Spotlight on Gin

Gin Renaissance

Gin begins its journey as a neutral spirit before being flavoured with juniper and a host of other herbs, spices, roots, flowers, seeds, and leaves. Differing in base materials, botanical recipes and distillation techniques, there is really no end to the combination of flavours that we can experience. The gin landscape is changing right in front of our eyes, under our noses, and on our palates.

In the past, gin had experienced some rough times and celebrated some good, from influencing the degradation of Victorian society to its relatively short-lived renaissance during the American Jazz Age. A proliferation of gin cocktails in the roaring 20s temporarily took the spirit to new heights of popularity, but vodka invaded and took the lion’s share of the market, while gin was all but forgotten. Skip ahead to early 2000, with a resurgence of cocktail culture, gin was back on track to regain some of the affection it had lost.

With so many people rediscovering gin, we would expect to see an unprecedented increase in global sales, but in fact its growth overall has been more subtle. What we are seeing is a sales increase in two segments of the gin category, Craft and Ultra-Premium. People are enjoying the adventure of new flavours and botanical balances, spawning a huge influx of new craft distilleries in the last few years — so many that the word ‘craft’ is now rather ill-defined. We are seeing distilleries starting to use terms such as `Independent’ and `Artisanal’ to help describe their operations and assert themselves in the market.

How does one differentiate a new emerging gin brand other than developing a fancy marketing campaign and endorsements from famous bartenders? One place to start is in the base material for the neutral spirit that will eventually become gin. Regardless of how neutral you try to make it, the base spirit will have some trace character from the original ingredient. Whether it is grain, fruit or vegetable, the options seem endless. The point is to flavour the base spirit with juniper and other botanicals, so coming up with a unique recipe is paramount to establishing an identity. Many purists insist on a dominance of juniper for a spirit to be called a gin. According to both the US and European official definitions of gin, this rule must be followed. However, as there is no governing body to enforce spirit categorization, there are some modern distillers that choose to put juniper in the background behind other botanicals. This leaves us with the traditional juniper-forward gin, and the modern, sometimes more approachable style featuring other, often unique botanicals. Then the distiller determines how to extract flavour from the ingredients, whether by maceration (hot or cold), or vapour infusion, which captures a more gentle expression. It only took one pioneer to mash the two distillation techniques together into one process, so now it is quite popular for small, independent distillers to use both maceration and vapour infusion simultaneously.

The strongest impact on defining the personality of a gin is in the botanical recipe. Distillers will often look for unique botanicals that will help their gin stand out in a competitive market. Let’s keep in mind that the point of it all is to produce a balanced gin, so hopefully along with highlighting unique botanicals, they don’t lose sight of the juniper. In the last few years, we have seen the use of lavender, hops, and Douglas Fir, along with cloudberry, crowberry, elderberry, rose and chamomile as well as mint, apple, bay laurel, honeysuckle, and pomelo. And it doesn’t stop there. How about seaweed, coconut, ginger, tarragon, rowanberries, and bog myrtle? One producer is even using some cream in the maceration along with citrus fruits before using cold distillation to remove any molecules that will degrade over time. The use of frankincense reminds me of Christmas stories, and the use of dragon eye, white poppy seeds, and lotus inspire other stories to be written. Saffron, savoury, tea leaves, truffles, and believe it or not, ants are all used to make gin.

It makes me wonder if some producers have gone too far. While striving to be unique, have they stepped too far away from the definition of gin? Or is gin meant to morph into something other than a juniper-forward spirit? I’ll look forward to seeing what is around the corner.