Beer, Wine & Spirits

Bartender, make me something with gin

Gin is on a comeback.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

If gin isn't among your go-to drinks, it may be time to give it another try.

Gin usually sees a popularity surge in summer—gin & tonics, Tom Collins and other classics—but it's also experiencing a less-seasonal renaissance on cocktail menus and a stronger presence on liquor store shelves, thanks to the craft distilling boom.

"There's a massive amount of potential, and we've just started in the past year or so to see some really, really interesting products coming on to the market," said Nima Ansari, spirit buyer and sales manager for New York City's Astor Wines and Spirits. "It's turned into a category of, there's something for everyone." Even those who might normally give gin a wide berth.

"There's always some weird hesitancy toward gin," said Matt Tocco, beverage director for Pinewood Social, a bar and restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee. Some people think of it as something their grandparents drank, he said, while the juniper flavor has left others with a bad taste in their mouths from earlier drinking experiences.

"Contemporary gins are getting away from the big London dry, juniper-heavy styles," he said. "You can use them as a gateway to get more people to like gin." (See chart below for a list—by no means exhaustive—of expert picks. Click on the drink names to see the recipe.)

Craft gins: On comeback trail
Craft gins: On comeback trail
Craft gins: Accent aged
Craft gins: Accent aged
Craft gins: The cocktail classic
Craft gins: The cocktail classic
Craft gins: Brooklyn Gin
Craft gins: Brooklyn Gin
Craft gins: The right mixture
Craft gins: The right mixture
Craft gins: St. Georges
Craft gins: St. Georges

What's in style

Some play down the juniper in favor of citrus, spice and floral notes, styles often called American Dry or Western. Others incorporate nontraditional botanicals, such as the hibiscus in New York Distilling Company's "Dorothy Parker" American gin, or the lingonberries in Monkey 47, a dry style from Germany's Black Forest Distillers. Several gin makers have a locavore angle, pulling flavor profile from what grows nearby. (Or on site, as in the case of Caledonia Spirits in Vermont, which uses its own honey and wild juniper in Barr Hill gins. "We're a farm-to-bottle distillery," said founder Todd Hardie.) Still others are resurrecting historical gin styles like Old Tom, a slightly sweeter spirit that's a link between London Dry and Dutch Genever.

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Gin is rarely aged, but a few distillers are barrel-aging theirs, creating a crossover style that can appeal to whiskey drinkers. "We end up with a gin that's very heavy on wood flavor," said Paul Hletko, founder of Few Spirits in Evanston, Illinois. "A lot of people are getting very excited about that combo."

Behind the boom

Among craft distillers, gin's popularity is second only to whiskey. Of the 874 spirits listed in the American Distilling Institute's database, 146 fall into the gin category, versus 99 vodkas, 89 rums, 81 brandies, and 69 moonshines. Whiskeys have the lead, with 318.

Part of the gin push is logistical: Distillers need income while their whiskeys and other brown spirits age. Clear spirits such as vodka or gin are comparatively quick-to-produce. Plus, high-end gin is proving popular on the consumer side. Sales of premium gin rose 5 percent in volume from 2012 to 2013, with revenues up 6.3 percent over the same period, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

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Gin is also a spirit that lets small-scale distillers get creative. "We don't have the economies of scale that the big guys have, so we can't compete on price," said Lance Winters, master distiller at St. George Spirits in Alameda, California. "We have to be able to stand out in the glass." The St. George line includes Terroir, which (hence its name), uses offbeat botanicals such as day laurel and pine to recreate the aromatics of one of Winters's favorite local parks, and Dry Rye, which eschews a neutral base spirit for a spicier un-aged rye whiskey.

That's OK under flexible laws defining gin. For comparison, to be called "bourbon," the federal code on labeling and advertising requires distillers to meet specifics on mash ingredients and quantity, and the distilling and aging processes. For some spirits, state laws may also apply.

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Gin requirements are less constraining. It must "derive its main characteristic flavor from juniper berries and be bottled at not less than 80 proof," according to federal guidelines. Regulations do not specify how much and of what other botanicals might be included, and allow for several methods of botanical inclusion and distilling processes.

"It's how they treat these botanicals that gives a lot of the distinctive flavor," said Pennfield Jensen, executive director of the American Craft Distilling Association. "That's where we're seeing a lot of innovation."

Craft gins to try

Spirit Price point
Aviation Gin$27.99
Barr Hill Gin$42.99
Barr Hill Tom Cat Barrel Aged Gin$59.96
Citadelle Reserve$32.99
Berkshire Mountain Greylock Gin$29.99
Botanist Islay Dry Gin$39.99
Breuckelen Distilling Glorious Gin$31.99
Brooklyn Gin$41.99
Few Spirits Barrel Aged$32.99
Greenhook Ginsmiths Beach Plum Gin Liqueur$49.99
Greenhook Ginsmiths Dry Gin$31.99
Letherbee Gin$32.99
Monkey 47 (half-bottle)$45.99
New York Distilling Company Chief Gowanus Gin$35.99
New York Distilling Company Dorothy Parker Gin$29.99
St. George Dry Rye Gin$32.99
St. George Terroir Gin$32.99

Greenhook Ginsmiths in Brooklyn uses vacuum distillation, a process that removes air pressure from the still, distilling the gin at a lower temperature. "That prevents the delicate aromas from getting stewed off," said founder Steve DeAngelo. As a result, the company's flagship American Dry has a bolder flavor profile that showcases citrus, ginger, coriander and other botanicals, as well as the requisite juniper.

Expect even more unusual takes in the future. Winters has been mulling a take on sloe gin—traditionally a liqueur of gin and sloes (the plum-like fruit of the blackthorn tree)—using ume, an Asian plum. "Sloe gin has been well covered," he said. "I don't think we can enter a category unless we have a new, distinct point of view on it." At Few Spirits, tropical flavors could be in the mix. "At the moment, we're playing with a pineapple and coconut gin," said Hletko. "It shouldn't work, but it does."

Shake, serve, sip

Contemporary gins require shaking up cocktail recipes, too. (Check out the video interactive above to see Brad Nugent, wine and beverage director for Center Bar in New York, prepare cocktails that make the most of new gin styles.)

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With flavor profiles that emphasize other botanicals and citrus, there's an opportunity to pair gin with a wider variety of ingredients that would normally be overpowered by, or clash with, the juniper, said Jeff Faile, bar and spirits director at Iron Gate in Washington, D.C. "You can pick up part of the gin's flavor profile and build your cocktail around that," he said.

Whiskey notes in the barrel-aged gins make them work in drinks that normally call for a brown spirit (think of a sazerac or an old-fashioned. And of course, they're a natural in classic gin cocktails such as a martini, negroni or gin & tonic, said Alexander Stein, founder of Monkey 47. "I like, for my gin, for the gin to stand out," he said. (See sidebar for some tricks to a better G&T.)

When in doubt, ask. "Pick the bartender's brain a bit about some of the gins behind the bar," said Zack Kameron, sommelier at A Voce Columbus in New York City. "Experiment. We're in a period of the greatest gin renaissance."