For those who care about liquor, knowing gin is imperative. It’s the original cocktail spirit, a foundation for martinis and negronis. Gin, mixed with tonic water, was prescribed as an antimalarial, and with lime juice to stave off scurvy within the British Navy (so prescribed by an Admiral Gimlette, hence “gimlet”). In the 18th century, it was called “Mother’s Ruin,” consumed with such vigor that England’s population stagnated; a century earlier, it was known as “Dutch courage,” a source of blind encouragement for rebel soldiers during the 30 Years War.
The origins of gin date back a full millennium, when Benedictine monks in Salerno, Italy, added juniper berries and herbs to grain alcohol for medicinal purposes. But today’s best gins bear little resemblance to early iterations, or even the gins of the last century. For cocktail aficionados, that’s very good news.
A Guide to Traditional Styles of Gin
Genever: A Dutch predecessor to gin made from barley-based grain alcohol distilled to 45% ABV and infused with botanicals and spices (usually imported by the Dutch East India Company).
London Dry: The most common and most juniper-dominant style of gin. While London Dry gin does not have to be made in London, it must be distilled in copper pots and carry an ABV greater than 35%.
Old Tom: Sweeter than London Dry but drier than Genever. It was produced by clandestine distillers in 18th-century England, which would hang plaques in the shape of black cats (or tom cats) above their doors to mark their buildings as gin distributors.
Plymouth: A dry gin distilled in the town of Plymouth, England. Slightly less dry than London Dry, with an earthier flavor.
Navy Strength: A 57% ABV (or greater) gin created specifically for the British Royal Navy.
Gin is made by rectifying, or re-distilling, neutral alcohol that has been infused with botanicals, one of which must be juniper. Historically, most gins were sharp and pine-heavy, best paired with other flavors (hence gin’s overwhelming presence in cocktails). It wasn’t until the late 20th century, with the introduction of labels like Bombay Sapphire and Hendrick’s, that the tides began to turn. Both are still grounded in juniper, but use other ingredients — lemon peel in the former, and cucumber and rose in the latter — as a foil against pine-forward notes.
Today, gin, like so many other things, is having its craft moment. But beyond the fact that the new wave of gin strays from the past, there’s little to unite the products of today’s small distilleries — no regional styles or genres by which to categorize the spirit. “You have small-batch, you have London Dry, and then there’s all these little gray areas with botanical-heavy, citrus-heavy [flavors],” explained Cait Moorhead, general manager and head bartender at The Winslow, a gin bar in Manhattan. “Distilleries want a niche product: a gin that’s beautiful, but also has something that nobody else has.” With that, Moorhead gave us her five favorite new wave gins — all with distinct flavor profiles, and all smooth enough to consume neat.
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Brockman’s set out to change global perceptions of gin with a spirit smooth enough to sip neat. Berry-forward and with a lingering nuttiness, it’s one of The Winslow’s most approachable options, or what Moorhead calls a “gateway gin.”
Botanicals: juniper, blueberries, blackberries, cassia bark, licorice, lemon peel, coriander, angelica, orange peel, almonds, orris
Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin
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Headquartered in California, distilled in Oregon and inspired by regional Tuscan flora, Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin skews citrusy, but remains tempered by the inclusion of lavender and sage, resulting in a green, earthy taste.
Flavor: herbaceous, citrus-forward
Botanicals: juniper, cucumber, lemon, sage, lavender
The Botanist Islay Dry Gin
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Most tipplers associate Islay with whisky, but The Botanist, distilled by Bruichladdich, is proof that the small island’s un-aged spirits are equally compelling. “The Botanist’s gin has a lot going on. It’s complex, but not overwhelming, and still very clean,” said Moorhead. The distillery crafts its gin from 22 local, hand-foraged ingredients, plus nine traditional and widely used gin botanicals. Those ingredients are used in a 17-hour distillation process that imbues the spirit with floral, herbaceous notes that reflect its provenance.
Botanicals: angelica root, cassia bark, cinnamon bark, coriander seed, juniper berries, lemon peel, licorice root, orange peel, orris, apple mint, chamomile, creeping thistle, downy birch, elder, gorse, hawthorn, heather, lady’s bedstraw, lemon balm, meadowsweet, mugwort, red clover, spearmint, sweet cicely, bog myrtle, tansy, water mint, white clover, wild thyme, wood sage
Empire Spirits Project Smoked Gin
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The brainchild of chef-turned-distiller Jake Sawabini, Empire Spirits Project formulates gins with boundary-pushing cocktails in mind. The Smoked Gin is, quite literally, unlike anything else on the market. Infused with applewood smoke and Szechuan peppercorn, it’s unapologetically bold yet surprisingly sippable. “It plays well in a gin Manhattan,” Moorhead said. “It’s not quite a substitute for whiskey, not quite a substitute for mezcal, but it has all of these notes that you’re not expecting from gin, which is great. You end up using it for something you never thought you’d use gin for.”
Botanicals: juniper, applewood smoke, caraway, peppercorn
Barr Hill Gin
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Technically an Old Tom–style gin, Caledonia Spirits’ Barr Hill Gin is made from a Vermont-grown, corn-based grain alcohol, infused with local juniper and distilled through raw honey. “It has a touch of sweetness — just a nice, little note,” Moorhead said, adding that it lends itself very well to cocktails.
Flavor: sweet, pine-forward
Botanicals: juniper, raw honey