A FEW warm days in March seemed to go to the heads of the Dining section's tasting panel. After considering merlot and mourvèdre, and then toying with the lesser-known albariño, perhaps, or trebbiano for our next sit-down tasting session, we decided on trying something somewhat seasonal: gin. Gin? To be sure, gin is a year-round phenomenon, but it does have a special cachet in the soon-to-be-upon-us months of air-conditioning. Gin and tonic, gin fizz, tom collins - the names alone evoke thoughts of shaded patios, tennis courts and garden parties. Vodka drinks can have the same effect, of course, and usually at the expense of gin. Whether it's been decades of clever marketing or simply a swing in public tastes, cocktails like martinis and gimlets, created with gin, are now made at least as often with vodka. But the gin makers and marketers have been fighting back, and in the last decade they have released any number of high-end bottles, to better compete with Stolichnaya and Absolut, not to mention the single-malt Scotches and small-batch bourbons. Among our regular panelists, Amanda Hesser and Eric Asimov both said they prefer gin to vodka. As for me, beyond the occasional martini, I haven't paid too much attention to gin.
Our guest, Dale DeGroff, one of the nation's best-known barmen, who has written and lectured extensively on mixed drinks and is the author of "The Craft of the Cocktail" (Clarkson Potter, 2002), said he has always had a soft spot for gin. "I'm scoring high because I'm a fan of gin," Mr. DeGroff said as the panel went through 17 dry gins, including many of the old standards and a group of relative newcomers, many bursting with botanicals that can make gin so appealing and biting. The gins were served at room temperature, and that was to Mr. DeGroff's liking, since he later recalled that he was at first turned off to gin because he drank it warm, out of a bottle, as a young member of a rock 'n' roll band. But that's another story, best forgotten. Now, he prefers his gin in a martini, which for him is the royalty of the cocktail. "Eighty percent proof in the afternoon, 94 proof in the evening," he said. Mr. Asimov broke down the gins we tasted into three categories. "There were those with the classic profile," he said, "those that took off in another direction, with uncommon botanicals, and third, there were the assembly-line gins."
For Ms. Hesser, some of the gins had "interesting" aromas, while others were simply too "aggressive." I broke them down into two groups: those with a smooth finish and an attractive nose, and those with a harsh finish and a chemical nose. Gin has always had an image problem. "Bathtub gin," "gin-soaked" and "ginned up" are colorful terms, but not particularly elevating. Gin is respectable enough today, but there was a time, in the words of Henry McNulty, for many years Vogue's wine and spirits columnist, when it was "the bad boy of the spirits world." "Most drinks," he wrote, "have a past of some distinction - sherry and the brandies of Spain, whiskey and Scottish lairds in their kilts. But gin became a sort of 18th-century tranquilizer, cheap, plentiful and potent; able to take people's minds off the miserable conditions in which most of them lived." Vodka seems to have avoided that sort of social stigma.
But gin is, after all, a flavored vodka; neutral grain spirits enhanced with the addition of what one writer many years ago called "a garden of botanical tastes." Juniper predominates. In fact, that is where the name comes from. Juniper is jenever in Dutch, and that eventually morphed into gin. Among the other flavors found in gin - they are called botanicals - are coriander seed, angelica, orris root, lemon, cassia bark, cardamom, fennel, anise, caraway, orange peel, nutmeg and cinnamon. Which botanicals and in what combinations are the secrets of each blender, but there are said to be rarely more than six in any given blend. Gin is, ultimately, all about taste. Over the years, focus groups have demonstrated that many people prefer vodka precisely because it has no taste, because it neither adds to nor detracts from the flavors added to it. Perhaps paradoxically, some of the newer, more popular gins, like Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray No. 10, use untraditional combinations of these botanicals, creating big, powerful flavors. Interestingly, neither of these gins were among the panel's top scorers. A couple of the old standards - Beefeater and the regular Tanqueray, both made in England - finished first and second. The Beefeater ($23 for a liter, 94 proof) received the highest score possible, four stars, from Mr. DeGroff, and was liked by the entire panel, receiving an overall score of three and a half stars.
"It hit all the right notes," Mr. DeGroff said, and I thought it had an intriguing nose. Mr. Asimov praised the fresh juniper flavor, and Ms. Hesser detected and enjoyed a touch of coriander. Of the gins we tasted, nine came England, one from Scotland, one from the Netherlands, one from France and five from the United States. They ranged in price from $11 to $33, but some bottles were 750 milliliters and others were a liter. There are many more gins out there. We found an interesting disparity in alcoholic content among the 17, which ranged from 82.4 proof in the English Plymouth to a hefty 98.6 in the Junipero, Fritz Maytag's San Francisco-produced version.
Our overall impression was that we had gone through a fascinating and rather rigorous academic exercise. No one came away resolved to drink more gin - but let's see what happens when the temperature begins to rise again - though there was a general feeling that we enjoyed both the tastes and the subtle aromas, and that we had learned something about a craft we had paid little heed to in the past. Three gins received three stars: two English imports, the Tanqueray Dry (94.6 proof, 750 milliliters, $18) and Plymouth (82.4 proof, 750 milliliters, $22) and one domestic, Gordon's London Dry (80 proof, one liter, $15). Mr. DeGroff and Mr. Asimov liked the Tanqueray aromas, but I found them harsh. Ms. Hesser called the Tanqueray "viscous" and unbalanced but was enthusiastic about the Plymouth. "Delicate and gauzy," she called it, "gentle in a land of giants." The Gordon's was the tasting's "best value." Ms. Hesser thought it had a nice flavor, tasting "cherries" in it, but also called it a bit "fat and sweet." Mr. Asimov was also of two minds, liking the flavors but finding them hot on the finish. Mr. DeGroff and I detected strong pine aromas. "Very traditional," Mr. DeGroff said, "like Christmas in a glass."
The muscular Junipero came in at two and a half stars. Mr. Asimov called it "potent and powerful, like a gin and tonic already mixed." I more or less wrote if off as "harsh with a chemical aroma." The one Scottish entry, Hendrick's (88 proof, 750 milliliters, $28), got two and a half stars, although everyone agreed it was not a traditional gin. Cucumber and celery seed flavors put it in a separate but not disagreeable category. And a Booth's London Dry, a gin with a dual passport - made in Plainfield, Ill., "under London supervision" - was liked by Mr. Asimov and Mr. DeGroff for its anise flavor, but was deemed by Ms. Hesser as a gin that "lost its way."
Tasting Report: From Cinnamon to Cucumber Notes, a Potpourri of Tastes Beefeater, England $23 *** 1/2 94 proof, 1 liter. All the right notes, and everything I want in a gin, Dale DeGroff said. Eric Asimov found fresh juniper and a finish that went on and on. Frank J. Prial called it balanced and intriguing, while Amanda Hesser tasted coriander and liked the balance and clean flavors.
Tanqueray Dry Gin, England $18 *** 94.6 proof, 750 ml Smooth and attractive with lime and juniper aromas, Asimov said. DeGroff liked the complex nose. Hesser called it viscous, without the balance she was looking for. Prial found it balanced, but called the nose a little too harsh. Plymouth, England $22 *** 82.4 proof, 750 ml Delicate and gauzy, Hesser said, "gentle in a land of giants." DeGroff called it citrusy and subtle, and Prial found it soft and fresh. This one plays it straight, Asimov said.
BEST VALUE: Gordon's London Dry Gin $15 *** United States 80 proof, 1 liter Very traditional, like Christmas in a glass, DeGroff said. Prial, too, detected Christmas tree aromas. Hesser found it a little fat and sweet. Asimov liked the deep, broad flavors but found it hot on the finish.
Junipero, San Francisco $30 ** 1/2 98.6 proof, 750 ml Potent and powerful, Asimov said, like a gin and tonic already mixed. DeGroff thought it was full of flavor, with big botanical notes. Hesser called it weird - both low-key and heavy-handed, with strong citrus notes. Prial thought it was harsh, with a chemical aroma. Booth's London Dry, Plainfield, Ill. $11 ** 1/2 90 proof, 750 ml Not ginlike at first, Prial said, but soon it came together. DeGroff and Asimov detected cinnamon and anise flavors - it reminded Asimov of herbal tea. Hesser thought it over the top, screaming with juniper and rosemary.
Hendrick's, Scotland $28 ** 1/2 88 proof, 750 ml Complex, challenging, pungent and attractive, Prial said. DeGroff detected cucumber flavors and citrus on the finish, calling it well made but not a style he liked. Asimov tasted vanilla and celery seed, and agreed this was not a traditional gin. Hesser found it too boozy.
Daresbury's Quintessential Warrington Dry Gin, England $22 ** 1/2 90 proof, 750 ml A classic gin, Asimov said, long and smooth with juniper and pine aromas. Prial called it traditional and attractive. Hesser found it smoky, calling it Scotchlike, and DeGroff found it unbalanced, without typical gin botanicals.
Citadelle, France $21 ** 88 proof, 750 ml The panel liked this gin but had objections. Hesser found it herbal and interesting but too ambitious. Prial said it was smooth, but oppressively oily. DeGroff called it too sharp, and Asimov said it was a bit big. Boodles, England $25 ** 90.4 proof, 1 liter A classic gin-and-tonic gin, DeGroff said, and Prial found it smooth and easy to drink. Hesser found fresh citrus flavors but also said it was a little harsh. Asimov agreed it was smooth but found the flavoring heavy-handed.
A Garden of Delights in a Glass of Gin
By Frank J. Prial