At one time, gin was such a ubiquitous liquor it would have been unthinkable to talk about a comeback for the white spirit. What did the drink of both society sophsticates and college sophomores have to come back from?
Then came the Vodka Age.
The virtually global acceptance of vodka as a one-for-one substitute for gin in mixed drinks and as a standalone drink in flavor-infused styles has in the past two decades sent gin reeling.
Last year, Americans drank about four times as much vodka as gin.
Gin was one of the earliest spirits many of us tried, usually as a gin-and-juice drink that made some of the cheaper brands more palatable.
Some of the old brands still are hanging in there, particularly Bombay, the English distiller whose Sapphire is the top-selling gin in the U.S. But, like vodkas, there seems to be a new brand daily vying for limited store shelf space. All are trying to differentiate themselves from the pack while tamping down the traditional juniper flavor.
Aviation, for example, is a lavender-touched brand cooked up in the Pacific Northwest. Old Raj, from Scotland, has more of the traditional juniper notes but with a distinct element of saffron. Hendrick’s, another Scottish gin, touts its cucumber taste.
Incrementally, gin is coming back through better marketing and less reliance on generations-old traditions.
Gins are, essentially, vodka in that each is at the start a neutral grain spirit. Under U.S. law, gin "shall derive its main characteristic flavor from juniper berries," so it needs the addition of botanicals to be complete.
Conversely, basic vodka must be colorless, odorless and tasteless — which makes one wonder why lawmakers think anyone would adhere to the letter of that law.
While vodka distillers tend to use only a few extra flavors in lengthening their product line, gin distillers use a global shopping list to fill their complicated recipes — juniper, citrus, almond, licorice, orris root, coriander, angelica, cassia bark, cardamom and more.
I recently spent time with Sean Harrison, keeper of a coveted two-century-old gin recipe as master distiller for Plymouth Gin, the English favorite that won "best of show/white spirit" at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition last summer, which means it topped all gins and vodkas.
Harrison is a gin man through and through, but he admits there are some very good vodkas on the market that are huge hurdles for gin to clear in its comeback. However, he wryly notes of the continual tinkering with vodka recipes, "If they keep on going, pretty soon they’ll invent gin."
Packaging also has become more important than ever in the battle for consumer attention. Martin Miller’s, for example, and Plymouth each have new sleek, sharp-angled, clear glass bottles with traditional royal blue labels.
Plymouth, which has a clear, light aromatic nose, medium body, and plenty of up-front juniper with a spicy finish, retained its traditional sailing ship logo in its new design.
Miller’s, which carries the name of the British designer, is a wonderful combination of citrus and juniper that reminded me of a stroll in a forest. The bottle traces the manufacturing of the gin, from small-bitch distillation in England to shipping the distillate to Iceland to be blended with spring water.
Not all packaging is restrained and clean. Citadelle, a luscious French entry, has a heavily decorated bottle that supports its botanical barrage recipe, trumpeting its 19 flavoring ingredients.
In purchasing gin, avoid the cheaper priced offerings. Good botanicals cost good money, and the retail prices should reflect that. Cheaper gins tend to be flavored with oils and essences. Better gins use fresh botanicals.
A good tipoff is the use of the terms "distilled gin," "London dry gin" and "dry gin," all of which can be used only if the gin has been flavored through redistillation rather than simply dumping in flavorings and mixing them up.
The best distillers are the pickiest shoppers.
(William M. Dowd covers the world of adult beverages at billdowd.com)
c.2007 Hearst Newspapers