The aim of this post is to compare different gins, and thus to learn about their character and uses in cocktails. Understanding the nuances of different gins is crucial to making good gin-based drinks, so the exercise of comparing gins is highly educational. The gins examined here represent a reasonably comprehensive snapshot of the ‘upper end’ of gins currently available in New Zealand, as well as a fair swathe of what is available internationally.
This post is by no means comprehensive. Many premium gins have yet to make it to New Zealand and thus are not featured. Gins from the cheap-and-nasty category are also not featured; sorry, but I wanted to spare myself. Several mainstream gins (e.g. Beefeater, Gordons, Seagrams, and so on) are excluded for reasons of low proof. In the case of Beefeater I believe only the New Zealand version is low proof, making the exclusion a bit unfortunate.
These ‘low proof’ gins clock in at 37.5%. I see 40% alcohol by volume as the bare minimum for a cocktail gin, with somewhere closer to 45% being preferable and anything over 45% being robust. Cocktails necessarily involve dilution. Even with the coldest ice on earth, a low initial proof will mean a diluted drink. Unless the gin is exceptionally strongly flavored I do not see how 37.5% can work well in a cocktail. In fact it seems more designed for the chug-it-on-a-park-bench crowd. If you belong to that crowd I apologize. No, I actually salute you – nervously of course, studiously avoiding eye contact, and without breaking pace as I hurry past.
Finally, New Zealand gins do feature in this comparison. New Zealand has a couple of local brands making ambitious claims. Since I am from New Zealand it makes sense to pit these local gins against international brands and see how they fare.
Gins Included in the Comparison
This comparison featured the following gins:
- Blackwood’s (Scotland)
- Blenheim Bay (New Zealand)
- Bombay Sapphire (England)
- Broker’s (England)
- Hendricks (Scotland)
- Junipero (United States)
- Martin Miller’s (England)
- Plymouth (England)
- South (New Zealand)
- Tanqueray (England)
- Tanqueray 10 (England)
This post is rather long. To make things easier, you can click each of the above gins to go directly to the relevant tasting notes. If you simply scroll down the page you will find the gins organized according to country, then alphabetically. The tasting methodology is described below. After experimenting with the various gins I wrote a post-tasting roundup which can be reached by clicking here.
The tasting was not blind, but it was comprehensive. The tasting procedures were as follows. The gins were tasted alongside one another, at room temperature, in wine glasses holding 20 ml samples. First I nosed each gin and compared it with the others. Then I tasted each gin and compared again. Then I added a splash of tonic to each, and tasted and compared again. This whole process took at least a couple of hours, including breaks to write notes, drink water, etc.
On a separate occasion I made a Martini from each gin (2 oz gin, ½ oz Noilly Prat dry vermouth, 5 drops Regans Orange Bitters, and a lemon twist garnish). Since the Martinis were made at separate times they were not compared with one another, making the Martini impressions more subjective than those from the first part of the tasting. Obviously it was not feasible to simultaneously make that many martinis and compare them.
On another occasion I used each gin in an Aviation (2 oz gin, ½ oz lemon juice, 1/3 oz Maraska Maraschino, 1/6 oz Brittotet Creme de Violette). The Aviation is essentially a gin sour, and since a sour is a very different type of drink to a Martini, a gin that works in one will not necessarily work in the other. The idea was to test the versatility of each gin.
In the case of some of the gins I made other cocktails in addition to a Martini and an Aviation, guided by my sense of what might work.
For each gin I start with brief product information, record impressions from the various stages of the tasting, and finish with a general comment or two.
The Urbane Englishmen
Bombay Sapphire (40% vol)
The release of this gin in 1987 pretty much got the premium gin category started. It is allegedly based on a 1761 recipe, and incorporates ten botanicals: almond, lemon peel, liquorice, juniper berries, orris root, angelica, coriander, cassia, cubeb berries and grains of paradise. Since the release of Bombay Sapphire the company’s original product, Bombay Dry Gin, has become hard to find. Bombay Dry Gin is said to have a more robust and traditional flavor profile, while Bombay Sapphire is positioned as more refined and sophisticated.
- Nose: Dry spices – like faded perfume. Little evidence of citrus or juniper, there is too much else going on. It differs from the other English gins in focusing on dry aromatics to the total exclusion of fruity elements. The ‘dry spice’ character reminds me of the Bokma Jonge from my earlier genever comparison. I wonder what spice that is? Part of it seemed to be angelica, but something else in there was even stronger.
