The Gin Takeover

Alessandro Palazzi pouring me one of the world's best gin martinis in London at the Duke's hotel

While we can talk about the rise of American whiskey, the proliferation of single malt, the emergence of brandy, and the rebirth of rum in the realm of our modern spirits renaissance, I don't think there's one bartender from here to Shanghai that will argue with me when I say we are currently living the era of gin. Not just gin, but great gin—more gin, from more places, with more flavors and more botanicals than we've ever seen in the history of this planet. While brown spirits continue to dominate the message boards, blogs, and Instagram review sites of today's connoisseur subculture, it's gin that is dominating the consumption market; not just in America, all over the world (what's funny is that the U.S. actually lags behind the Phillipines, of all places, and it's not even close!). How long does it take you to consume a bottle of gin versus a bottle of whiskey? For me, it can be as quick as 24 hours if I'm making heavy gin and tonics, but rarely will I consume an entire bottle of whiskey in less than a month. Think about that comparison from an economic perspective now. If consumers (and bars & restaurants alike) are blowing through gin at a faster clip, using a product that's cheaper to make than whiskey (yet often costs the same per bottle), can be made faster than whiskey, and will likely never suffer from the supply and demand issues that have hampered pricing and availability in the whiskey market, then tell me honestly: would you rather build a whiskey distillery in 2017 or a gin distillery? I know where I stand.

It's crazy to think that between 2009 and 2014 gin was seen simply as a way for many small distillers to make money while waiting for their whiskey to age. Many of these players got into the game with visions of Pappy dancing through their heads, but found out quickly that gin was the spirit that ultimately paid the bills. My problem with that strategy then is the same as it is today: to distill gin with such a mindset is almost a slap in the face to the legacy of the spirit (a legacy that is much more interesting and far more romantic than whiskey's, to me). Can you imagine if you heard a distiller say:

"Yeah, I really want to make pear eau-de-vie, but since whiskey's popular and people will buy it, I thought I'd throw some corn spirit in a few oak barrels just to make some extra cash."

I know whiskey drinkers who would lose their minds if they heard something like that! Yet, for almost a decade that's been a perfectly acceptable mindset for many a small distiller—to treat gin with such deference. There's an enormous gap in quality between those distillers who take gin seriously and those who see it simply as the means to and end. Over the last three years, I'd say, as a drinking society we've gone from a mindset of "good gin makes a great classic cocktail" to "good gin tastes pretty damn good—period!" Because more drinkers are understanding how gin is made, how the botanicals play such an important role, and how an ancient recipe for gin can be every bit as complex and intriguing as a old family recipe for Bourbon, we're seeing a change in public thinking. As a result, we're beginning to see more and more small distilleries who focus almost entirely on gin—and that's a good thing. Let me tell you: there's a reason why Monkey 47, Four Pillars, North Shore, and Edinburgh Distillery have come on the scene over the past decade to construct some of the world's best gins: they all make gin almost exclusively. Do the world's best Scotches come from distilleries that also make vodka, gin, and brandy? Not usually. There's something to be said for focus.

That being said, there's also something to be said for discovery, education, and redirection. For years, the crux of any argument concerning what makes a spirit worth its price has been its age. A large majority of the marketplace believes a 12 year old whisky should cost less than a 15 year. More importantly, these consumers believe a spirit that's entirely unaged (like gin) should never cost more than a spirit that is (like whiskey). But we're now starting to see cracks in that facade. I was flipping through Tristan Stephenson's excellent book The Curious Bartender's Gin Palace last night, when I found a passage that made me both chuckle and ponder deeply about gin's origins: 

In 1495, a wealthy merchant from a region known as the Duchy of Guelders decided it would be a good idea to have a book written for him. Being a household guide, the book documented some of the lavish recipes he and his family were enjoying at the time. Included was a brandy recipe made from '10 quarts of wine thinned with clear hamburg beer.' After distillation the liquid would be redistilled with 'two handfuls of dried sage, 1lb of cloves, 12 whole nutmegs, cardamom, cinnamon, galangal, ginger, grains of paradise' and—crucially—juniper berries.' The spices were placed in a cloth sack and suspended above the distillate, allowing the vapours to extract their flavour.

...and here's the kicker:

Grinding diamonds over white truffle is as close a comparison as I can imagine to expressing the extravagance of such a recipe during that period.

Why, you ask? Because this recipe dates back to the era of the spice trade! Back when nutmeg was more expensive than gold. To make such an elixir with those valuable ingredients was unheard of! While it's true that all of those botanicals can be purchased much more cheaply today, let's not discount the importance and the impact that carefully-sourced, fresh, and flavorful ingredients can play in a true top-shelf gin. Not only in terms of flavor, but also terroir. One of my goals this past February in traveling to the Four Pillars distillery outside of Melbourne was to use as many indigenous, locally-grown Australian botanicals as possible in our K&L cuvée. St. George's outstanding Terroir gin uses herbs and spices sourced entirely from California's Mt. Tam. Bruichladdich's Botanist gin collects most of its botanicals from Islay, giving the gin a true local flavors. Botanicals can be to gin what age is to whiskey. For those looking beyond flavor to determine value and intrigue, the origin of each recipe should provide endless talking points and fodder and provide insight into the great regional gardens of our planet.

Gin isn't just taking over the world right now, it's also going to take over the K&L spirits blog for this week. Each day, I'll be digging deep into a few gins that I think you all might want to know more about, while providing a deeper insight into how gin is made and why you should be drinking it. Until then!

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll