Posted on | May 1, 2011
Written by | Jack Robertiello
You must have been napping if you’ve missed the recent gin explosion. Many are emerging as a result of the growth of the American craft distiller movement, but the Old World, too, is contributing its share of new iterations to what’s been seen by some as a stodgy old gin mix. To Americans who easily embrace the new, it may seem odd but among aficionados this wave of gins, skewing away from the juniper bite of a London dry style, has caused some consternation. Listen to what one gin maker told me late last year: “Gin has to predominantly have the nose and taste of juniper, yet some of the gins coming on the market at the moment really don’t meet that criteria, and this is quite a concern.”
That’s something you’d expect to hear from makers of a classic gin. But when even Lesley Gracie, one of the distillers of the most successful of the newer gins, Hendrick’s, points out the impact of brands spiked with more citrus, spice and floral flavors, then it’s clear we’ve entered uncharted territory. Hendrick’s, after all, helped pioneer the style of gins in which unusual ingredients (rose and cucumber) surged to the forefront.
Gin purists may not like it very much, but there is definitely a new world of gin on the rise. The impact of the citrusy New Amsterdam, which has quickly broken through to near the top of the American-made chart, shows that consumers are open to embracing new flavor profiles in their gins.
“Over the past two years, the gin category has been impacted by the global economic downturn. However, we believe that gin is well positioned for long-term growth due in part to increasing consumer demand for traditional cocktails,” says Gerard Thoukis, New Amsterdam’s director of marketing. “Modern gins such as New Amsterdam, with its balanced citrus and angelica notes, will continue to fuel growth in the category as consumers and bartenders seek more interesting, flavorful and balanced white spirits.”
Long defined by the potent London dry style, gin today is undergoing a modern makeover stimulated by a variety of factors: attention to the category as an important ingredient in classic cocktails, tinkering by distillers large and small with new recipes and the unabashed American cocktail culture’s interest in broader flavor profiles. But some of these gins, widely dubbed “New Western,” are so low in juniper that it’s hard for a seasoned drinker to think of them as gin at all.
Toby Cecchini, a New York-based bartender and consultant who recently spent an afternoon tasting 35+ gins, notes that the new gins and expressions from familiar brands like Beefeater, that now offer Beefeater 24 and Beefeater Summer and Beefeater Winter seasonal varieties, have significantly broadened the range of forward botanicals, mostly in terms of floral and citrus notes: “The ones that work best, in whatever cocktail you make, need to have structure and balance, and some of the new ones don’t really have that. But those that push the boundaries of what we think of as gin might make very interesting cocktail ingredients.”
Scott Clime, beverage director for D.C. Coast and other Passion Food restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area, echoes Cecchini’s point. “To make a gin martini for someone who has never tried one, these new gins are ideal,” he shares. The softer, low juniper gins are a lot more approachable for new drinkers, and he finds it easier to come up with new drinks with gins without the big juniper bite.
JOINING THE GAME
Two recent high profile gins show that European distillers are just as interested in expanding or at least competing in the gin game. From the family who created Ketel One comes Nolet’s Silver, notably made with raspberries, roses and peaches. Also new is No. 3, produced for Berry Bros. and Rudd in London in very much a classic style but with a touch of grapefruit peel.
In the U.S., brands like Death’s Door from Wisconsin and Bluecoat from Philadelphia have joined California’s Blade, and No. 209 gins, as well as Right from Sweden, as new favorites since many bars are taking them on, if for no other reason, than to differentiate bar programs.
Maybe this change is overdue. It’s been a while since gin has seen major growth: According to numbers released by DISCUS from 2010, gin as a category was down 2.6 % in all price categories except for the super-premium level, which shot up 9.2%. Revenue was up an even higher percentage on the super-premium end, where many of the newer gins are selling.
“NEW WESTERN” COCKTAILS
Among newer gin brands, those like Bulldog, Nolet’s and Farmer’s Organic, executives in charge are upbeat that the wave of interest in all sorts of gin variations will bode well for them.
“Farmer’s Organic Gin made with elderflower and lemongrass, has been successful both on-premise and off-premise because it offers gin drinkers a uniquely delicious taste with wonderful flavors that complement and enhance the juniper,” says Joseph Magliocco, president of Chatham Imports, which includes Farmer’s in its portfolio.
Aware of the impact that mixologists have had on the category, Farmer’s has worked with Alexei Beratis of Town in Boston, Daniel Hyatt of the Alembic in San Francisco and others who “have shown us how to make Farmer’s Gin cocktails in delicious ways we never would have imagined,” Magliocco adds.
Anshuman Vohra, CEO and founder of Bulldog, a London import made with a botanical mix that includes lotus and poppy, says the attention of mixologists is key to any gin’s success: “The creative cocktail movement allows people to be introduced to gin’s versatility and experience it as an alternative to other spirits. In fact, our suggested spring/summer cocktails feature a bevy of ways to spice up the gin & tonic using ingredients such as lemon curd, licorice or lavender—each represents a different botanical infused in Bulldog Gin—which helps expand the consumer’s palate for drinking gin.”
As Vohra notes, there’s still a stigma associated with gin which is taking some time to counter. But the heavy lifting already started in the early part of the decade, when two English brand ambassadors made it their task to rejuvenate the category.
