Previously, on recommendations from a fancy [insert spirit here] shopgirl, Allison Shoemaker suggested six whiskeys (mostly bourbons), five ryes, and six vodkas. This week, gin. Yes, she will eventually do Scotch.
Gin’s a classic. A proper Martini requires gin. A Negroni requires gin. Tom Collins? Gin. Aviation? Gin. Gin and tonic? Vodka. (Gotcha.) Gimlets, French 75s, Bee’s Knees, and Greyhounds all call for gin. Any good bar cart requires at least one good gin. Narrowing the choices to just one? That’s the hard part.
The reason for that—or the biggest one, anyhow—is that when it comes to gin, the color palette is enormous. (That’s especially true when you fold genever, gin’s cool predecessor, into the mix.) There’s the London Dry style, for sure, and that’s what probably first comes to mind for those who say, “pine trees, yuck” when they hear the very word. But while there are some great (and less-than-great) London Dry gins in the world, there’s a whole lot more out there.
There’s a simple reason for that wide, wide variety. The legal definition of gin in this country is, briefly, a neutral spirit with a characteristic flavor derived from distilling or mixing the spirit with juniper and other botanicals, at an ABV of no less than 40 percent (or 80 proof). It’s because of the “other botanicals” and optional barrel-aging that’s there’s so much flavor variety. And the variety is what makes gin so much fun (and so tasty).
As always, a few caveats. I’m highlighting craft spirits from mostly smaller distilleries, so yes, Hendrick’s is delicious, but you won’t find it below. I’m based in Chicago, so while I try to taste spirits from all over the place, odds are I haven’t tried that amazing gin from Connecticut you love so much. (Wish I had!) Tastes are subjective, so what I love, you might not love, and I’ll admit I gravitated toward some more unusual offerings for this list. I love (like, love) barrel-aged gins, but limited myself to just the one here—so seriously, try a bunch of barrel-aged gins, they are so delicious. And last, these are just some recommendations, not a ranking of any kind. With that, some cool-ass gin recommendations from a fancy gin shopgirl.
Distiller’s Gin No. 11 (North Shore Distillery, Illinois), around $29
A gin in the London Dry style, lots of warmth and juniper, though with some unexpected citrus, pepper, and spice. Silky and smooth. A bonkers bargain, truth be told—this gin has no business selling at this price. It’s not just my favorite reasonably priced gin, but my favorite dry gin, period. North Shore’s other gins are similarly excellent, though the Mighty Gin, at 110 proof, will knock you on your ass.
Terra Botanical Gin (Cardinal Spirits, Indiana), around $30
This is such a cool spirit. Loads of botanicals, including some you don’t often find in a gin. The most prevalent is “zuta, an unusual mint from Israel,” which gives it a kind of minty earthiness. Cardinal calls this “wilderness is a bottle,” and it’s totally accurate. It’s like drinking a walk in a still, verdant wood. This is my go-to gin for people who want to make gin cocktails but don’t love gin. (Happens more than you’d think.)
Dry Rye Gin (St. George Spirits, California), around $35
Another dry gin with an unexpected twist. St. George suggests this spirit as a case for any gin- or rye-based cocktails, and I can tell you firsthand that it works. Loads of juniper, but with a pot-distilled rye base that lends a very different malty character. Other botanicals include black peppercorn, caraway, coriander, grapefruit peel, and lime peel. Makes the best Negroni I’ve ever had. There’s also a barrel-aged version of this I’m dying to try.
Empress 1908 (Victoria Distillers, British Columbia, Canada), around $35
Remember back when we wrote about Aldi U.K.’s cool, color-changing gin? This does that. Like Aldi’s gin, it’s infused with butterfly pea flower, which shifts dramatically in hue when citrus or tonic is added. It’s really cool, but that’s not all that recommends this gin. It’s got a great backstory and a gorgeous flavor profile, the result of eight botanicals, including Fairmont Empress Blend Tea.
Wild Botanical Gin (Glendalough Distillery, County Wicklow, Ireland), around $40
Fair warning: I’ve seen the price on this one fluctuate a lot. Some of that may be due to the manner in which it’s made. I’ve had representatives of Glendalough tell me that they’re the only distillery in the world to use fresh-foraged botanicals, which go right into the still within hours—either right into the pot, or hung in a basket. And it never quite tastes the same, bottle to bottle. Their methods are impressive, the results no less so, and their seasonal gins are every bit as good.
Here’s my barrel-aged beloved. Like Barr Hill Vodka, Tom Cat is distilled from honey. The non-aged version is great, too, but there’s something about the combination of the honey, the juniper, and the barrel-aging that makes this totally irresistible. Not the kind of thing you use for cocktails. Plop an ice cube in it, if you’re so inclined, and sip. If Terra is the gin I recommend for people who hate gin, then this is the gin I recommend for people who love whiskey. Rich, complex, and simply gorgeous. Pricy and worth every gol-darned penny.
If you’re drinking good gin, mix it with good tonic.