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Shades of Juniper

Shades of Juniper
Photos by Andrew Cebulka


“James Bond killed the martini,” a friend asserted recently in emphatic protest.

“Sacrilege,” retorted another.

We were discussing the merits of gin over gin cocktails at (appropriately) The Gin Joint, an intimate, dimly lit Charleston cubbyhole known for its creative cocktails and snub of all things vodka.

Classic martini lovers bemoan the moment 007 ordered his first (gulp) vodka martini onscreen. Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, was reportedly a bottle-of-gin-a-day man before switching to bourbon for “health” reasons (ahem). Perhaps we’ll never know why he scripted a vodka martini in his 1953 Casino Royale. In the span of Fleming’s writings, Bond’s vodka martinis outnumber his gin martinis by three.

Bond made vodka sexy, opening the door to the Russian takeover of our distilled spirit world and setting our liquid trajectory on a collision course with all manner of so-called “martinis”: the appletini, chocolate martini, cosmo, and a cornucopia of vodka-based sugary drinks served in martini glasses in which the alcohol is completely obscured. Yes, Bond was a double agent, so perhaps his nod to Russia was perfectly in character, but he effectively ripped the rug out from under a British classic. Did gin deserve it? That depends on whom you ask.

People claim gin “makes them mean,” “makes them cry,” they “just can’t handle it,” or they’re even “allergic” to it. How could this be? After all, gin is nothing but a neutral spirit infused with natural botanicals.

Photos by Andrew Cebulka
Swan Song / Photo by Andrew Cebulka

What’s not to love?

Somewhere along the line, according to Scott Blackwell of High Wire Distillery in Charleston, South Carolina, many big gin makers went the way of TV dinners, taking shortcuts in the name of cost and efficiency, homogenizing our palates, producing gins that hang on you like an extract-based air freshener. Eschewing quality ingredients, they reduced gin to something tasting like Pinesol-scented lighter fluid as opposed to a small-batch, craft-distilled, high-quality gin with an intoxicatingly smooth, fragrant, floral nectar.

If you think you don’t like gin, chances are you simply haven’t gotten your hands on the right one. Perhaps you’ve been sourcing gin from the bottom shelf, which can equate to nothing more than a mixture of volatile vapors (including methanol and acetone) injected with “essence of juniper.” No wonder it gives you a headache. Perhaps you equate gin with an overzealous college experience in which you drank X glasses of said bottom-shelf turpentine mixed with cheap tonic or high fructose corn syrup “fruit” juice. Ah, memories.

“We call that a B.G.E.,” chuckles John Little, vice president and head distiller at West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler Spirits. “A bad gin experience!” It’s enough to make you swear gin off for a couple of years, or decades. But here’s the good news: gin has changed. No offense to the British, but there has been a second American Revolution of sorts, beginning with a small Philadelphia distillery in 2006 (Bluecoat Gin), spreading to the West Coast (Aviation American Gin), and now taking firm root in the South where craft distillers are reinterpreting gin with a variety of botanicals and making it more palatable for the public.

“I’m not knocking the big boys: the Tanquerays and Bombay Sapphires of the world,” says Little. “Those guys make consistent gin every day, but it’s that London/British-style gin with a really strong over-the-top, in-your-face juniper note.” By definition, gin is an alcohol flavored predominantly with juniper berries, “gin” being short for genièvre (French), jenever (Dutch), and ginepro(Italian), all meaning “juniper.”

“What most small-craft distillers in America have done,” says Little, “is to redefine gin as we know it. We call it New World gin or American-style gin, which is a lot less juniper-forward.” In other words, while any gin must by definition contain juniper, other botanicals are being allowed their moment to sing. Juniper didn’t get pulled off stage left, he just got knocked back into the chorus.

Rick Wasmund, owner of the Copper Fox Distillery at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in upper Virginia, likens gin to a symphony. “In our gin, juniper is the base section. Then the brass includes citrus (organic orange and lime peel) and star anise and angelica root for a licorice twist. Then you need some accompaniment from a number of other things, and that’s where our coriander, cardamom, lemongrass, lemon balm, and borage come in. Then finally you need some high notes, and for us that can be fresh mint, chamomile, or honeysuckle. We’re thinking about doing a seasonal release with an accent of apple blossoms.”

Wasmund uses a combination of techniques to draw the essential oils out of his botanicals. First, he macerates, or soaks, certain botanicals in an undiluted spirit for three days, much like steeping tea. Those botanicals are then removed in their big cheesecloth bag and placed in a “gin basket,” which sits above the spirit in a pot still. As the alcohol heats, it creates a cool steam (cooler than water steam because alcohol boils at a lower point than water) which rises through the soaked botanicals and permeates fresh botanicals placed at the very top of the gin basket. The steam essentially dances its way through plants, herbs, and spices, seducing and luring their aromatics into its own profile. The vapors then condense, turn back into a liquid form, and distill into a pungent, high-proof gin, which then gets diluted into something more drinkable.

Swan Song / Photo by Andrew Cebulka

Not everyone does it the same way, but that’s the beauty of gin. Nuances in botanical mixes and in technique result in highly individualized flavors. For example, at Copper Fox in Virginia, Wasmund malts his own locally sourced barley to use as a base spirit, then uses both maceration and gin baskets to capture the flavor of his botanicals. At Smooth Ambler in West Virginia, Little distills his own vodka out of corn, wheat, and malted barley and uses that sweet, creamy vodka as a base spirit, choosing the gin basket technique with no maceration. “So it’s like making tea,” says Little, “if you suspended the tea bag over the pot instead of submersing it in the water. It makes for a lighter, less in-your-face spirit.”

