My Four Gins

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This week on Good Food we continue our summer cocktail coverage with Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, author of Gin: A Global History. Lesley joins us as a guest blogger to walk us through My Four Gins.

Keep reading for her gin rundown…

Asking a gin lover to name four favorite gins is rather like asking a librarian to pick four favorite books.  It’s possible, but maddeningly so. The truth is, like anyone with a passion, I’m hard-pressed to narrow down my favorites to any particular number. I want what I want when I want it, which is why my bar literally overflow-eth with dozens of gins depending on my fancy of the moment.

Spirits, like any indulgence, are very much about mood, about emotion, about soul.  On a sultry summer afternoon, when a simple gin & tonic whets my whistle, I look for a gin that’s crisp and herbal.  If I’m feeling civilized on a Sunday morning, then I might crave a gin fizz, requiring a different, perhaps more citrus-forward style of gin.  And for those moments of intrigue, of seduction, or when I just need a stiff drink?  Yet another bottle of juniper berry water – one that is as serious as the moment at hand.

Having written a book about gin, I am expected to have an opinion about my gins of choice and, while I could wax poetic (aka make excuses) about my love of all things juniper-y, I can play favorites just like the best of them. Herewith, the four that my bar cannot be without:

1)  GORDON’S LONDON DRY GIN ($10/750 ml):  Hugh Williams, Master Distiller of Gordon’s/Tanqueray, is one of my heroes/mentors, a man without whom I could not have written “Gin: A Global History”.  In his words, “gin” means “dry gin” and “dry” means juniper. You can’t fulfill those qualifications better than with a bottle of Gordon’s.  I was drinking Gordon’s long before I met Hugh; it was my parents’ favorite tipple and it was the first gin I requested by name.  And there’s a reason for that. Gordon’s is simply brilliant gin.  Full of stunningly finessed juniper flavor, balanced by the other essential London Dry botanicals — coriander (which adds a lemon-y note) and angelica (which binds the coriander and juniper together).  London Dry “lesson” aside, Gordon’s is my go-to for gin drinks where the crisp, refreshing character of juniper is essential. A gin & tonic, a gimlet, and yes, a martini, all shine when made with Gordon’s.  And the price point makes the cocktails even easier to swallow.

2) LEOPOLD’S AMERICAN SMALL BATCH GIN ($36/750 ml):  In the 21st century, where anything goes with today’s artisan gin and the requisite botanicals, Leopold’s offers a classic dry style, but tones down the predominance of juniper, distilling the botanicals separately which, in the company’s own words, produces a “softer, brighter, more approachable spirit”.  Moreover, there’s a distinct citrus element here, with the addition of pummelos and Valencia oranges, which makes this gin superb in modern cocktails that often employ a more fruit, less alcohol-forward approach. The small batch bottling appeals to my sense of craftsmanship; I also happen to like the fact that this is an American-made gin, one that can hold its own amidst the old school brands albeit offering a different character entirely.  For a particularly lovely evocation of the spirit, try Leopold’s in a gin fizz.

3) HENDRICK’S GIN ($30/750 ml):  For every gin lover, there is a gin hater — or perhaps, a softer term might be naysayer. I often find the task falling upon me to convince these folks that gin is not “evil” and it does not always, as one friend claims, “taste like Christmas trees smell”.  Whenever I meet someone who espouses any of these ideas, I pull out a bottle of Hendrick’s.  As gin folk often say, Hendrick’s is the “gateway gin”, which basically means that it’s the gin that can convert non-gin drinkers. Why?  Because the juniper, i.e., that Christmas tree smell/flavor, plays second fiddle to a collection of exquisitely aromatic and utterly unconventional botanicals, including cucumber, Bulgarian rose petals, and chamomile. Hendrick’s turns any gin cocktail into a revelatory, if not downright revolutionary, flavor experience. It’s not right for every drink, but in the right cocktail, it is an eye-opener.

4) CADENHEAD’S OLD RAJ GIN, blue bottle($5/750 ml):  In every “best of” list, there is usually the guilty pleasure/indulgence.  For me, Old Raj falls into the indulgence category, no guilt involved.  Expensive yes, but my martinis are worth it.  Many gin drinkers believe that the martini is the most perfect evocation of the juniper spirit. But, drinking a martini requires a certain sang-froid, not to mention the ability to drink what is essentially a very cold glass of at least two ounces hard liquor.  There is a reason that a martini is a “sipping” drink; it’s powerful stuff, especially if made in the old-school (proper) manner with gin, not vodka. Old Raj makes that proposition remarkably easy, not to mention downright sensual.  Despite being “overproof” (55% ABV versus the standard 40% ABV for most gins), this gin is so smooth that you hardly feel the alcohol, instead being swept into its velvety blend of botanicals highlighted by saffron, which adds a subtle spiciness that, in my opinion, elevates the standard martini to a new level of sensory pleasure. (My 5:1 recipe:  2.5 oz. Old Raj, .5 oz. Dolan dry vermouth, lemon peel expressed over top of drink and rubbed over rim.)  If you like gin, Old Raj is a juniper spirit like no other.

Are there other gins that find my favor?  Without a doubt.  I adore discovering new bottlings. The first time I tried Tanqueray Rangpur, heavy on Kaffir lime, my eyes lit up and my stomach purred in citrus satisfaction.   Just recently I got my hands on a bottle of Caorunn, yet another Scottish gin (like Hendrick’s and Old Raj), which uses Celtic botanicals; it’s an alcoholic flower garden in a glass. There’s also Ransom Old Tom gin, a stunning recreation of the turn-of-the-century slightly sweet, juniper-forward gin style; it makes a drop dead gorgeous Martinez.  And, of course, there’s genever, not “gin” per se, but rather the grand daddy of them all, which uses a fermented mash of corn, barley, and rye plus grain neutral spirit and juniper to produce something rather akin to whisky but uniquely its own.

When it comes to gin, as with any spirit, you have to drink what you like.  There’s a reason you most likely ask for your booze by name — because something in that bottle, whether you can define it or not, speaks to your palate. Next time you jump to order your “usual”, why not try to pin down what it is that makes your usual so right for you.  Is it the predominance of juniper?  A certain, fresh citrus quality?  An elemental spiciness?  Once you determine that, it opens up a whole new world of gins. While sticking with the tried-and-true is never disappointing, taking a leap of faith in flavor rarely disappoints. Whether it’s food, wine, or spirit, the mysteries of the palate are transcendent ones.  While you don’t necessarily enjoy everything you taste or sip, the voyage of discovery – and the broadening of flavorful horizons — is always worth the trip.