I can remember when, if you wanted gin, the choice was between Gordon's, Beefeater or a dubious generic label. That seems like a long time ago; there are now hundreds of brands to choose from. And not just in gin's heartlands in Britain, America and Spain. There are also Italian gins and French gins, Australian and German gins. There are gins aged in oak and gins so delicately flavored that they are closer to vodka. Your gin might be made from rye, grape spirit or potatoes.
All over the world—in Los Angeles, Madrid, Barcelona, New York and London—there are bars that sell nothing but gin. So in preparation for World Gin Day on June 11th, I thought I'd have a chat with the experts at the London Gin Club in Soho to learn more about this ever expanding world. This place used to be called the Star Cafe, and it was frequented by bohemian artists such as the late Sebastian Horsley. About four years ago, after the original owner died, his daughter Julia Forte converted it into a gin palace. Happily, she's kept the retro decor intact.
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They stock over 100 types of gin. What all of them have in common is juniper—but gin is also flavored with other so-called botanicals, such as cardamom, orange peel, anise and coriander seed. As long as you have juniper, then pretty much anything goes. Forte went on to tell me about the three European legal categories. If it just says 'gin' on the label then the flavors can be artificial. You are basically buying flavored vodka. The next step up is 'distilled gin,' where the flavor comes from distilling botanicals, but things like essential oils can still be added afterwards. Finally there is 'London dry,' which doesn't have to be from London or indeed particularly dry. The key thing is that nothing can be added after distillation except water and sugar.
There's also American Dry Gin, not a legal category, which tends to be lighter on juniper and heavier on other botanicals than London dry. You might also see Old Tom, which refers to a sweet style of gin that almost disappeared after the Second World War but is now enjoying a resurgence. It's useful for recreating classic 19th century cocktails such as the Martinez. The gin revival goes hand-in-hand with the explosion of interest in the classic cocktails like the Martini and the Negroni.
Gin is now a very broad church. Forte told me about "German distillers who are skilled at making herbal liqueurs," and consequently their gins are reminiscent of traditional German drinks. Meanwhile, she says, "Americans bring a whiskey mentality," so the spirit itself takes center stage in contrast to a British gin, where it simply provides a neutral backdrop to the botanicals. Gone are the days when you only need one bottle of gin in your house.
Here are 9 to whet your appetite:
1. Malfy Gin, $29.99
This is made in Salerno in Southern Italy, near Amalfi—hence the name. The producers claim that gin was actually invented here by monks in the 11th century. The area is also famous for its lemons; it's therefore not a surprise that Malfy tastes like a gin morphing into a limoncello. It works brilliantly in a gin & tonic with a good squeeze of lemon. Careful mixing it though, I found that it didn't really work with Campari.
2. G'Vine Floraison, $29
Another unconventional one. This is made in the Cognac region of France from grape brandy. It's really rather pretty, with floral grassy notes like you'd expect to find in unaged cognac. It makes a stunning martini with a good dry vermouth - Regal Rogue perhaps. The juniper is very subtle, so some brands of tonic water will overpower it.
3. Perry's Tot Navy Strength Gin, $29.99
This is a classic example of the new American style. The spirit is very noticeable; you can smell a sweet cereal note on the nose. There's masses of juniper on the palate, it's fiery and peppery but smooth. Makes a killer Negroni.
4. Bluecoat American Dry Gin, $22.99
Another American one, this has a very fresh nose with cucumber and grassy notes. Then there's a thick oily texture—that's the American spirit feel—with layers of pepper and juniper. Classy stuff. It's a consummate mixer or superb almost on its own in a very dry martini.
5. Beefeater London Dry Gin, $17.99
For me the apotheosis of the London style. Lovely nose with notes of orange and juniper. Light, refreshing spirit, peppery with a good dose of juniper. It's one of the world's best-selling gins and yet the quality is extremely high. Don't overlook Beefeater.
6. Sipsmith London Dry Gin, $34.99
Sipsmith were pioneers at introducing small-scale distilling to London back in 2009. Where they led many followed, and now the capital is awash with companies putting the London back into London Dry Gin. It's hard to beat Sipsmith, though. This is a smooth, zesty, classic gin that makes the perfect all-rounder.
7. Xoriguer Mahon, Pogo's $49.99
Produced on the island of Menorca since the early 20th century, this is one of the world's great gins. It's made from brandy and matured in oak barrels. Gin is hugely popular on the mainland too. The Spanish take their gin and tonics very seriously, always using plenty of gin, plenty of ice, fresh limes, and the minimum amount of tonic.
8. Edinburgh Gin, $26.99
Scotland is a hotbed of gin distillation—you might not know it, but that classic 'London' gin, Tanqueray, is distilled there—so it's nice to see a brand proudly trumpeting its Scottish origins. I loved the warm, spicy notes in this one rounded off with a little lemon zest bitterness.
9. Monkey 47, $43 for a half-bottle
This one demonstrates Forte's point about German gins. It has over 47 botanicals and the dominant note for me was aniseed rather than juniper. It's a fascinating drop and makes a cracking if unorthodox G&T, but it's another you have to be careful with when making cocktails. I can see that aniseed note clashing with bitter drinks.