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So there are no hard and fast rules for drinking. You just drink, right? Yes and no. Getting schooled on any spirit gives you the opportunity to fall in love with it when before you might have been on the fence. Gin is one of those spirits that can get a bad rep for being “too pine-y,” harsh or tasting like cleaning fluid, as some haters claim.
But it’s actually one of the most versatile and exciting spirits, distilled with a range of botanicals that play beautifully in cocktails with a wide range of ingredients. Once you get beyond the typical botanicals of a classic London dry gin—like juniper, coriander, angelica root, citrus— you’ll find all manner of experimental “new” gins playing with lemongrass, Douglas fir or lavender, to a name a few possible ingredients distillers are playing with. It’s safe to say, there’s a gin out there to suit all tastes.
These are five helpful “rules”—with advice from gin experts—to keep in mind as you dig into gin.
One of the great temples to gin in the country is San Francisco’s Whitechapel, a transporting space offering more than 600 different kinds of gin (and counting), modeled after a Victorian era gin palace, distilling room and now-defunct London tube stop, depending on which area of the bar you’re sitting in. Whitechapel’s resident ginnoisseur, Keli Rivers (yes, someone who curates, searches for and can talk to you in detail about all these gins), knows a thing or two about drinking gin and offers some advice on finding “your” gin: “Try each gin in a Martini or a somewhat neutral drink to highlight botanicals and see what the gin can do. ... Gin is made for cocktails—it marries, carries and elevates a cocktail with range and nuance.”
Across the pond in England, gin expert David T. Smith (of Summer Fruit Cup, a site with more than 400 gin reviews, and the author of the books How to Make Gin, Forgotten Spirits and Long Lost Liqueurs (White Mule Press, $22) and The Craft of Gin (White Mule Press, $25) with co-author Aaron Knoll) has spent years studying hundreds of gins and how they pair with different tonics. Yes, a quality tonic makes a difference. But he also says, “The tonic should always be chilled. If the tonic is warm, the whole mix will taste sweeter and will be less fizzy.”
He also vouches for mixing it up: “Read tonic labels and look for the flavor profile. For example, if there’s rosemary tonic, you can look for gins that might work with rosemary. Or choose a classic London dry gin that mixes well with a range of tonics. There are a lot of other sodas that work well with gin, like soda water and San Pellegrino citrus sodas, or if you want to be bit controversial, cola works well with gin.” Smith goes on to quote The Who’s song “Substitute”: “Substitute me for him / Substitute my coke for gin.” So if it’s good enough for The Who ...
The possibilities with gin cocktails are endless. For example, if you go with St. George Terroir gin with its herbaceous Douglas fir and coastal sage botanicals or Oakland Spirits Sea-Gin, you will want to show off those briny or green notes appropriately. While some bartenders might mix like with like (fresh rosemary with a rosemary-tinged gin, for one), Rivers encourages complementing and contrasting. “A citrus-forward gin doesn’t need more citrus, so think about what would highlight the citrus and compliment it? The same goes if a gin is floral. Everybody loves to mix patterns in clothes. Why not in drinks?”
The cocktail menu at Whitechapel is extensive with drinks like the Narc Angel painting on the canvas of a more classic London dry profile—in this case, Fords gin, which plays nicely with maraschino liqueur, orange curaçao, the bitter-sweet of Campari and bright tones of ginger, mint and lemon.
“Don’t be afraid to drink gin neat,” says Smith. “These days, a lot more gins are designed to be drunk neat. Gone are the days where drinking gin is like drinking a Christmas tree.” He explains that it’s easier than ever to find a gin that might feature flavors you prefer, whether you like cinnamon or cardamom, citrus or floral notes, “especially if you bring barrel-aged gins into the mix.” Barrel-aged gins have proliferated in recent years, particularly from small-batch distillers across the U.S. Longtimers like No. 209 in San Francisco even experiment with different barrels, aging its gin in sauvignon blanc or cabernet sauvignon wine barrels.
If you want to take this whole gin thing a step further, Smith geeks out with temperatures. “I like looking into how temperature changes the taste of a drink,” he says. “When you freeze gin, it changes the texture—it becomes thicker, more viscous. Then, as the gin warms up, the flavor profile opens up.” So try sticking a bottle in the freezer, as many do with vodka, and watch how the spirit unfolds.
If you really start to get into this gin thing, there is another realm: vintage gins. Generally, you’ll find more collectors’ bottles overseas in cities like Tokyo and in bars like Lebensstern in Berlin that stock more than a thousand spirits, including decades-old bottles available by the pour. Whitechapel is one of the rare American bars to find gin bottles that date back decades and that can be drunk.
“Gins weren’t necessarily meant to be drunk aged or to sit in a bottle for 40 years,” says Rivers. “[When trying out a vintage gin] I aerate it first, then pour and taste 10 minutes later, then another 10 minutes later, then an hour later [to see how it evolves and opens up]. The fun part is to see what the flavor palates were back in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s. They were much more grain-derivative back then—you could taste what the gin was made from. I love to give gin enthusiasts a chance to taste a Bombay [Sapphire] from the 1950s compared to one today and to discuss the differences.”