YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Flowering of cool new gins

July 12, 2006|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

I blame James Bond. Everything started going downhill, cocktail-wise, when he insisted on vodka martinis, shaken, not stirred. That sounded ultra-suave in the '60s, but the vodka martini has a fatal flaw -- it lacks the heady aromatics and complex palate of gin (which must be why Ian Fleming actually specified a mixture of vodka and gin in "Casino Royale"). A straight vodka martini is a cocktail with a hole in the middle.

People were bound to fill that hole with something, and just look at what they're doing. The sugary, imitation fruit-flavored vodka cocktails being poured these days make me feel I'm at some kind of naughty children's Kool-Aid party.

I say a lot of these cocktails are suffering from gin deprivation, and apparently I'm not the only one who feels gin has been unjustly neglected of late. There's more interest in gin these days than there has been in many years. "It's something I notice around town," says dining room manager Jeremy Allen of Norman's in West Hollywood. "I think people are exploring."

Here's the best sign of a gin revival: In recent years, a whole category of boutique gins has arisen alongside the long-established brands.

The bartenders' favorite seems to be Hendrick's, a Scottish gin, which is so distinctive and yet refined that it creates remarkable cocktails. But keep your eyes open at leading bars around town and you're likely to notice other unfamiliar names, such as Junipero, from the Bay Area; France's Citadelle; a gin made by a Sonoma winemaker, No. 209; and Old Raj, another Scottish entry.

Anchor Brewing had just started making a rye whiskey in 1996 when owner Fritz Maytag decided to make a gin as well -- and discovered how much there was to learn. "I made a list of all the ingredients anybody ever mentioned in gin," he says, "First we made a minimalist gin with the three basic ingredients everybody uses, then we added one botanical at a time to see what they do.

"We experimented and wandered in a wilderness for a long time. Then one day I just said, 'Stop, this is great.' " Maytag's Junipero is powerful and sculptured, loaded with gin's distinctive juniper flavor.

Leslie Rudd fell into gin, as it were, when he bought the Edge Hill Winery in St. Helena, Calif., and discovered that in 1882 it had become U.S. registered distillery No. 209, producing gin and other spirits. Napa County does not permit distilling anything but grape-based spirits such as brandy and grappa, so Rudd set up his No. 209 operation -- which uses a still custom-made for him in Scotland -- in San Francisco. It's a subtle, well-considered gin that makes a sophisticated cocktail.

Juniper's the key

GIN was invented for medicinal purposes by a 17th century Dutch physician named Franciscus Sylvius, who added juniper berries, spices and other botanicals to distilled spirits. During the 18th century, the English took to drinking gin for its alcohol content, but in the 19th century, despite gin's bad rep -- it had become a byword for alcohol abuse -- bartenders noticed that its crisp, piney flavor performed excellently in mixed drinks. In particular, it wedded beautifully with the body and winy aromas of vermouth. The all-time classic gin cocktail is the dry martini, created almost exactly 100 years ago, a cocktail so sleek and powerful it has been nicknamed the Silver Bullet.

As a result of this discovery, gin moved out of the categories of dubious medicine and cheap hooch to became one of the classic cocktail bases, along with whiskey, brandy, champagne and rum. Gin is the only one of that group that is never aged (or hardly ever -- Kensington, one of the boutique gins most appreciated by The Times tasting panel, is aged in oak) and gets its aroma entirely from added ingredients.

It starts as grain spirit (vodka, in effect; many gin distillers are also vodka-makers these days). The botanicals are steeped in it, it's distilled one more time, and voila: gin.

To be called gin, it has to include juniper berries -- its very name comes from the French or Dutch word for juniper. This provides gin's unique, refreshing outdoorsy scent. It always contains some citrus peel, either lemon or bitter orange or both. After that, the distiller has a huge range of choices. Coriander and anise are very common, but some gins use 20 or more botanicals such as cucumber, licorice, rose petals or almonds.

One of the most important is angelica, a cold-climate member of the carrot family that flourishes in Northern Europe. Angelica is astringent; it's the reason gin doesn't have a cloying aftertaste. Another traditional ingredient is orris root, which has a mild, funky herbal smell somewhat resembling violets. More important, orris root binds volatile aromas, which would otherwise evaporate more rapidly than they do.

Los Angeles Times Articles