January-February 2010 Newsletter

New Gin-eration

By: Anthony Dias Blue

The craft distiller’s movement in the United States is a phenomenon that harkens back to America’s colonial days, when gentlemen farmers like George Washington made their own spirits on country estates. In spite of the vast numbers of spirits now produced and brought to market by large corporations, grassroots American enterprise is happily alive in the spirits world, with dozens of new brands being launched every year, each striving for a top-shelf place behind the bar.

Today’s boutique distillers are a new breed, more likely to set up their stills in converted wharf-side warehouses or corrugated steel sheds than in an outbuilding at Mount Vernon, but the goal is the same: making small batches of the best spirits using the finest ingredients. Gin is a particularly interesting challenge for the small-batch distiller, since its flavor profile can vary dramatically depending on which aromatics in the (usually secret) recipe. While juniper is the defining flavor in any gin, newer contemporary versions have dialed back the juniper quotient and amplified citrus and other components.

  Achieving balance among the many harmonic notes that gin presents to the palate is an art that separates the master distiller from the amateur. Happily, most of today’s small-batch distilleries show great expertise; some of them, like Anchor Distilling, located in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill district, got their chops by brewing beer.

Anchor founder Fritz Maytag (yes, that Maytag) was one of the country’s first craft brewers, branching out into spirits in the early 1990s. Anchor’s dense, assertive Junipero Gin ($32) shows creamy texture, sweet vanilla, and lush flavors of spice. The name is a tribute to Junípero Serra, the 18th-century Franciscan monk who founded the mission in San Francisco. For those who love their juniper in powerful doses, Anchor also makes Genevieve ($30), a heady gin in the style of original Dutch genever.

The City by the Bay is also home to lush, peppery No. 209 Gin ($38), a luxury-level libation with a soft, juniper nose and spicy notes of orris and angelica. The brand was created by Leslie Rudd, owner of gourmet emporium Dean & DeLuca. Organic and ecological-minded TRU2 Gin ($35) was created by a Southern California husband-and-wife team using historically-correct maceration of juniper and other botanicals into a wheat-spirit base; the packaging is completely recyclable and the company plants a tree for each bottle sold.

Oregon’s freewheeling Rogue Spirits, another brewery offshoot, boasts the first-ever Spruce Gin ($37), flavored with Pacific Northwest spruce needles as well as cucumber, tangerine, and more traditional aromatics such as angelica root and grains of paradise. Rogue also created the unique Pink Spruce Gin ($37), a mellow version aged in barrels that previously held Oregon Pinot Noir.

Also in Oregon, House Spirits produces its Aviation Gin ($30) one batch at a time in a hand-built still. The team—cocktail consultant Ryan Magarian and distillers Christian Krogstad and Lee Medoff—went through nearly 30 rounds of trials before settling on the current formula, which includes lavender and Indian sarsaparilla. Exotic Oregon-made Yazi Ginger Flavored Gin ($30) takes gin in a decidedly Asian direction.

Not just a coastal phenomenon, the new gin has now permeated the American continent. In Denver, each bottle of Leopold’s American Small Batch Gin ($55) is hand-labeled and numbered with the batch from which it comes; the botanicals are individually distilled for better control. Gin has even cropped up in Kentucky, the heart of bourbon country: Corsair Artisan Gin ($30) is made at a micro-distillery in Bowling Green using sustainably-harvested botanicals and a circa-1920 pot still that miraculously survived Prohibition.

  On the East Coast, sophisticated new gin DH Krahn is a virtual world-tour in a bottle; its botanicals include juniper berries from Italy, coriander seed from Morocco, orange peel from Florida, and ginger from Thailand.

Racy, light-textured Bluecoat Gin ($25) is proudly made in the birthplace of America—Philadelphia, PA. The hand-hammered copper pot still used is the only one of its size and shape in the world, and the recipe calls for an extremely slow heating of the mash, allowing full extraction of the certified organic botanicals. Bluecoat was awarded Best Gin of Show at this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition. America’s founding fathers would be proud.

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