- Taste: Multifaceted and complex. It is simultaneously spicy, dry and sweet. The dominant note is liquorice, and it borders on sickly sweet. Simultaneously there is lots of dry spice. Juniper is absent. There is a lingering dry and alcoholic aftertaste with only slight bitterness. Overall I do not much like it. This is a very confusing gin that does not taste at all like gin.
- Tonic: To my surprise it suddenly became very enjoyable with tonic. I am not sure if this is because the tonic tastes the edge off it, or because the flavors actually improve. Anyway, it makes for a nice dry gin and tonic. There is not much bitterness, but lots of interesting spice. My criticism would be that the flavor is a tad muddy and lacking in direction. There are interesting things going on, but the conclusion seems uncertain. Still good though.
- Martini: Pleasant but lacks bite. The light spicy character is nice, but there is no clear progression from initial taste to aftertaste. While there is lots of flavor, it is all light and spicy and superficial. I think this gin works well with tonic because the tonic supplies the bitterness missing in the gin. Anyway, it is not a bad Martini, but lacks the bite necessary to complete the drink.
- Aviation: This does not work. The light spiciness gets lost amidst the lemon juice and liqueurs, making for a drink with little going on besides a sweet and sour profile. The juniper bite that should give the drink its backbone is missing, and the result is confusing and directionless.
- Palm Beach Special: I made this with 2 ½ oz gin, ¾ oz grapefruit juice and ½ oz Italian vermouth, shaken over ice and served up. This was better than the Aviation, though I still think another gin would be equally good or better. As with tonic, Bombay Sapphire may work nicely with grapefruit here because the grapefruit provides the bitterness this very non-bitter gin lacks.
Final Comment: Too different to classify as a true gin. Mixing with this is likely to be disappointing unless you are very careful. It has its uses though, and makes a nice G&T.
Broker’s (40% vol)
This is a fairly new gin, being launched in 1998. It does not explicitly place itself in the ‘premium’ category, adopting a more low key approach to marketing. The producers do not seem to take themselves too seriously, and each bottle is capped with a distinctive bowler hat. The botanicals are juniper berries, orris root, coriander seeds, nutmeg, cassia, cinnamon, liquorice, orange peel, lemon peel, and angelica root. Cassia and cinnamon are very similar, and often substituted in cooking – with cassia being hotter and less fragrant. The use of both of these spices is interesting, and may account for this gin’s fragrant and woody notes.
Nose: Earthy, woody notes and juniper up front, followed by spice accented citrus.
Taste: The initial attack is mild, but when the full taste arrives it is very solid. Warm spices build towards a solid ball of juniper. Swallowing brings a lingering and tingling sensation of juniper, bitter spice, and a hint of citrus. The aftertaste does not resolve very tidily. You could see this either as a fault or as adding interest. I think I see it the latter way.
Tonic: Quite a mouth puckering gin and tonic, with juniper and quinine bitterness compounding one another. It is enjoyable but plain. You definitely want a citrus wedge in there, and I would also add a splash of bitters.
Martini: A solid Martini. The gin and vermouth combine almost too harmoniously, practically blending into one. Besides juniper, there is smooth citrus, a subtle liquorice note I had not previously detected, and miscellaneous spices. This lacks the bite and zing of some Martinis, but manages to simultaneously be easy drinking and have a fairly traditional profile.
Aviation: A sweetish but well rounded Aviation. The liqueurs shine through particularly brightly, but the juniper is big enough to provide balance. A woody note in the gin complements the maraschino. The aftertaste is long, slightly untidy, but interesting. Like Junipero (see below) this gin tends towards being simplistic, but is robust enough to work in a sour. A good mixing gin.
Jupiter: I made this with 1 1/2 oz gin, 3/4 oz Noilly Prat, and 1 tsp each of orange juice and Parfait Amour. The gin passed the test again, standing up fine to the big dose of vermouth. This gins makes for a conservative interpretation of the drink, with the liqueur alone providing the floral notes. That is probably as it should be. The gin does not dominate, but nor is it shoved aside. It works well.
Final Comment: A respectable mixing gin with a woody and spicy character. It makes a decent, if slightly plain, G&T and Martini. It is versatile in cocktails.
