In his classic 1940s cocktail book The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, David Embury wrote, “Of all the liquors in the world, gin is probably the most misunderstood, the most maligned, the most abused.” He claimed that the bad reputation gin acquired during Prohibition was as undeserved as it was hard to shake. Postwar drinkers in America remembered gin as something gangsters made in bathtubs. But before Prohibition, gin was a colossus of the spirits world, and its popularity straddled the globe.
Today, gin’s glory days may be returning. Gin is almost single-handedly driving the recent resurgence of cocktail culture. It’s on the menu of every self-respecting cocktail bar from New York to San Francisco, more so than vodka, rum, whiskey, or tequila. And there may be more gins on the market now (and in more styles) than at any other time since Prohibition.
What exactly is gin? Though gin purists may cringe when they hear it, gin is essentially a type of flavored vodka. Distillers start with a neutral grain spirit (like vodka) and add the herbs, spices, roots, berries, and seeds that give gin its flavor. The exact combination of ingredients varies from brand to brand, but it often includes lemon and orange zest; garden herbs like rosemary, savory, and fennel; spices like coriander, caraway, and nutmeg; and, most important, juniper berries, which give traditional gins their signature flavor, reminiscent of pine sap and evergreen needles.
Balancing the flavors of these botanicals is the gin-maker’s art, and none of the flavors is harder to work with than juniper. In the best traditional gins, the juniper flavor gives the liquor a woody structure for other flavors to build on and provides a wild note, like a breath of mountain air. But a little too much and gin takes on a medicinal, soapy flavor—think Pine-Sol instead of pine forest.
Deftly blended, though, gin’s refreshing herbal flavors find a natural home in summer cocktails. So with the season’s outdoor parties in mind, it’s time to get gin out of the bathtub, dress it in a crisp linen suit, and give it another look.
Unlike whiskey or brandy, gin is never drunk straight or at room temperature; its flavors can be a little overpowering when undiluted or unchilled. But add just a little dry vermouth, chill it over ice, and voilà: the most famous cocktail ever, the martini.
The martini and the gin and tonic may be classics, but there are many more gin drinks you can mix up. Here’s a take on another classic, the Tom Collins, and a refreshing pitcher drink concocted with mint and watermelon juice—just the thing for summer.
Styles of gin
The two main gin types you’ll find in stores are the traditional London dry gin and a new lighter, fruitier style of gin with a less prominent juniper flavor. What this means is that there are enough gins these days to suit almost anyone’s palate, so taste a few to find one that belongs in your liquor cabinet.
London Dry Gins: These gins were created in 19th-century Great Britain as an alternative to the heavy, malty Holland gins (called genevers) and the sweetened Old Tom gins that were readily available at the time. Today crisp, snappy London dry gins are by far the most common type. They’re perfect for classic cocktails like the gin martini, gin and tonic, and Tom Collins, among others.
Bottles to try:
- Tanqueray ($21 for 750 ml) The warhorse of London dries, this gin has a sturdy juniper backbone with overtones of coriander and lemon peel and a strong and long finish with hints of anise. Excellent mixed with citrus.
- Beefeater ($19 for 750 ml) Bright orange and lemon peel flavors dominate this gin, while clove, cinnamon, and juniper come in behind, ending on a gentle peppermint note. Its strong citrus flavors mix with almost anything.
- Plymouth ($26 for 750 ml) A little sweeter and smoother than the other dry gins, it has chewy black currant and licorice flavors that combine with lemon and evergreen. Makes a killer martini.
New-Generation Gins: Some contemporary distilleries are giving less importance to juniper berries and have shifted their focus to gin’s other botanicals, allowing the citrus, floral, and spice flavors to push the juniper out of the spotlight (or in some cases, out of the bottle altogether). Bombay Sapphire wasn’t the first brand to do this, but its success in the late 1980s and early 1990s paved the way for many other lighter-style gins. These are ideal for newfangled cocktails like the Watermelon Gin Punch, although many bartenders now use them in traditional gin cocktails to lure gin naysayers back into the fold.
Bottles to try:
- Bombay Sapphire ($24 for 750 ml) Though the label says London dry, this gin’s toned-down juniper, floral notes, and mild spice have little in common with, say, Tanqueray.
- Hendrick’s ($35 for 750 ml) Like a tea party, Hendrick’s is full of cucumber and watercress; rosemary and faint juniper flavors fill it out, and pepper and clove provide a little spice.
- Martin Miller’s ($35 for 750 ml) This gin is a mouthful of violet candy and dried lavender, with hints of fennel seed and fresh, green herbs.