Exploration of artisanal gins

Col-head-ZalkinIn recent years, we’ve seen a marked return to cocktail culture. Cocktail bars and speakeasy-style venues are popping up all over New York, and spilling out into the suburbs.

And what is a discussion of the pleasure of drinks without a nod to the cocktails that dominated the American bar scene for so long?

Gin has a reputation as a chameleon — depending on who you ask, the mention of gin conjures anything from James Bond drinking a martini in a Saville Row suit, to a causal gin and tonic on the porch in June, to the seedy “gin joints” of Prohibition. Like so many spirits, gin began as a medicinal tonic. Herbs and spices were added for healing, superstition, or just to mask the unpleasant flavors left over from substandard distilling techniques.

Most famously, it was used to balance the flavor of quinine, an antimalarial agent with a strong bitter taste (modern formulations of tonic water contain mere traces of the hefty dose British explorers needed to ward off malaria).

Gin is a clear spirit, usually made with grain, then flavored with juniper berries and a host of other botanicals. The number of flavorings can range from two to more than 50. Compared to other alcohols, gin is relatively easy to make, and therefore became the iconic spirit of Prohibition, as people brewed their own at home, in whatever container they had available, like a stew pot, or the bathtub.

Like all good things, gin has gone in and out of fashion. There were once 250 distilleries in London alone. But commercialization brought consolidation, and the number of distilleries dwindled as the market became dominated by the gin giants, with international name recognition and major marketing dollars.

The rise of artisanal, small-batch gin parallels that of local food. In the last decade, people have been moving away from mass-produced spirits that can be obtained anywhere to small craft makers. With no need for extensive aging in costly oak barrels, gin has become a popular spirit among start-up producers.

Small batches and a higher price point have allowed gin makers to reintroduce classic techniques abandoned in favor of mass production, such as copper pot stills, which allow distillation at a lower temperature, preserving some of the delicate aromas. The wide range of herbs and spices used as flavorings leaves room for incredible specificity, and almost infinite variation.

So for those tired of mass market spirits designed to suit a common palate, you can look to these new producers to find something unique and special. Which is a boon, because gin preference is an intensely personal matter of taste. Only judicious sampling will tell you if you prefer a gin that is piney or floral, sweet or briney. Or best yet, you can keep a few on hand, a sweet and floral one to pair with champagne and sugar for a French 75, a classic London dry for a Pimm’s cup, a good strong gin to pair with tonic, and a smooth, salty one for a martini. The host of wonderful new options means that no matter what your favorite cocktail is, there is a gin that will suit it perfectly.

Here are a few featured gins for your enjoyment:

• Berkshire Greylock. Made in the first legal distillery in Massachusetts since Prohibition, and named for the tallest peak in the Berkshire mountain range. Berkshire Greylock is a lovely, peppery gin, with hints of licorice, citrus peel and corriander.

• Barr Hill. Made in Vermont, this refined and minimalist gin is exceptional in the simplicity of its ingredients. Made with just the finest grain alcohol, juniper berry, and raw honey, which is added just prior to bottling. A great baseline gin for those new to the spirit and a back-to-basics treat for fans of the spirit.

• Greenhook. Made from organic American wheat, Greenhook gin is an exquisite blend of delicate botanicals, muting the often brash flavors of pine and juniper to showcase more subtle flavors of elderflower and chamomile.

• Greenhook Beach Plum. With the yearly production run limited by the finite supply of New York beach plums, this gin is macerated with whole plums for six months, then filtered before bottling. Made to echo the style of traditional sloe gin, it features bright berry notes, and works wonderfully in champagne or sweet cocktails.

• Sipsmith. Classic London dry gin, with citrus overtones, zesty spice, and a hint of brine. This delightfully smooth gin is great for martinis and other cocktails with a savory base, and is wonderful on its own.

• Monkey 47. A newcomer to the market, already meeting high praise and awards. Made with 47 different botanicals, it presents an ever-shifting mix of subtle flavors and aromas, including lemongrass and lavender. Soft, with a hint of sweetness, perfect for sipping or a whole host of cocktails.

You can find all of these delightful gins for purchase at our store, Old Greenwich Fine Wines & Cheese, located at 195 Sound Beach Avenue, Old Greenwich, or visit our website, Ogfinewines.com, or call 203-990-3030 to place an order. When you stop in, we invite you to taste a number of our favorite wines and cheeses while we help you find the right bottle for your palate.

Robert Zalkin is the owner of Old Greenwich Fine Wines at 195 Sound Beach Avenue. His column will be available weekly at Greenwich-post.com.

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