So what can the North Americans teach us Brits about gin? Well, quite a lot as it happens, as Victor Smart found out when he tasted a range of contemporary American gins under the careful tutelage of top barkeeper Christy Pope. Juniper takes a back seat and other botanicals come to the fore like kumquat, cinnamon, nutmeg, bergamot oil and cucumber. Maize is often used as the base spirit and get the alcohol levels… a cool 92% abv in the case of one barrel-aged spirit.
“US small-batch distillers, who are scattered from Tennessee, Montana and all points in between, clearly grasp that they will have to shake things up even more if they are to grab our attention. This they have done,” writes Smart.
It’s Gin O’clock, the Americans have decided with the timely launch of a marketing push of their craft gins back in the UK. Before the tasting arranged for us Londoners, a pack containing five smallish bottles of the juniper spirit arrive through the letter box for us to savour during a Zoom session.
Our host is top bartender Christy Pope, speaking from somewhere in California on behalf of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. It’s really too early in the morning on the West Coast to be discussing gin. But Christy is an expert’s expert when it comes to gin mixology, having set up her own bar in Dallas and worked with Manhattan’s famed Milk & Honey bar.
Gin makers in the UK have hardly been a slouch when it comes to innovation and ‘out there’ ideas in recent years. And the US small-batch distillers, who are scattered from Tennessee, Montana and all points in between, clearly grasp that they will have to shake things up even more if they are to grab our attention. This they have done, liking to call their offering ‘new western’ or ‘contemporary’ gins. Some of their brews show an experimental approach and the juniper takes a backseat, she explains. And the base liquor may well be ‘corn’, that is maize.
First up, we taste FEW Spirits Breakfast Gin made by Maverick Drinks. At something around 84 per cent proof this displays both fire and heat in equal measure when drunk neat. But it’s surprisingly downable and it’s straightforward enough to identify the three botanicals that have gone into it: juniper, bergamot oil and spearmint. FEW’s brew is already available in the UK and is available for almost half price from Master of Malt at £25.75 RRP.
Next, we have something far more citrusy. James Bay Summer Gin made by James Bay Distillers, described as a sipping gin, which is bursting with an array of flavours: mandarin, kumquat, tangerine and orange all very much to the fore. We then move on to something still more complicated. Gentilly’s Gin made by Seven Three Distilling Co. boasts no fewer than 17 botanicals. Peppery and spicy, both elderflower and persimmon come through strongly: no wonder Christy dubs it a ‘Cajun medicine bag’.
Whistling Andy’s Cucumber Gin features the vegetable maybe a little too much. But there is also coriander and orange peel in this spirit with a 100 per cent corn base.
Last but not least, we get to taste Corsair Distillery’s Barrel Aged Gin. The story is that the distillery makes (and sells) rum simply so that it can give its gin some time in the barrels: this brew has the pale hue of a watery whisky. There a lot going on here: some vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg and some real complexity and a longer finish. And it is no less than 92 per cent proof.
What they lack in tradition, New World gins are clearly determined to make up for with interesting new approaches to innovating the centuries-old spirit.