…or perhaps even three. But I’d be getting ahead of myself.
Firstly, the premise. The hook: there’s at least two distinct kinds of gin out there.
The Bourbon/Rye Parallel: It’s not as night and day as say rum vs whiskey. Even when both are aged, you can clearly distinguish between the two. It’s more of a distinction between say Rye and Bourbon. I know, at your local dive bar, or for folks who make cocktails once a year, having a “whiskey” is sufficient. But when is the last time you’ve seen a cocktail menu of any repute simply call out a whiskey, as if to imply to the drinker, the finer points don’t quite matter here?
New York Sour — 10
Buffalo Trace Bourbon, lemon juice, merlot [source]
For example, I don’t have to have had Buffalo Trace Bourbon to ascertain whether or not it fits my tastes. I’m largely familiar with other Bourbons, so although not all Bourbons are the same, I can roughly ascertain, “this might be a sweet, a bit smoother and have less edge.” If I’m looking for something with ‘a bit more spice, something peppery, some heat,” I might opt for the Rye sour….well maybe not, but you see where I’m going with it. The style does impart some valuable information about the character. Production geeks take note, though we all know the distinction is largely characterized by what 51% of the underlying grain is, the cue to the drinker buying the spirit on the shelf, or experimenting with a specific brand/bottle for the first time is the implications of the style inside.
The Brand Names as a Substitute for Style (or what style tells you): The trend among bar menus that call out their gins for their cocktails is to simply specify the make of the gin. I’ve seen menus call out the make of the gin, even when it is the only description on the menu which explicitly calls out a make:
The Last Word
Hendricks gin, lime juice, green Chartreuse, maraschino liquor [source]
But perhaps you’re familiar with Hendrick’s. Let’s try another one. How about 209 Gin?
Last Word — 12
No. 209 Gin, Green Chartreuse, Luxardo Maraschino, lime juice [source]
I hope you begin to see the point: whereas Rye, Bourbon, or Scotch tells us something about the spirit, the ways we describe the gin tell us very little about the spirit inside. Or even worse, it uses brand names as a placeholder to tell us information about what we’re drinking. I’m not sure it’s a preferable world where someone says I’m drinking a hendricks gin [e.g. I’m drinking a floral styled gin] or I’m drinking a beefeater gin [e.g. I’m drinking a juniper forward dry gin].*
We hold the keys: We, as in people like myself who write about the spirit, bartenders and gin fans alike, we’re the gateway to how people come to talk about and understand a spirit. We don’t want to discourage folks from forming brand affinities. Those are just fine. But I don’t think we can sit back and rely on the brands themselves to do it. Folks have come to understand that Hendrick’s represents something new, something exciting, something that a lot of folks are coming to like as gin. But for gin to continue growing, perhaps we need to help people understand that these brands fit into something more complete than just being snapshots along the road.
I’m sorry if it seems like I’m picking on Hendrick’s [and I’m not, I quite like their gin and think they have a stellar marketing team], but they’re perhaps the most accessible example that I think all readers can draw upon. For people to start understanding that gins have different qualities, but within a narrowly defined spectrum of possible gins, we might need to do more to call out where the gins fit in the larger picture. On the shelf at the liquor store. On our cocktail menus, and in the way that we talk about them.
Take Dutch Kills’ menu [warning, .pdf – one of my favorite bars by the way]. Think of how it might be enhanced by specifying the type of gin. Did you know at one point their house pour was Spring 44 gin? Another time it was Plymouth? Those gins both have different characters, different qualities, and they make a different variations on the 20th century.**
And we’ve locked the door to some: And without stylistic designations and conventions, are certain gins forever doomed to be on the fringes? Without specifically calling it out, could Dorothy Parker Gin ever become the “house pour?” Probably not because it would not appeal to those who prefer London Dry, although it would appeal to those who like Hendrick’s. Drinkers of Hendrick’s don’t realize that they’ve fallen for a style- not just a single brand; therefore cocktail maestros who whip up the menu feel compelled to call out a drink with Hendrick’s as that’s really the only cue they have. Although I’d say near 2/3 of new gins coming out on the American market are probably of the Hendrick’s style, as in they are contemporary styled gins, most are cut off from the wider audience because of the lack of proper stylistic conventions.
They rarely end up on the menu because folks don’t know what they are. And many folks who are gin drinkers don’t universally love these new styles [see the comments].
The most important step we can take is to abandon regional teams as stylistic substitutes. I know that there’s been plenty of essayship and scholarly liquor writing around the term “American;” however, this is doomed to fail because any American gin can be whatever style it damn well pleases. This is America! We do what we want. The region isn’t something like a wine brand. I can make the most-juniper-forward gin, and put America/use American imagery on the bottle. Why? because it is American!
You can’t regulate the identity of a nation to a style of spirit. Eagles, flags, and American iconography should not be entwined with a style [no more than a gin distilled in London should think it has to be all juniper, citrus, w/ a portrait of the Queen on the wall].***
Conflating national identity and style is poor practice because inside your drinkers head the notion of the United States and “flags” of the United States might be inextricable. One meets the other. So when someone sees a flag, they think American. Put a UK flag on a bottle and see what preconceived notions might arise when someone comes to drink out of it. The words London and America on a bottle of gin should be as meaningless as Sweden, Spain or Ottawa. They’re locations, nothing more.
For the future of gin, and the future of creativity in the category of gin, it is time to take stylistic designations more seriously. I’ve used the distinctions contemporary and classic here on my blog for years now, and I think with the proliferation of craft gins on both sides of the Atlantic, and in many other nations, its time to adopt a language for describing these spirits that transcends national identity. A gin distiller should be proud of where his or her gin is made and should not think twice about putting their location on the bottle with the fear that it might misrepresent the contents inside.
Concluding, I think that the most important reason we should start thinking about gin as two separate categories is for the future of the spirit. Creativity and expansion should thrive, and it should not be diminished or impeded because classic gin and contemporary gin are inherently different. If we don’t start educating people more effectively about our spirits, lovers of modern contemporary gin won’t ever realize the breadth of options out there that will appeal to them- and new contemporary gins will wither and perish. Lovers of the classic style should equally be assured of what they’re getting and know what new products out there are built for them, and not have to pour a bottle down the drain because they simply thought their American gin was made in America.
At a later date, we talk about what all these grain-heavy gins mean for the category, but that’s another jeremiad for another day. Is anyone with me on this one?
*Lest you think I’m crazy, when’s the last time your xeroxed something? or for those of you in the Southeastern United States had a “coke” when you really ordered an orange soda?
** Notice the menu does call out Rye, Bourbon and Scotch Whisky as different types of spirit for other cocktails
*** Let me call out the critique right here. You can say, “but Aaron, the style is New American, it is a different phrase.” To that I say, you’re technically correct. But I am concerned that since any American spirit can and will borrow from American iconography for its bottle, conflating the two is poor practice because inside your drinkers head the notion of the United States and US flags might be inextricable. One meets the other. So when someone sees a flag, they think American. Put a UK flag on a bottle and see what preconceived notions might arise when someone comes to drink out of it.