Martin Miller’s (45.2% vol)
This is a premium gin, launched in 2002. In the spirit of premium vodkas there is a gimmicky marketing story. Specifically, the distilled spirit is shipped to Iceland where it is mixed with pure glacier waters before being shipped back to England for bottling. Wow dude, it must be like, really. . . pure, or something. Disregarding the hype, the botanicals are juniper berries, orange peel, lemon peel, coriander, liquorice, cinnamon, cassia, nutmeg, angelica and orris root. A ‘secret ingredient’, rumored to be cucumber, is added to the spirit after distillation. This gin comes in two strengths, a 40% vol standard version and a 45.2% Westbourne Strength. I tasted the Westbourne Strength.
Nose: Intense aroma, with fragrant roots up front, orangey citrus, and a floral note that hangs over everything and softens it. For some reason I seem to be perceiving the cucumber as ‘floral’ rather than ‘vegetal’. Mind you, orris root is said to have a violet smell, so I may be smelling that.
Taste: Citrus, rich spice, and gentle rounded edges. The juniper is restrained but still makes its presence felt. The aftertaste is gentle, leaving behind mild juniper, citrus, warm spices like nutmeg, and palate cleansing cucumber. Smooth and delicate, but not too sweet. I like the nutmeg aspect. My concern would be that this gin is a little delicate for mixing; the strong floral aspects also do not help in this regard.
Tonic: Tonic killed this one. The nose more or less disappeared. No aspect of the taste stood out especially. It was pleasant enough, but the tonic masked the gin more than it complemented it.
Martini: A Martini brings the spicy elements of this gin to the fore and nudges the floral notes into the background. There was the suggestion of a ‘Christmas orange’ type taste – I am thinking a clove studded orange stewed in spiced wine. Some of this may be coming from the orange bitters. It is a nicely balanced drink, if slightly delicate. That is, though it is easy to drink and tastes well balanced, at this ratio the vermouth threatens to dominate – and the vermouth undoubtedly would dominate if I was using the 40% alcohol by volume version. This gin could be a touch more robust. The perfect martini gin should easily stand up to a slug of vermouth. That said, this is a respectable modern gin that manages to be creative while remaining true to its roots. It is just a rather delicate take on classic gin. Overall a good Martini gin, with potential to convert non-Martini drinkers.
Aviation: Makes for a smooth and sophisticated Aviation. Rather than a distinct juniper bite, the juniper is just one brick in a larger wall of spice. It is smooth and balanced. The emphasis is on the subtler spicy botanicals, not citrus and juniper, and the aftertaste is satisfyingly long. The floral notes from the creme de violette are present without running riot. This reminds me of how Bombay Sapphire would taste in an Aviation if it worked. The orris root adds an further floral dimension. This gin makes a classy if subtle Aviation. It may not be the ultimate Aviation, but it is hard to fault.
Final Comment: A nice ‘modern’ Martini gin, but take care when mixing with it. This gin should be widely appealing, and does not depart too far from tradition.
Plymouth (41.2% vol)
This gin is very old, having been produced since 1793. Arguably Plymouth is a unique gin style that predates London Dry and has a softer character. The formula includes seven botanicals: juniper berries, lemon peel, orange peel, orris root, angelica, cardamom and coriander.
Nose: Rich citrus, and soft rather than sharp. Hints of spice behind the citrus. Very pleasant.
Taste: Pleasant multi-layered citrus flavor, backed up by some bitterness. The aftertaste is long, with a teasing tingling sensation on the tongue gradually resolving into bitterness. Orange aromas linger in the mouth.
Tonic: An underwhelming gin and tonic. My criticism would be that it is a bit sweet. The big emphasis on citrus means there is little to counter the sweet notes in the tonic (at least in the case of Schweppes). As with some of the other gins, the addition of tonic brought out the dry and aromatic botanicals, but they remained subtle. There are better gins out there for mixing with tonic.
Martini: Makes a light, smooth, and easy drinking Martini. You get multi-layered citrus up front, faint suggestions of spice, then bringing up the rear is a subtle but satisfying juniper and bitter citrus bite. The gin is not exactly assertive (unlike say Junipero), but nor is it the least cowed by the vermouth. The two balance nicely. Traditionalists would say it lacked juniper bite. Sophisticates would say it lacked complexity. Normal people would just quietly enjoy it. This is good, and possibly a gin for converting non Martini drinkers.
