words and photos by: Andrea Peterson
First it was beer, then it was wine. Now the world of craft is seeping into distilleries. That means the gin of today is not the gin of speakeasies, flappers and Fitzgerald. Unlike the strict rules of spirits like tequila or bourbon, gin is simply a clear alcoholic spirit distilled from grain or malt and predominately created with juniper berries. Sounds simple, right? (That’s how they could make it in bathtubs during Prohibition.) As long as it smells and tastes like you’re drinking a liquid Christmas tree you’ve got craft gin. Well, that might be the easy part if you’re drinking it straight up. But with the alchemy of complex flavors, the hard part is knowing what to mix with what. That takes culinary investigation.
The most important thing about tasting and understanding gin cocktails is knowing the botanical makeup of your spirit. “Unfortunately, not all gin makers are forthcoming about their botanical bill,” says Ashley Cross of New World Distillery. So start by drinking your gin neat—no mixings. (Give yourself a moment before you start dropping in olives.)
First, you need to smell the flavors. Just as you would with a glass of wine, take in the aroma. Your tongue can only chemically pick up salty, sour, sweet, bitter or umami. Imagine all the flavors you’d be missing if you banned your nose from the tasting room.
Second, you need to taste the flavors. Crafting a cocktail using gin is much like being a chef. “Vodka is like chicken and tastes however you cook it,” says St. Regis Bar Manager Brett Peretti. Gin, on the other hand, is infused with a plethora of flavors and “mixes very well.” Begin by asking yourself: do I taste citrus or florals? Is it spicy or mellow? Does it have a bite or is it smooth?
And finally, since your nose is so important to enjoying your gin, ask your bartender what they recommend as a garnish. If used properly, it is an aromatic ingredient to top off your cocktail recipe.
In the end, be it olive or orange peel, mint or cloves—avoid overcomplicating your cocktail. Red Door Bar Owner Louise Hannig says, “Truly, just mix with whatever you want to mix with. If it tastes good to you, then who the hell cares!?”