Over the last decade, Pernod Ricard’s Simon Ford and William Grant’s Charlotte Voisey, both built their gin brands (Plymouth and Hendrick’s respectively) through close contact with mixologists via tastings, seminars, competitions and events. In fact, the two of them have revolutionized not just gin marketing, but spirit representation altogether, as many brands now employ full-or part-time spokespeople who work almost exclusively with bartenders.
Ford, who now works for Pernod Ricard on Plymouth, Beefeater and Absolut Vodka as director of trade outreach and brand education, has been hosting an annual gin symposium tour and arranges international bartender exchanges that boost the image of gin not only for the Pernod brands but for the category as a whole. With brand extensions like Beefeater 24—made with green tea and grapefruit—Beefeater Summer and Beefeater Winter, Pernod has been able to cast a modern light on its classic Beefeater brand.
Even rivals praise the work Ford and Voisey have done. Ryan Magarian of Portland, OR-based Aviation Gin, a product of House Spirits, notes that the model Ford used, targeting bartender tastemakers who can build case sales while sharing details of the brand’s history and points of difference, have built the brand to the point that Magarian himself puts a Plymouth drink on every menu he creates.
Likewise, Tanqueray has increased the presence of its three gin brands—the standard bottling, No. 10 and Rangpur—by engaging another UK bartender, Angus Winchester, as global brand ambassador. Last summer, he went on the road to gather more than 200 unique recipe twists on the gin & tonic interacting directly on behalf of the brand with scores of bartenders across the country. “Consumers are looking for cocktails with character, and we’ve always believed that Tanqueray’s rich, complex profile lends perfectly to mixing both classics and new interesting mixes,” says a Tanqueray spokesperson.
The work of the newer gins has increased the pressure on all brands to be active in the field. “The response from our mixology community has been unbelievable,” says Carl Nolet Jr., 11th generation Nolet family member and executive VP of Nolet Spirits U.S.A. “The bartenders/mixologists are extremely crucial to the success of Nolet’s Silver as they serve as the true ambassadors for the brand. It’s their recommendations and unique Nolet’s creations at the bar that help us reach this new generation of drinkers who are looking to experience a modern take on a classic category. By inspiring the bartenders through education and trial, we in turn inspire the consumers.”
The new gins if nothing else are creating a buzz about the category. “I think gin is going to come back as the flavor profiles stand out, and people pick them for the differences,” says Michelle Madigow, co-owner of the bar Licorous in Seattle, which carries more gins (13) than vodkas. “People are going to catch on that these are smaller production products and going to start asking for them as different flavor profiles.”
With customers welcoming the return of gin, especially in strong, stirred cocktails, they’re willing to expand their own notions of what a gin is, she says. That willingness has helped her sell a rotating list of house-infused gins she makes—recently, she included a Meyer lemon-infused Bombay in her infusion flight.
“As far as I’m concerned if you’ve got Beefeater, Plymouth and Tanqueray, they are the classics and there’s no reason to try to get close to them. We wanted a gin that was equally delicious but entirely different than London dry,” says Magarian, highlighting Aviation’s sarsaparilla, anise and lavender notes. While there are rules about juniper levels in London dry gins, new variations, he says, need to be significantly different in order to get traction.
GIN’S NEW CONSUMERS
Newer gins may also be helping attract younger consumers into the fold. Says Clime,“My generation’s exposure to gin wasn’t always a good one, but right now, bartenders are going back to the classics when gin was the spirit of choice and they’re concentrating on the quality of ingredients.” Clime notes that when he and others of the current generation of bartenders started their careers, gin was served two ways: with tonic or in a martini. “We didn’t realize how versatile it could be in cocktails like the Aviation, Martinez and others,” he adds.
Vesatile, and with different flavor profiles, gin has caught on for flight service. At Licorous, a recent flight included Martin Miller’s and the Austrian Monopolowa; at New Heights restaurant’s bar the Gin Joint in Washington, DC manager Amy Smoyer recently offered a flight of three gins connected to Holland—Bols Genever, the Dutch Damrak and New Amsterdam—to follow March’s small-batch American flight, which included Bluecoat from Philadelphia, Smooth Ambler from West Virginia and Ethereal from Massachusetts. Smoyer stocks 40 or so gins on her menu now, with notes highlighting the dominant botanicals in each: Bombay Sapphire is noted for angelica and cassia bark notes, Old Raj for saffron and orange peel and New Amsterdam for blood orange, blueberry and juniper.
Other gins have a different emphasis. For Aviation, makers looked to craft a gin reminiscent of Pacific Northwestern flavors, and Magarian suggested rich, savory, spicy and damp as the keynotes. Others tend to emphasize such spices as coriander and cardamom or floral notes like rose and honeysuckle.
To bolster her bar’s gin connection, Smoyer also carries five high-end commercial tonics and makes three of her own to serve with the gins: one made with grapefruit, another with orange flower water and lime and a third with cardamom, allspice and other baking spices. It’s that sort of sophisticated approach to an old-fashioned beverage that is helping bring gin back into a younger drinker’s portfolio. “It’s fun to teach people about the history of gin; introduce it and bring out some of its less likely components that people didn’t know they liked,” she says. “My favorite thing about the Gin Joint is changing people from gin haters to gin drinkers.”