Aviation: This Aviation is smoother than some, but possesses enough bite to stop it becoming a simple ‘sweet and sour’ story. The bite tends towards citrusy rather than junipery though. It works fine, but there are better Aviation gins out there. While this gin is robust enough to work in a gin sour, its citrusy flavors might be more at home in a White Lady than an Aviation. That said, this gin passes the test OK.
Final Comment: An excellent all round gin. It has an easy drinking character and mixes exceptionally well. A good introductory gin for non gin drinkers, and a great standby for gin aficionados.
Tanqueray (40% vol)
Another old gin, dating back to 1830. The spirit is quadruple distilled, with the botanicals introduced during the final distillation. The only botanicals named are juniper, coriander and angelica, but presumably others are also in there.
Nose: Juniper, sharp citrus, and hints of other aromatics. The impression is rich, smooth, full, and slightly pungent.
Taste: I would call this a nice standard gin taste. Strong juniper, offset with citrus and suggestions of other aromatics. The mouth feel has some pleasant rich oiliness. The aftertaste lingers as light bitterness on the tongue. There is not much alcoholic burn. Still, it feels like it could be more intense. At times the taste seemed on the point of falling apart. This may have something to do with the fairly low proof (only 40%). I remember the full proof Tanqueray as being similar but far more intense and integrated.
Tonic: Tonic seems to bring out the citrus notes. It is pleasant but not very interesting. The Bombay has more happening, even if I do not especially like it.
Martini: I have mostly been using Plymouth in my Martinis recently, but Tanqueray is nicer than I remember. This Martini is smooth and rich, with a nice balance of juniper and vermouth aromatics. There is a not unpleasant oily feel on the tongue. The orange from the bitters blends in nicely but still makes its presence felt (and perhaps could be scaled back just a notch and still sensed). The aftertaste is clean citrus with some lingering bitterness. Everything is nicely balanced and integrated, and there is a good depth of flavor. The drink stays pleasant as it warms up. If I were to fault it I would say that it is a little lightweight, and that the vermouth dominates just a fraction this ratio. However, I suspect this feeling is more related to the low proof of New Zealand Tanqueray (40% vol) than the Tanqueray formula itself. I never noticed this issue with higher proof Tanqueray.
Aviation: A well balanced aviation. The gin stands up fine to the lemon juice and liqueurs, giving the drink a structure that makes it more than just sweet and sour. It is mostly about citrus and juniper bite though, with the subtler botanicals relegated to second place by the liqueurs and juice. I think I prefer the high proof Tanqueray in this drink. From memory the higher proof Tanqueray makes a very bracing Aviation with a limey edge.
Final Comment: A richly flavored gin that is good in Martinis and for general mixing. It is robust and traditional rather than sophisticated and creative. However, the high proof version seems (from memory at least) markedly superior to the 40% version.
Tanqueray 10 (47.3% vol)
This premium version of Tanqueray was introduced in 2000, apparently to cater to Martini drinkers and gin purists. It differs from other gins in that the fruit botanicals (including grapefruit, orange and lime) are added in fresh rather than dried form. Besides fruit the botanicals also include juniper and chamomile. The promotional material stresses that this gin can be enjoyed neat.
Nose: Less rich and intense than the standard Tanqueray. Citrus dominates, with juniper taking a back seat. Structurally it is more a delicate perfume than a solid aroma punch.
Taste: Sharp, intense and sweetish. Lime and juniper dominate. There is some fruitiness, a suggestion of gingery heat, and a light bittersweet effect. Overall it is smooth, delicate, and easy to drink. The flavor profile almost seems designed not to be mixed, despite the fairly high alcohol. There is an odd glycerin character – i.e. sweetness.
Tonic: Makes an extremely limey gin and tonic. This almost needs no citrus garnish. I probably prefer the standard Tanqueray with tonic. The Tanqueray 10 G&T takes the limey character of the standard Tanqueray version a step further but offers little else. The delicate profile is masked by the tonic and little but lime remains.
Martini: Smooth, rounded, with a big emphasis on fruity citrus. Not as bracing as some Martini gins, but pleasant and easy to drink, with a gentle attack and a lingering aftertaste. The vermouth dominates a little, masking the character of the gin somewhat. The vermouth should probably be reduced when making a martini with this gin.
