Rey Lopez
The Tico in Washington, D.C., part of Schlow Restaurant Group, is a fun setting for gin to inch its way into the cocktail menu, as it does with the Cool Hand Luke, which combines gin, lemon, cucumber, pink Peppercorn, and mint.

Gin Stars in the Craft Cocktail Movement

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New World gins are bringing a kaleidoscope of flavors to craft cocktails.

By Alia Akkam November 2016 Bar Management

Gin plays a starring role in a number of classic cocktails—the Negroni, the Bee’s Knees, and the Gimlet among them. Most often it is coveted in the forms of the elegant Martini and summer’s go-to Gin & Tonic. However, for decades juniper-laden gin took a backseat to vodka, the clear spirit of choice among drinkers. But with palates increasingly shifting toward the adventurous, new gin selections are spawning imaginative cocktails. 

Since the 1950s, vodka is the spirit that has captivated Americans—for a number of reasons, says Jason Logie, beverage director of The Mixing Room in the JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. LIVE. “Vodka was imported from Russia and was thus exotic; James Bond drank it in a Martini and was thus chic; and it was the base for popular drinks of the era like the Moscow Mule, Bloody Mary, and Screwdriver. But as cocktail culture has grown in the States, bartenders have begun to see the versatility and nuance that gin offers, and they want to play with that complexity,” he explains.

Christine Kim of Schlow Restaurant Group, who oversees the bar programs at Chef Michael Schlow’s five Washington, D.C., establishments, agrees. “Vodka had such a strong hold on the market—and let’s be real, people don’t like change—I think it took a while for the general public to be open to trying new things.” Also, Kim continues, “It took a long time for those working behind the bar to get a real grasp on the different types of gins and to educate consumers.”

Before its reputation was marred by Prohibition’s onslaught of toxic bathtub interpretations, gin was embraced in cocktails. But without that rich context, in the aftermath of the “Noble Experiment” it was simply deemed old-fashioned. As Lawrence Kobesky, bar manager of Chicago-based Gibsons Restaurant Group, points out, “Gin for many younger drinkers was the spirit of their parents and grandparents, and they didn’t want to drink what [their elders] were drinking, hence the vodka generation.”

So why all the fanfare now over, say, joints like the 500-gin-strong Whitechapel in San Francisco, or the Gin & Tonic menu at Spanish restaurant Bellota in the same city? Modern-day imbibers are undoubtedly curious, eager to taste as much as possible. The advent of New World gins, balancing lively botanicals with the spirit’s signature juniper, was just the creative push the category needed. Instead of the crisp, refreshing, timeless London dry gins associated with hot-weather tipples, these gins offer more depth and intrigue year-round. 

“Gin is no longer just juniper; it’s a kaleidoscope of dizzying choices in the best way. Behind the bar we can choose from gins with cooling, warming, soft, floral, sweet, smoky, and herbaceous qualities,” says Gates Otsuji, chef de bar at New York’s Standard Hotels and co-founder of Swig + Swallow cocktail mixes. “What’s given gin its current staying power is a renewed interest in flavor.” Adds Kobesky, “I think until some of the New World gins hit the market, the majority of people believed it all tasted like chewing on pine cones.”

The Mixing Room

Soraya Odishoo, bartender at the vegetarian restaurant NIX, in New York City, says that forward-thinking brands like St. George and Gin Mare are leading the way in this realm, creating infused variations that have a profile suited to gin on the rocks, “which is pretty avant-garde for the spirit.” As a result, she sees professionals enthusiastically experimenting with new cocktails. Ingredients like basil and kaffir limes give dimension to these gins, which in turn allows them to be relished year-round. Kobesky points to game-changing brands like Aviation and Fords for helping the category “transcend the seasonal barrier. Bartenders are using modifiers with their gin they might have once only considered for a brown-spirit cocktail.”

While he predicts that “gin Martinis and Gin & Tonics will always be bulletproof cocktails of the ages,” Kobesky notes that one of the most sought-after choices at Gibsons’ eatery Hugo’s Frog Bar & Fish House is the Blackberry Collins (Hendrick’s gin, blackberry liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup). At Nix, Odishoo makes several gin cocktails to complement the likes of tofu-skin pockets and Yukon potato fry bread. There’s a blackberry rendition, too, called the Albion (fresh blackberry, juniper, lemon) as well as the Honey Bee (Thai basil, clover honey, sake). One of Logie’s bestsellers is the City of Angels, in which gin, lemon, and tonic water are topped with a hoppy, botanical-balancing IPA.

Kim makes a number of gin cocktails for each of the group’s restaurants. There’s the Virginia Slim (Beefeater, Aperol, lemon, sparkling rosé) at Riggsby. And she adds, “We aren’t going to forget all of our beloved London dry gins,” citing the 4 o’ Clock Somewhere cocktail that’s popular at Tico (Aviation gin, dry vermouth, Earl Grey reduction, lemon, Bittermen’s Hopped Grapefruit bitters).

Kim also likes to amplify holiday punches with gin. While the season calls for a barrage of cloves, ginger, and anise, she says it’s better to keep the recipe clean and simple. “Don’t go too heavy on ingredients that can overpower and mask the great flavors of gin,” she advises. Odoshoo reaches for a classic London dry style to make a punch, buoyed by “agave or fresh maple syrup, fresh lemon juice, muddled sage, and a little bit of elderflower liqueur.” Logie also believes elderflower liqueur, along with sparkling wine, makes good companions with gin in a punch: “The elderflower and gin play off each other and the bubbles add a celebratory touch.” 

With punches emphasizing blends rather than layers of flavors, Otsuji recommends starting with a traditional gin cocktail structure, like the Singapore Sling, swapping out the citrus elements and bolstering the oleo saccharum with smoked spices, flamed citrus oil, and caramelized sugar. The gin concoctions he serves at the Standard are vast, spanning A Girl’s Best Friend (Dorothy Parker gin, lemon, Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut, grenadine snow) to the Indecent Proposal (Chief Gowanus New Netherlands Gin, Hennessy XO, black plum cordial). “It’s warm and luxurious,” he says of the latter. 

Chief Gowanus New Netherland Gin—in addition to Citadelle Réserve and Texas-made Treaty Oak—is a sterling example of the currently thriving aged-gin segment, says Otsuji: “I think barrel-aging sands off a lot of sharpness. It certainly blurs the line in cocktail construction and has allowed me to make some cross-category choices I would never have considered before.” It’s also, says Odishoo, another opportunity to uniquely present gin to customers and “definitely a way to extend the spirit into the winter months. For me, the juniper takes on a more alpine feel.”

Some aged gins, according to Logie, “warrant sipping alone. Barrel-aging a gin transforms it into a more substantial spirit with notes of wood and smoke.” Bourbon and Scotch lovers may also be swayed by matured gin, adds Kim. “Honestly,” she says, “I’ve seen whiskey drinkers convert.”