The Corsair spirits team, with distilleries in both Nashville, Tennessee, and Bowling Green, Kentucky, essentially launched the Southern gin movement in 2009 when their flagship clear gin won a gold medal at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition. To create that gin (which is different in style from some other gins they are now developing), they chose not to soak the botanicals but instead to layer them in a carter-head (a type of gin basket column) “like lasagna,” says Clay Smith, distillery manager. “First we put down fresh cucumber, then add the dry botanicals in between fresher botanicals with additional layers of cucumber. The seasonality of the cucumbers makes a difference. End of summer is probably the very best time to make gin, because we source these big, huge, juicy cucumbers from a couple of friends with organic farms nearby.”

Next on the horizon: barrel-aged gin. The Corsair guys played with the idea of taking their clear gin and resting it in barrels that previously contained spiced rum. The result won them yet another gold medal in the 2011 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Barrel aging is adding a new dimension to the world of gin, intoning smooth, sweet, soft, buttery notes of bourbon, smoke, or vanilla into an already tasty spirit. In Austin, Texas, the folks at Treaty Oak Distilling have produced a mind-blowingly good barrel-rested gin under their Waterloo label. From start to finish, Waterloo’s Antique Barrel Reserve Gin has a Texas stamp.

“Our gin has a really strong juniper backbone,” says Daniel Barnes of Treaty Oak. “We thought that represented the strength of Texas and the dirt that Texas is known for.” In addition to more commonly used botanicals such as lemon and lime zest, anise, coriander, licorice root, and ginger root, Barnes added local Texas accents of lavender, grapefruit peel, and pecans to the distillation process of their clear gin—vapor distilled (not soaked) in what he calls a “gin nest,” the pecans giving the gin a sweet underlying flavor that ties everything else together.

For his Barrel Reserve Gin, Barnes places the clear gin into American white oak barrels, then combines younger barrels (aged one year) with older barrels (aged eighteen months to two years). “We did that because at one year, you still get some of the lighter, more floral botanicals, and at two years those are all gone but there’s this deep cinnamon-nutmeg-clove  flavor. We wanted those two to play together, so we blended them. We didn’t want one-dimensional aging. Aging gin is like a doctor’s graph that’s all over the place: here’s where the juniper comes back stronger; here’s where the rosemary disappears; here’s when cloves come in and cinnamon comes in. It bounces all over the place.”

In Jackson, Mississippi, when Cathead Distillery owner Richard Patrick got married, he asked Phillip Ladner, his master distiller, to develop a gin as a wedding gift for his bride’s grandfather, an avid gin drinker. Ladner got down to business, macerating and distilling various botanicals individually in small batches, then carefully blending them back together to reach his ideal flavor profile.

“It’s a lot like pitching a tent,” says Ladner, whose Napa Valley wine background taught him plenty about making a blend. “First you put your stakes down [in this case, Bulgarian juniper], then you start to build it up on the four sides [coriander, cardamom, angelica root, lemon verbena], then you slowly get the tent up [sweet orange peel, cinnamon], then you tie it down [Ladner uses a rare botanical called hyssop for earthy notes].” Once he gets the flavor profile just right, he redistills the gin. The result was such a hit with Patrick’s new in-laws that Bristow Gin was born.

Ladner is now planning to age the gin in New American oak, and to experiment with different vibrations to influence the aging process. As with aging whisky, agitation to the barrel may affect the ultimate flavor. “There are winemakers all over the world who play music to their barrels. Some play straight opera or strictly Beethoven. They say wine has a life, its own little soul. We’ll play around with our gin. We’ll leave one alone, put some big speakers behind another, play some blues to it [this is Mississippi, after all], and see what happens.”

Photo by Andrew Cebulka  
Gin Varietals created through unique mixture of botanicals and spices / Photo by Andrew Cebulka

Back here in Charleston, South Carolina, Hat Trick Gin, launched by Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall of High Wire Distillery, is a nod to Blackwell’s childhood obsession with old magic books and Houdini posters.

“Gin is a sort of sleight of hand,” explains Blackwell, “lots of smoke and mirrors if you will, because people will sit there and say there is a hint of spearmint when there’s no spearmint in it at all. That’s cool because it’s like wine: grapes don’t have vanilla or blackberry in them, but that flavor comes through from the wine and the oak. The combination of these things can make your palate interested. Gin is very complex. It’s a real foodie spirit.”

As for Bond’s vodka martinis, do they have a future?

“I’ve had my share of vodka in my life, so I’m not a complete snob, and we actually make a good vodka, so vodka certainly has its place,” says Blackwell, “but there are many more interesting things out there to try. If you talk to prominent bartenders around town who expend their energy making drinks, they can make a great-tasting cocktail with gin that has many layers and interesting parts to it. I think the resurgence of gin drinks is good for everybody. American gin is just now getting its day.”

Bartender Hallie Arnold of The Grocery in Charleston, SC, is always searching for inspiration, whether it comes as fresh produce, exotic fruit juices or dried flowers from the local Asian market. Arnold has high esteem for gin as a cocktail spirit. “You can take any vodka-based cocktail, switch vodka out for gin, and change it up for the better.” All gin cocktails in this article were crafted by Arnold.

By Any Other Name

Doctor’s Orders

French 75

Gin and Tonic

Gin Martinez

Gin Old-Fashioned Splash

Swan Song

Mentioned in this post:
Hallie Arnold