Lillet Martini: Instead of reducing the vermouth, I made a Martini variation with Lillet in place of Noily Prat (2 oz gin, 1/2 oz Lillet, 5 drops orange bitters, lemon twist). The drink tended towards being sweet and fruity, but the Lillet let the characteristics of the gin shine through better than the vermouth did. The orange bitters was not entirely necessary, and could have been reduced to just a drop. A 50/50 split between Lillet and Noily Prat might produce a better drink.
Rin Quin Quin Martini: I made a Martini variation with 2 oz gin, ¼ oz Rin Quin Quin, ¼ oz Noilly Prat, 5 drops of Regans Orange Bitters, and a lemon twist garnish. I did not do a side by side comparison, but this seemed better than the Lillet version above. It was interesting anyway. The delicate gin let the peach flavors shine, and the scaled back dose of dry vermouth provided complexity without dominating too much.
Aviation: Not a great aviation gin. Thin rather than rounded. The fruity notes of the gin fuse with the fruity and floral liqueurs, and the contrast required to round out the drink is lacking. This threatens to become another vodka-cocktail ‘sweet-and-sour’ story. While the juniper bite is there, it is weak and one-dimensional. Those wanting a ‘sophisticated’ rather than a ‘robust’ take on the Aviation should probably go for Martin Millers, which is light handed but does the job. Tanqueray 10 falls flat.
Final Comment: The heavy citrus notes and sweetness probably probably make this an appealing gin to many. I would say the basic Tanqueay was the better gin though. It seems hard to call Tanqueray 10 a good Martini gin given that making a balanced Martini out of it requires reducing the vermouth to an almost infinitesimal amount. Tanqueray 10 is also not a versatile mixing gin – at least so far as traditional drinks are concerned. Tanqueray 10 is tasty, but its applications seem limited.
The Eccentric Scots
Hendricks (44% vol)
This product was launched in 2000, and so far as I know it started the recent trend towards floral gins. The initial distillation includes unspecified botanicals. The distilled spirit is then infused with the two very non-traditional flavors of rose and cucumber.
Nose: Big, soft, floral aroma. You can smell the rose. There also seems to be some citrus. Interesting, but hard to know what to make of it.
Taste: Sweet and floral, but with some bitterness to balance. For some reason I do not really detect the cucumber drinking it straight, though I remember noticing it in mixed drinks. Smooth with no unpleasant notes. The aftertaste is lasting and rose scented.
Tonic: The floral character seemed intensified. The cucumber became more noticeable, as did the spices. The tonic brought out dimensions I had not noticed when drinking it straight, and in a pleasant way. I am not sure if the floral character really matches a gin and tonic. A cucumber garnish would help cater to its unconventional identity. Very enjoyable, but too unconventional to be my ideal gin and tonic gin.
Martini: Very smooth and drinkable. The rose character is an interesting presence but does not fight with the other botanicals. An unconventional Martini, which for me prevents it from being ‘the ultimate Martini gin’. However, it is nice.
Aviation: This Aviation is floral, focused on the initial flavors and aromas, and weak on the aftertaste. It is less floral than Blackwood’s, and the rose notes possibly integrate with the violet better than the more eccentric floral characteristics of the Blackwood’s do. However, it still seems a bit confused and inconsistent with what an Aviation should be. There is just too much going on aroma-wise and not enough juniper. A poor Aviation gin.
Blackthorne: I made this with 1 ½ oz gin, ¾ oz Dubonnet, and ¾ oz Kirsch. Very smooth and pleasant. It may be my imagination, but the rose aromas in the gin seem to peek pleasantly around the edges of the kirsch.
Final Summary: This gin deserves credit for winning popularity through an unconventional approach. The floral flavor profile and lack of juniper prevent it from being an all-purpose mixing gin for traditional drinks. On the other hand, it makes a pleasant Martini or G&T, and has potential in recipes that are tailor made to match its special characteristics. Enjoy it, but use with caution.
