Around the turn of this century we experienced a minor gin revival, the great white spirit’s first stirrings in the world since before the vodka age. Anchor Distilling launched Junipero, a craft gin, in 1996, and any number of others followed. Despite the publicity this mini-movement received, gin’s revival was a flop.
After 2002, gin sales stagnated. Cocktail drinkers weren’t having it. Many of the new releases seemed almost apologetic about being gins, suppressing the juniper in an attempt to appeal to vodka drinkers. The hype was soon replaced by newer spirit fascinations—pisco, mezcal, Tequila—and gin politely receded.
But in the last few years gin has rebounded with renewed vigor. And Gin 2.0 appears much improved. Many seem to have something to say and are saying it with more clarity and precision. For instance, a couple of years ago, St. George Spirits in California debuted a trio of gins, the most unique being Terroir, made with foraged flora from the Bay Area. In recent years, London has reclaimed its gin-distilling legacy with locally produced gins like Sipsmith, offering new interpretations of the London Dry style. Now there are even gin bars, like the Winslow and Cata in New York and Whitechapel in San Francisco.
“The message in the new gins,” says Martin Cate, who opened Whitechapel late last year, “is that you don’t have to be juniper backward. The juniper is up front, but they’ve learned how to back it with big, complex notes like coriander and citrus peel.” Cate says that the reality of gin’s new era became evident to him last year when he walked into a spirit shop and looked at the shelf. “The 1.5-liter plastic bottles of industrial gin were gone. There used to be maybe one shelf of premium gins. At this place there were four.” The numbers back this up. From 2014 to 2015, high-end gin sales grew by 38 percent. With almost 400 craft gin distillers in the US, Cate notes, the fight for real estate on the shelf is fierce. “Competition is forcing everyone to raise their game.”
I’ve been tasting through the new gins with great delight. Coming from all over the world, the new spirits are better made—the flavors are more complex, more compelling. Most exciting to me are the gins with a point of view, expressing a place or an idea.
One such spirit is Four Pillars, a gin from Australia just now being introduced in the US. “Juniper is the canvas,” co-founder Stuart Gregor told me, “but we really use it to set o the other botanicals.” Two of those botanicals are native Australian, the Tasmanian pepperberry and lemon myrtle, which provide crackling complexity over a strong juniper base note. Beautifully balanced, the gin makes a complex Martini and a bracing Gin and Tonic.
Calyx, which hails from Santa Barbara, is another terroir-oriented gin. It’s a collaboration between Ascendant Spirits of Santa Barbara County and winemaker and former sommelier Rajat Parr (with whom I wrote a book in 2010). Ascendant provided the ingredients—14 local botanicals like fresh juniper, sage, mint and rose hips—while Parr lent his palate to create the blend. The conceit is that the gin has a vintage, as its blend will change from year to year depending on the botanical harvest. Often, gins with a high number of botanicals are a muddy mess, but Calyx succeeds in being complex without murkiness. Enjoy its coriander and bramble aromas before mixing it in a shaker with ice, lime juice and a little simple syrup to make a sour. Or serve it straight up to capture the gin’s elegance and aromatics.
This story was featured in W&S June 2016.
photo by Kelly Puleio