It used to be that the bottles of gin lining the back bar existed only to offer customers a premium option — something different from whatever brand populated the rail. With the recent renaissance of cocktail culture, however, this spirit has developed increased significance as mixologists learn that where cocktails are concerned, not all gins are created equal.
Technically speaking, distinguishing between gins is fairly simple. According to Liquid Solutions bar and beverage consultant Philip Duff’s presentation at the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail, a plain gin must be at least 37.5 percent alcohol, consist of ethyl alcohol and flavorings, and have a predominant taste of juniper.
A distilled gin, on the other hand, must meet the same strength requirements but be redistilled with juniper and/or flavorings, while a London dry gin is redistilled to the same minimum strength using all-natural botanicals — no flavoring allowed.
To these three classes, Duff adds Old Tom gin. In Gary Regan’s book, “The Bartender’s Gin Compendium,” cocktail historian David Wondrich says that Old Tom may have been a euphemism for ordinary gin in the 1700s. Today, however, it implies a full-bodied, sweetened gin, or genever, the historic Dutch precursor to gin.
As to how each should be used, Duff offers the following:
“Regardless of how it’s made [gin, distilled gin or London gin], I recommend matching it to the recipe. Historical-origin recipes will specify gin, Old Tom or genever, and I would use, respectively, a balls-out juniper-bomb-type gin; a proper Old Tom; and any 100 percent malt wine, all-grain genever. For any recipe developed post-1998, it should specify the gin, and if it doesn’t, I tend to use a somewhat balanced modern gin.”
The “balance” that Duff references alludes to the delineation between what Tony Abou-Ganim, author of “The Modern Mixologist,” characterizes as “masculine” and “feminine” styles of gin. “The modern [feminine] style of gin seems to be softer, fruity and floral with big notes of citrus. More traditional [masculine] gins are much more robust and juniper forward,” Abou-Ganim explained. “To know which gin works best in which cocktail is to truly understand and embrace the gin category.”
Abou-Ganim’s feminine gins may be said to include those spirits sometimes referred to as New Western Dry Gins, a designation that is not without its controversial aspects. Duff rejects the notion entirely, declaring that the flavor profiles of such gins “are not Western, are very often not dry and may not even be very new.” Regardless of your position on the “style,” however, there is little question that lighter, more aromatized and delicate gins do exist, and that they may be eclipsed by the strong flavors in such cocktails as the Negroni or even a gin and tonic made with one of the bolder brands of tonic on the market.
Thus, where gin-based drinks are concerned, the choice of gin becomes of paramount importance. And the best way to adjudicate as to which style might work best — masculine or feminine, Old Tom or genever — is, as Abou-Ganim puts it, “to taste, taste, taste and experiment.” n