Blackwood’s (40% vol – 2003 vintage*)
I cannot find the exact year this gin was launched, but it appears to have been shortly after 2000. The gin is produced on Shetland, a remote island located far off the northeast coast of Scotland. Shetland has a heavy Norse influence (geographically it is half-way to Norway) and this no doubt explains the Viking longboat on the label. Besides gin, the producers of Blackwood’s are also involved in establishing Shetland’s first commercial whiskey distillery. Blackwood’s is an unusual gin, with the botanicals including wild plants harvested on Shetland itself. The non-traditional Shetland sourced botanicals are sea pinks and meadow sweet (both flowers), and wild water mint. The producers have even experimented with seaweed. Other botanicals include angelica and coriander (harvested on Shetland), as well as citrus peel, cinnamon, nutmeg, liquorice, orris, juniper, tumeric and violet flowers (sourced elsewhere). This gin pours with a faint green tinge, almost like the sea.
Nose: Dry spices like Bombay Sapphire, but the much lower intensity lets fresher herbal scents show through as well. You can pick out mint. There is citrus too, but it is more a light presence than something that leaps out. An unusual gin with a funky and interesting nose.
Taste: Comes alive in your mouth, releasing a host of floral and herbal flavors. The floral character reminds me of Hendricks but is drier and more multi-faceted. I like it. The aftertaste hangs around as persisting bitterness, plus fruity and herbal flavors. If you were to criticize you would call the taste confused. I enjoy it though.
Tonic: I really enjoyed what the tonic did to this. The nose stayed floral but somehow the spices were dragged further to the fore. The sweet herbal dimensions were also exposed. With tonic this gin makes a very clean and unusual drink, filled with interesting but hard to pin down tastes.
Martini: Makes a nice martini, tending towards smooth, floral and slightly sweet. Not bracing and junipery enough be the ultimate martini gin, but tasty nonetheless. The bitter-sweet quality (from the herbs and flowers?) makes a gentler alternative to the classic juniper bite of more mainstream gins. This could be a Martini with potential to convert non Martini drinkers.
Aviation: This does not quite work. The result is not unpleasant, but it is too floral and too much about ‘sweet-and-sour’. As with the Bombay Sapphire, this gin simply lacks sufficient backbone to stand up to the liqueurs and lemon juice in this cocktail. Big floral notes fade away into an invisible aftertaste. That said, in a different drink the floral notes in this gin would probably mix well with floral liqueurs.
Jupiter Cocktail: This drink (1 Â½ oz gin, Â¾ oz dry vermouth, 1 tsp parfait amour, 1 tsp orange juice, stir, serve up) produced an intriguing result. The blossomy fragrance in the Parfait Amour works well with the wild flowers in the gin. A bitter-sweet character takes hold as the vanilla in the liqueur and the bitter herbs indulge in a bit of a play fight. The drink is greenish rather than purple. Maybe it should be renamed Neptune? Most enjoyable.
Final Summary: I find this gin very enjoyable, but the extreme floral flavors are not going to be for everybody. Obviously the floral character limits the versatility of this gin in terms of mixing traditional drinks. The alleged variation between vintages presents a further challenge*. An interesting and enjoyable product, but use with caution and be prepared for occasional disappointment.
* Blackwood’s is supposedly made to different formulations every summer depending on the vagaries of weather and distiller’s whim. There is a bit of online discussion about this gin varying greatly between different years. For example, short, wet summers during 2006 and 2007 led to the angelica component being reduced because little locally grown angelica was available. In short, it is an eccentric and variable product, so be prepared for inconsistencies over time.
The Unassuming Kiwis
South (40.2% vol)
This gin was launched by the 42 Below vodka company, famous for their off-beat advertisements. The juniper is scaled back to let other botanicals shine. Besides juniper the botanicals include coriander, orris, angelica, sweet orange, lemon peel, gentian, manuka berries and kawakawa leaves. Manuka and kawakawa are native to New Zealand and reputed to have medicinal properties.
Nose: Dry spices with just a little citrus. The nose is lighter than any of the other gins. Whatever is going on is quite subtle. The angelica makes its presence felt though. This reminds me of Bombay Sapphire more than anything else, but is much less intense.
Taste: Juniper bite, oily citrus, and dry spices that include an interesting peppery character. I am guessing the peppery taste comes from the New Zealand botanicals, manuka berries and kawakawa leaves, and likely the latter. This gin is pleasant to hold in your mouth and savor. The taste somehow seems not to resolve itself very well on swallowing though. The aftertaste carries a lingering peppery note, but is slightly one dimensional.
