If you ask most drinkers if they like gin, they’ll tell you of course, and then talk about how much they love gin and tonics and martinis. And, although I’m not taking anything away from how delightful those mixed drinks are, I think those people are missing out by not trying gin on its own.
Certainly, gin is made to be tasted. Unlike many spirits that are made from one or two ingredients and receive much of their flavor from the barrels they’re stored in, Gins are specifically, even meticulously, designed to have unique and distinctive flavors using sometimes dozens of ingredients. And it’s nothing like flavored vodkas that are distilled as regular vodkas then get a Slurpee-like spritz of flavoring. Gins are made with elements like bitter orange, grapefruit or lime peel, anise, angelica root, orris root, licorice root, cinnamon, almonds, dragon’s eye, saffron, baobab, frankincense, coriander, grains of paradise, nutmeg, cassia bark and plenty other ingredients.
With all the work that goes into gin, it’s a shame to dilute it with mixers. But don’t do it for the gin makers. Try it neat, and find out why the most notorious scourge of the 18th century is now considered among the most refined and dignified of spirits.
One thing you should know before you get into the world of gin is that you will be bombarded with cutesy anachronisms and Britishisms. The “bathtub” in the name goes back to Prohibition, when gin was literally made in bathtubs. And the company that produces it anthropomorphizes itself as Professor Cornelius Ampleforth, with this self-description “Madcap creator of unique, small-batch spirits including the world famous Bathtub Gin!” But forget all that, because this is a superior spirit that should be tasted. Juniper is the main flavor ingredient for all gins, and it makes its presence well known here right from the start. It’s joined in the powerful nose by orange peel and cardamom. Unlike many, even the best, gins, it’s bourbon creamy, almost oily. The finish is also juniper-heavy, with more orange peel and cinnamon with several different floral and spice tone chiming in. Try this in a snifter to really appreciate the nose, and before dinner.
The Botanist Islay Dry Gin
There are two things to know about this gin: that it’s from Islay — yes, the Islay that’s famous for its scotch — and that it deserves its name, the Botanist. In gin-speak, botanicals are any plant-derived ingredients that add flavor. And, the Botantist uses no fewer than 31 of them, many of which have names that sound like Harry Potter characters (bog myrtle) or exotic dancers (sweet cicely), and 22 of which are hand-picked in Islay by a pair of local botanists. So it’s not like they’re cutting corners. It immediately comes clear in the nose that this is special stuff. There are several different types of floral scents, coupled with mint and both lemon and grapefruit. Wow. The citrus continues on the tongue, with cool mint giving way to an alcohol and spice burn. And it finishes long, like a whisky, with spice and more floral tones. I like this one as a sipper and conversation-starter completely unattached to food because of its subtle flavor. Try it late at night, with people you like.
Monkey 47 Dry Gin
Gin from Germany? Yep. Seems there was a British serviceman who was stationed in Germany after the Second World War, and he was so moved by the area’s devastation that he vowed to help rebuild. First, he sponsored a monkey at the zoo. Then he opened a pub, and, finally, a distillery. The result is that Germany has made a multiple-award winning gin, certainly one that has to be in any discussion as among the best in the world. So you know where the monkey part comes from. The 47 comes from the 47 botanicals used (including cranberries and pimentos), as well as the fact that the final product is 47 percent alcohol. The nose is so complex that I was still picking out scents on the fourth try. It’s the same story with the taste, but I found that it started out heavily with orange peel and tart berry, and was followed by wood smoke and mint. This finish is similarly thick, but (perhaps thankfully), not as varied and complex. Have this after dinner or later and night and let it start the conversation (which should not include the concept of mixing).
Not to be outdone, Spain makes its own superb gin. And it involves some distinctly Mediterranean ingredients like olives, basil and rosemary — and some that are distinctly less Mediterranean ones like mandarin oranges. It’s an interesting gin, more floral than the others on this list. The nose is delicate, almost like perfume, but the taste is solid, with notes of berry and mint. It finishes with a dose of lemon peel and rosemary. Although a fine gin, it’s overly floral nature might not impress those without a palate for it. I’d save it for when you’d normally serve grappa, with which it shares several characteristics.
Filliers Dry Gin 28
This Belgian distiller had been making jenever — a pale yellow spirit most believe to be the forerunner of gin — for years before even thinking about making a gin. I’m glad they practiced, because it has allowed them to make a great gin. The nose is strongly influenced by its juniper, but it brings along orange peel and cinnamon. Thicker than most, the flavor is varied citrus with cardamom coming in with a strong juniper reprise. It finishes with a slight alcohol burn. This is an accessible gin, one that can be used to introduce people to the joy of gin without any mix.
I’m glad that the only gin distilled in London — the city that made gin both famous and notorious — is worthy of being included among the best. Named after Ralph Dodd, the famous 18th century civil engineer who always dreamed of founding a London gin distillery, but never succeeded, it’s all organic with ingredients that include angelica, lime peel, cardamom, raspberry leaves, laurel and locally sourced honey. The result is a distinctive gin, one that loudly announces itself without apology or compromise. The roasted meat scent of laurel (also known as bay leaves) makes the nose enticing, and it’s accompanied by spices like cardamom and coriander. On the tongue, it’s nicely thick without being creamy or oily, and the citrus snap gives way to a much cooler honey back end. And then it finishes with lime and maybe just a touch of berry. I like to think that this is gin like my Cockney great-grandparents drank — if they had good taste, that is.