Lifting the Spirits


Story and photos by Joel Levin
New Jersey Newspaper Group

Rocktown Arkansas Barrel Aged

A tale of two siblings...and their extended gin family

Gin is usually defined as a colorless, unaged distillation of grain which is flavored with juniper berries. Well, forget that, because in today's hip and inventive distiller minds, gins are no longer limited by what an uninformed dictionary thinks. More than a hundred different herbs, fruits, and spices are available for flavorings. They are based on wheat, corn, barley, or rye, to name the most common. One of the gins reviewed here is made from apples. And some have taken on a brown tinge and an entire new identity from wood-aging.

Some bottlings are dry classics, and some are in the Old Tom style, sweeter and smoother. Large liquor stores will carry dozens of gins of all varieties, whereas five years ago they would have shown only Tanqueray, Beefeater, and a handful of American industrial cheapies. Oy, the choices. So what's a buyer to do? I prescribe my usual advice of building a portfolio of gins, perhaps taking up two linear feet of bar real estate.

Our tasting panel of non-professionals moved through five aged-in-wood gins. There was not a dud in the batch. In fact, the panelists, three women and two men, were so stunned that I couldn't even get them to describe aromas and palate components by name. All they could say was "delicious," "beautiful," or "great." So what we have here is a whole new category of honey-blonde and light-brunette gins.

Greenhouse Ginsmiths

What these have in common is what the wood contributes to the taste. The base gins can have wildly differing recipes and tastes, but each tells a story of vanilla, spices, and lumber. On a 10-point scale, they ranged from 8 to 10, most of the differences arising from the exact mixture of aromatic botanicals in each example. There was, however, one overall winner, the Old Tom from Greenhook Ginsmiths.

Greenhook Old Tom looks promising, even in the bottle, a heavy handful of rounded clear glass adorned with a copper medallion necklace, and holding a promising-looking amber liquid. This innocent-appearing liquid is a potent 100 proof, tasty enough to drink neat, but strong enough to benefit from a half teaspoon of water. Its nose gives up spicy carnations, piney juniper, and vanilla. A deeper sniff yields rosemary and mint, but what the heck -- my panel was correct: This number from Greenhook is "delicious," so who needs adjectives? It's our number one choice because it has the most character, a tipple that has so much going for it that it can be a conversation piece at any party after guests have heard enough talk about politics.

The custom-fabricated still employs the use of a vacuum in the chamber, thus lowering the boiling point (think of adjusting recipes to compensate for altitude), and not overcooking the delicate ingredients. Distilled from corn and vacationing in both former Bourbon and sherry casks, Greenhook Old Tom is handmade in Brooklyn, USA, giving it the ultimate hipness branding.

Tom's sister-by-another-mother is Greenhook American Dry Gin, this sibling produced from wheat, organic no less. In fact, for you health nuts, every ingredient in this gin is organic. So, here's to your health! A more-manageable 94 proof and similar in style to a London Dry, its differences lie in a slight sweetness and an extremely rounded and welcoming style, perhaps rooted in its use of chamomile flowers, elderflowers, and real Sri Lankan cinnamon. Interesting side note: When the local wheat source dried up, the Greenhookers searched the globe to obtain a similar strain and have now contracted with an Italian producer to supply the grain.

"Tom" and "American" were born around the same day but one mysteriously went away for a while, and upon return appeared to have aged more, became mellower and more refined, and exhibited more depth of character (besides going from blonde to brunette). These two sibs from the Greenhook family are engaging as sippers, but can also be subbed in classic cocktails. Brother Tom adds a new whisky-like dimension to Martinis and Negronis, but mix it two-to-one with sweet red vermouth and you have a terrific twist on a Manhattan. Garnish with orange zest, please, and hold the cherry and the bitters.

Brandon's Barrel Reserve Gin from Rock Town Distillery is another gin with a story. In this tale, a software engineer took a buyout, fantasized building a still and proceeded to lobby Arkansas legislators to legalize the state's first distillery since prohibition. Judging from the number of taster tourists we saw streaming into this instant Little Rock landmark, and the bagsful of Rock Town goodies purchased for the trip home, this prolific producer has scored a big success. Nice going, Phil Brandon!