Tonic: The tonic removes whatever aroma this gin had. With tonic the taste became extremely light, with the peppery character remaining detectable. While perfectly drinkable, I suspect tonic kills this gin more than it complements it. Maybe this gin is just too light to start off with?
Martini: The gin does not give much resistance to the vermouth. The peppery finish manages to survive and is quite interesting. The drink lacks character but is not unpleasant. This gin needs a much bigger dose of aromatics, particularly juniper.
Aviation: The juniper bite is lacking, but the light pepper finish goes some way towards making up for it. The drink tastes too sweet. Not bad in a light-weight kind of way. A more assertive gin would work better.
White Lady: In a White Lady (1 ½ oz gin, ¾ oz lemon juice, ¾ oz Marie Brizard Triple Sec, 1 egg white) the pepper notes in the gin create a gentle ‘lemon and pepper’ effect, leaning heavily towards lemon. A cracked peppercorn in the shaker might further bring out the pepper aspect. The aftertaste is short. This is different and interesting, but a bit limp wrested.
Final Summary: Too lightweight to be truly interesting, despite having some potential. The inclusion of native New Zealand botanicals is a nice idea, but the product needs a much fuller flavor.
Blenheim Bay (42.5% vol)
This gin is produced by a company called Prenzel that is also involved in fruit liqueurs, specialty oils, vinegars and other gourmet food items. The botanicals include juniper, cassia, angelica, liquorice, hyssop, orris, coriander, elemi, bitter orange peel, sweet orange peel and lemon peel. After successes at one or two international spirits competitions the producers are touting this gin as the best in the world.
Nose: Unusual compared to the others. A distinctly sweet smell, like lemon candy. Strong citrus with lemon dominating. An odd ‘winey’ smell that I would not normally associate with gin – my guess is that it comes from a sweetening agent. The aroma is not well integrated, and seems on the brink of falling apart and perhaps revealing something unpleasant.
Taste: The immediate impression is of sweet citrus – mainly lemon. There was a sense of tasting the sweetness separately from the other flavors. It sounds silly but it was almost as though there was a ‘sweet’ flavor in there with everything else ‘glycerin’ would be how I would describe it. Liquorice is discernible. This gin is not very integrated. It is like swallowing a cocktail of essential oils that then separate in your mouth. The aftertaste is alcoholic heat on the tongue plus lemon aroma on the roof of the mouth.
Tonic: The sweet citrus candy character was intensified by the tonic. The result was weird, and increasingly like drinking lemon oil rather than gin. This gin is just badly balanced.
Martini: The first impression was just ‘not very nice’. It is sharp, very lemony (but still the weird lemon candy taste) and a little soapy. It is simply not well integrated. The separate flavors seem to be fighting. It is also quite harsh.
Aviation: Not a good drink. Even the maraschino finds itself fighting with the omnipresent lemon candy taste. The bad qualities of this gin are sufficiently strong to show through even in a heavily liqueur flavored sour like the Aviation.
White Lady: A White Lady helps hide the flaws of this gin. It isn’t exactly good, but it is less bad than the other cocktails. It works because the lemony quality of the gin is at least pulling in the same direction as the triple sec.
Final Summary: A bad quality and unbalanced gin that is best avoided. Just possibly I am having a bad response to the Elemi, a fragrant oil with a ‘lemon and pine’ character used to flavor this gin. I don’t like Earl Grey tea, and perhaps Elemi is similar to oil of bergamot in taste. However, I think the gin is simply poorly made.
The Quiet American
Junipero (49.3% vol)
The long established Anchor Brewing Company became involved in distilling in 1993. Their regular product range includes several whiskeys as well as this gin. The specific botanicals in this gin are a secret, though clearly it has a heavy juniper profile.
Nose: A fairly light aroma, mostly of juniper, backed up by a little hot spice. It is simple and solid rather than elaborate and perfumed. Citrus does not feature.
Taste: Uncomplicated but intense juniper and spice taste. No citrus, just juniper and a little hot spice. It is quite a big taste, with the emphasis heavily on juniper. Bitter juniper lingers in the aftertaste. A taste like this almost demands to be complemented by something else. This gin should be pretty good for mixing.
Tonic: Such complexities as the gin has get masked by tonic, leaving behind nothing much besides a robust bitterness. Not bad, but you definitely want a citrus wedge to round out the flavor. I like a dash of bitters in a G&T anyway, but bitters become almost a requirement here. Tasty in a basic way.
