I thought we'd try a little something different. I'll admit that lately my mixing has tended toward the cheap and cheerful, relying on value brands and expedient highballs. Simplicity has its virtues, but it can make for uninspired writing, especially on a cocktail blog. Yeah, I've worked out my favorite brand of ginger beer (Reed's, by a mile) but I refuse to write the 10,000th post about the Moscow Mule.
Rather than being used in more creative pursuits, my collection of quality liquors has slowly gained a critical mass, where it suddenly feels almost sacrosanct to touch them. But I will happily accept an excuse to dip in and turn my drive for simplicity into an advantage. What's simpler than straight booze?
Now, okay, this is probably not all that simple. These are not all easy brands to find (I know, having spent weeks hunting for some of them at my local shops, and stumbling quite accidentally across others only to see them vanish from the shelves) and none are your standard London Dry. I enjoy them more for their character than for being a "perfect" gin and encourage you to seek them out, if only to broaden your concept of gin. I've mentioned most of these before and where applicable will point out various of my previous recipes that utilize them. It'll be fun, or at least a reasonable approximation.
So here we go, in no particular order:
#1: St. George Dry Rye
I've espoused this one several times before as a superbly unique creature, one that successfully finds its own niche between modern dry gins and the much older genever style. Its style really hits a spot I didn't know I had, and earns the title of my absolute favorite domestic gin. True to the name, the base spirit is copper pot-distilled 100% rye, which lends a spicy, malty flavor... like that of a good rye whiskey, unsurprisingly. More interesting is the botanical mix, which leads off with an extra dose of juniper, plus black pepper and only four other ingredients (!) designed to emphasize that juniper essence. All of this makes for a burly and assertive gin that maintains its distinct flavor in cocktails. I particularly like this in an old-fashioned or Double-Dry Martinez, where the modifiers complement but can't possibly overwhelm that intense peppery character, but it can also stand tall in less spirit-forward drinks. Raspberry syrup is an especially good choice to use in combination. Or, dispense with the cocktail frippery entirely and pour a shot for use in a kopstootje (which I often do).
#2: Tanqueray Malacca
I remember first reading about Malacca in Ted Haigh's seminal Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, in a passage mourning its loss and practically begging the company to bring it back. Apparently they heard the same from others, because after a decade-long hiatus Tanqueray released a new limited run and bartenders everywhere rushed to grab a bottle. I turned around and bought two more after sampling mine. This is a surprisingly old style, apparently based on a recipe from around 1837, similar to an Old Tom gin in that it dials back the juniper compared to a traditional London Dry. It's not quite as sweet as an Old Tom, though, and has a more complex botanical profile that leads off with citrus and a distinct cinnamon note. For this reason and for its historical appeal, one of my favorite applications for Malacca is in a Winter Martinez (a standard version with the addition of cinnamon syrup) but it works in just about any pre-Prohibition recipe that calls for Old Tom.
#3: Few Standard Issue
I appreciate the intensity of navy-strength gins, and this one really takes it up a notch. Few is known, at least to me, as putting out products with a distinct raw, unaged, grainy character which works well for some and less for others. Here they put it to good use in a 114-proof gin which celebrates its funkiness. There's an initial burst of citrus and juniper, followed quickly by an intense and complex wave of savory botanicals, almost like an aquavit, plus a marshmallow-cherry-grain character that immediately reminds me of maraschino liqueur. It's unique and very bold, though a little rough for drinking straight. The similarity to maraschino makes it great in an Aviation (a drink that I like to call the Harrier, after the iconic US Navy jet) but also a very fine gin & tonic, especially if you go the GMT route and add couple dashes of maraschino. The main success that I've had in a more spirits-focused drink was in a reverse-proportions Vesper, with more vodka than gin, an idea that I picked up reading Speakeasy. Pair this gin with Russian Standard, and I guess you'd have a Russian Navy Standard Issue?
#4: The Botanist
This is probably the most classically styled of the gins described here, which is interesting because it comes from an Islay-based distillery primarily known for making scotch. It starts off with classic gin ingredients and then adds a ridiculous 22 further locally harvested botanicals (also known as the "Chartreuse method", or picking every damn thing you can find to toss in the still). The first standout notes include lemon peel, fennel, and thyme, but then transitions to a spicy wash of juniper, white pepper, clove, grapefruit, honey, and just a little lingering malt. All of which is to say that it's as complex as the 30-plus ingredients would indicate, staying close to the traditional London Dry balance but with way more depth. That makes it a standout choice for classics like a Dry Martini or Tuxedo (the gin-and-dry-sherry version described in Imbibe!) and anything else where gin plays a primary role. A Negroni or a Pink Gin would be a little more offbeat but still excellent.
I include Damrak in this list not so much because it's a dazzling product, but because it's milder than a standard dry gin and very easy to mix with. It's produced by the powerhouse Bols, importers of the absolute best genever that you can find locally, which surprised me until I remembered that Bols also makes a "yogurt liqueur", a combination of words that is both repellent and depressing. Damrak is intended as a mid-to-entry level product, somewhere between a London Dry and a jonge genever, and it settles into that role nicely. The juniper is restrained in favor of a good deal of citrus, a bit of rosemary/sage dark herb flavor, a nicely rounded mouthfeel, and not too much else to distract. It's a good gin for people who think they don't like gin, especially at a price point that's midway between value and premium brands. Now, you get what you pay for, and this isn't complex enough to be desirable in spirits-focused drinks, but it's very nice in gin-based sours like a White Lady or Corpse Reviver #2. Makes for a damned fine Tom Collins on a hot day too, which tastes even better when you're not breaking the bank.
So there we have it, my very first spirits review. I think that worked out pretty well. Let's do this again sometime! We'll continue to stay off the beaten track; I could see my way to doing a blended-scotch review or perhaps an unaged brandy tasting (covering pisco, kirschwasser, slilovitz, himbergeest... sounds like fun). For now, back to our regular program: sporadic recipes punctuated by self-loathing apology!
ADDENDUM #1: More weird gins.