most common is the steeping method that can last from one hour to a day, followed by one last distillation that is said to “fix” the flavors to the spirit. Some choose to keep the botanicals in whole form, while some prefer to crack and crush the spices to release more intense flavors. Another approach involves suspending a basket of botanicals in the still, allowing vapors to pass through, extracting aroma and flavor in this way. Those who use this technique exalt its delicate and pure results. In the case of inexpensive gins, distillers use a method known as “cold compounding” in which they add flavor essences to the neutral spirit.

Gin Styles
The first “official” record of gin came in 1752 when Franciscus Sylvius cooked up his eau de vie de genievre. Soon Genever, Dutch for juniper, was the common man’s drink of choice; the semi-viscous, malty quaff is as much about the spirit as it is about the botanicals. The global re-launch of Bols Genever last fall essentially re-introduced this style to current consumers.

English mercenaries returned from the Thirty Years War with tales of “Dutch courage,” the spirit distributed to troops prior to battle. Later that century Dutch born William of Orange seized the English throne and all but halted the importation of brandy and levied a heavy beer tax. Distilling became popular, and by 1750 the seven million Englishmen were consuming about 20 million gallons of gin.

The English gin evolved into a crisp, dry style of London Dry that we are familiar with today. Classic examples are Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray. London Dry is typically bottled at a slightly high proof to better accentuate the aromatic botanicals.

Recently an American style emerged. Dubbed New Western Dry by those who ruminate on such things, the gins follow in the London Dry mold and often have a distinct citrus- or botanical-focused edge. Players in this segment include Hendrick’s, Aviation, Martin Miller’s and 209.

The New Frontier
Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute, a craft distillers’ organization based in Hayward, Calif., sees gin as a natural for emerging craft distillers, many of whom are drawn to making whiskey. Gin is a natural complement to whiskey, as it is best made with a grain base (like whiskey), it allows the craft distiller to be creative, and it offers cash flow.

Whiskey by nature must be laid in cask for years; gin can be delivered to market rather quickly. Roughly 50 craft distillers in the United States make gin in varying quantities. Clearly the revolution is well under way. The creativity in gin in coming years will mirror that of craft brewers in the past two decades.

Anything that stirs discussion, emotion and debate is a great talking point for your patrons, and a golden opportunity for your servers and bartenders to engage them. These attributes fit gin’s DNA to the very last gene. Gin is a natural to offer in flights; in one small set you can show your patrons the vast variations of the original flavored vodka. For this and a slew of additional reasons, stocking a clever selection of gin that offers a range of styles is your best move when looking to boost gin sales.

Who cares if gin may not offer box-office good looks and a Will Rogers-like congeniality? It does offer personality to spare and incredible versatility in cocktails both classic and contemporary. Perhaps it’s time for a bit of American courage. NCB

Sean Ludford is the creator of BeverageExperts.com and a quarterly magazine, The Apertif, which is delivered electronically.

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