Martini: Full flavored. A big juniper bite, without clever distractions. I would call this a good Martini gin. The taste is crisp and intense rather than ‘oily’ like Tanqueray. The vermouth definitely rounds out the flavor rather than fighting or overwhelming it. If you were to fault it you would say it was insufficiently complex. I think it is a nice gin for a vermouth heavy martini. The assertive character is boosted by the high proof.
Aviation: A nice bracing drink. The gin provides the juniper bite needed to balance the maraschino and creme de violette. Given the uncomplicated nature of this gin, the liqueurs get to dominate the initial taste, while the juniper takes over in the aftertaste. It works nicely. Some would say there not enough was going on. I am torn between calling this a great mixing gin and criticizing it for lacking complexity. I like its simplicity, and I like the fact it works when relegated to a supporting role; this is what gin should do, and too many modern premium gins fail in this regard. However, its simplicity threatens to become a flaw. Anyway, this gin has the backbone to work in a sour, somewhere a lot of premium gins fall flat.
Final Summary: A robust mixing gin. This should work well in any gin cocktail, with the high proof and strong taste providing ample backbone. Those wanting a complex and multi-layered gin may be disappointed though.
This exercise has been hugely educational for me, giving me a far better understanding of the nuances of gin. I encourage anyone reading to try something similar if they haven’t already. The gin market is characterized by increasingly diverse flavor profiles. While gin is growing in popularity, it is no longer simply ‘gin’. Making a good gin drink increasingly requires understanding individual brands. You cannot simply throw a random gin into a recipe and expect things to work.
The ‘unginlike’ nature of many of the new premium gins is a concern. While the growing appreciation of gin is good, there has been a trend towards non-confrontational gins that are easy to appreciate with minimal mixing. Personally I am the type that likes to be smacked around occasionally. I also think a spirit that already tastes almost like a mixed drink is likely to be difficult to mix with.
Getting all academic for a moment, the growing popularity of gin seems to be accompanied by two dangers: vodkaization and balkanization. While many of the new gins are nice, they do not always have sufficient backbone to stand up to other ingredients in classic cocktails. I think of this trend towards smooth and lightly flavored gins as vodkaization. Equally, many of the new gins have eccentric flavor profiles that may be less versatile, at least in mixing old-school drinks, than traditional juniper focused gins. I think of this trend as balkanization. Inventiveness is fantastic, but care needs to be taken when using more eccentric products. Few bartenders appreciate the limitations of using non-traditional gins in traditional drinks.
The fact that many of the modern gins got drowned in the conservatively mixed Martinis and Aviations I tested here demonstrates my point. The classic Martini ratio is 2:1, so by mixing the Martinis in this comparison at 4:1 I was already being quite modern. Any serious gin should assert itself at this ratio. Furthermore, any serious gin should be able to handle the ½ oz of lemon juice I put in my Aviations. At 2 oz gin to 1 oz of combined lemon juice and liqueurs, my Aviations were already dry and gin oriented. For general purpose mixing then, and even classic Martinis, I prefer more traditional gins. The modern gins make a nice change occasionally, but recipes might need to be adjusted to compensate.
My favorites among the traditional gins were probably Tanqueray (at least the full strength version) for a full flavored gin and Plymouth for something lighter. That said, Broker’s and Junipero were both good, if perhaps slightly lacking in terms of balance and complexity. Beefeater is another good traditional gin, even if I did not include it here. Among the non-traditional gins I liked Blackwood’s and Martin Miller’s, with Miller’s being the more traditional and versatile of the two. Hendricks did not grab me so much, perhaps only because it was no longer new to me at the time of tasting. I can see why it is widely appealing though. As for the New Zealand products, New Zealand has a way to go yet in terms of gin. Finally, I found Bombay Sapphire may have something to offer after all, despite me having long avoided it after bad experiences with Aviations and White Ladies. In fact, Bombay Sapphire it not exactly bad, it is just a modern gin that does not work well in older recipes.
Feel free to post your own thoughts on this comparison. Do you agree that gin as a category is fragmenting into mild but often eccentric modern gins versus robust traditional gins? Do you have any comments on the gins I compared? What about the gins I did not cover? Which gins do you like to use in different drinks?