Brandon's hallmarks are aromas of cinnamon, shellac, leather, and Benedictine, with the unmistakable astringency of old oak. It's got an arresting peppery anise taste, mellowed by notes of vanilla, citrus, and mint hints. Its aromatics do not macerate in liquid as is customary. Instead, they are placed in a vessel and suspended within the distilling cavity where hot alcohol vapors "steam" them to release their essences. Is this method superior to others? Don't know, but the result is a happy one.

Brockmans Gin, a British import, is absolutely one-of-a-kind. When we tasted it at a charity event, Brockmans ambassadors were serving it straight or with tonic, but always with a few fresh blueberries. Point is, Brockmans is a category unto itself. It should be called "blueberry gin." That's because its hallmark is a very forward taste of blueberry even minus the berry garnish. This is not a clubby, old gin; it's low-roof (80), youthful and fun. Unsophisticated as it is, it was easily the most popular quaff at the party because you just can't not like it.

Exhibiting another style is a locavore entry from Washington state, Dry Fly Gin, another example of extreme formulating. The second flavoring after juniper is Fuji apple. Juniper gives it a gin I.D., while the apple gives it fruitiness. Bottom line is taste as clear as trout stream in March, with a peppermint-y aftertaste that gives it a refreshing zing.

Dry Fly Barrel Reserve Gin springs from the same base as above, but adds yummy minty oak to the crisp cleanliness of the unoaked. The pale brassy hue does not forecast the fruitiness, but swirl your glass a bit, and spicy apple zooms to the forefront.

From Austin comes Waterloo Antique Barrel Reserve Gin, which, according to the label, is "again as big as Texas." There's no argument there. It even looks big -- it's a dark golden brown -- and it measures 94 proof. It's impossible to detect the presence of juniper. Rather, it tastes like a rich rum loaded with molasses and floral notes. Anyone for Gin Rummy? The top note is vanilla mixed with old oak, with some mint and cloves. On the upper palate is sweetened lime juice like a self-contained brown gimlet. Waterloo is the sweetest of the lot, not a bad thing but it had to be considered when mixing. If you're going to drink it straight, give your mouth a break and add a few drops of water. It can take it. For sipping, no ice! At room temperature, it's a complex marvel. Its 94 proof is deceivingly gentle. It is easy to sip neat, either chilled or warm. And the molasses-mint taffy finish goes on and on and on.

Hudson Valley pioneer artisans Tuthilltown bring us Half Moon Orchard Gin. No lightweight at 92 proof, the 80/20 wheat/apple mash is distilled into a sprightly, tangy, spicy gin with a pleasant lemon drop finish showing no overt sweetness. It belongs on your gin shelf so you can show it off for its novelty and ask drinkers if they can identify the apple varieties. No cheating now -- the answer is honeycrisp, Macoun, Cortlandt, and yellow and red delicious.

Bootlegger Gin, also from the Catskill region, is a beauty in a bottle. Here is another take on classic London dry style, one with only five botanicals. It's distilled from 100 percent corn which gives it a very nice oily character with heavy mouth feel. It's an unfussy blend of juniper, iris root, lemon verbena, coriander seeds, and bitter orange. Juniper and mixed citrus are on the nose, with a subtle floral taste and satisfying fullness on palate and eh swallow. It finishes long and lemony. Bootlegger is 94 proof, gluten-free, and kosher.

Smooth Ambler Barrel Aged Gin

The final of today's gins has a name so long it requires a 13-inch-tall bottle. Smooth Ambler Stillhouse Collection Barrel Aged Gin Distiller's Choice is

from western West Virginia but tastes like a 99-proof  field of Tuscan herbs. Allspice, leather, caramel, and lavender hit the nose, while the taste is an oaky mixture of lime, apple pie, and, orange. It finishes limey, creamy, and long.




© March 2016 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.


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