Man oh man, do I hate industry-created "days." For instance, did you know June 13th is National Sewing Machine Day? Also National Weed Your Garden Day and National Rosé Day. Now, did Obama declare these things? No, I'm guessing they were dreamed up by some ad wizards who needed to sell more sewing machines, weed whackers and rosé wine, respectively. Thankfully, most people seem to ignore quote-unquote days, as they should be known, although I get a lot of emails about them from well-meaning publicists.
June 13 also happens to be World Gin Day. And World Gin Day, that's different. It wasn't dreamed up by the marketing department of Beefeater or anything sleazy like that. It was the brainchild of a blogger and gin enthusiast named Neil, also known as Yet Another Gin, and is currently spearheaded by another blogger, Gin Monkey UK. People found out about it through participating bars, not ads and commercials. It evolved organically, from the right people and through the right channels, and that's why it's worth celebrating.
To properly celebrate World Gin Day, of course, you need... anyone? Bueller? No, not vodka... YES, that's right, GIN! Below you'll find a few of my favorites. I lean toward classic, juniper-forward, London Dry-style gins in general, so a good chunk of these fit that bill. But I also tried to include a few of the more modern, less juniper-y ones as well. And while there are a couple of brands you've no doubt tried, most of what I've listed may be new to you. But hopefully not for long. So read on, if you haven't fallen asleep already, and
BOMBAY SAPPHIRE GIN (England; 47% ABV, $32/1 liter). Back in 1987, Bombay Sapphire was hailed as a groundbreaking gin by some, a heretical gin by others. It toned down the juniper notes that are, by law, required to dominate a gin, and dialed up the other botanicals (there are ten in all), like cubeb berries and angelica root. The result was a softer, somewhat "easier" gin than people were used to at the time. But almost 30 years later, when stuff that tastes like orange or Turkish delight or cucumber or what have you is being called "gin" instead of what it really is, "flavored vodka with some juniper in it," Bombay Sapphire is almost regarded as a classic London Dry. What hasn't changed is how balanced and versatile it is. It's smooth, well-rounded and flavorful enough to stand out in almost any cocktail. The juniper isn't overpowering, but it's not a shy wallflower, either -- it gets on the floor and shakes its booty with the other botanicals. Put it in a martini or a G & T or a Collins or a gin daisy or any damn drink you want and it'll come out tasting delish. If only the gin itself was the color of the bottle... but see below for more on that.
BOODLES BRITISH GIN (England; 45.2% ABV, $25). The name may sound a little goofy to Americans (it comes from a London men's club), but this is a most serious gin indeed. It's been around since the 1840s. Winston Churchill drank it. Ian Fleming drank it. And you should drink it too. After doing a slow fade for many years, it was re-launched a year or two ago with a spiffy new bottle but the same nifty liquid inside. The botanical mix -- nine of 'em, including coriander, sage, caraway and rosemary -- is, interestingly, citrus-free. But you don't miss it, especially when you put a twist of lemon in your martini or G & T. It's juniper-dominant, dry, herbal, and lively; the botanicals really play well with each other. Despite the relatively high proof, it's also rather soft and gentle. It's a party for the palate, but an adult party, with delightful guests exchanging witty repartee, and nobody puking on the rug at the end of the evening.
FARMER'S GIN (USA; 46.7% ABV, $32). You should drink Farmer's because it's distilled from certified organic grains. You should drink it because it's one of the few gins distilled and bottled in the great state of Minnesota. Or you should drink it for the same reason I do -- because it tastes really good. At 93.4 proof, it's not quite navy strength, but it does make for a most bracing and satisfying martini. And by "satisfying" I mean I don't need more than one of them if I want to stay upright. Juniper is the dominant flavor, as well it should be, but it has a fine, if small, supporting cast, namely elderflower, which adds lovely sweet floral notes on the midpalate, and angelica root and coriander, which give the finish a dry, earthy, slightly vegetal tang. I don't have the constitution to drink this stuff every day, but when I want a good, honest martini and don't want to monkey around, Farmer's hits the spot.
THE LONDON NO. 1 DRY GIN (England; 47% ABV, $40). If you wish the gin inside the Bombay Sapphire bottle was the same beautiful light turquoise hue as the bottle itself, then you need to check out London No. 1 for the color alone. I've heard that it comes from maceration with gardenia flowers post-distillation, but whatever they do, it makes for a gorgeous martini. Fortunately, it tastes good enough to not have to rely on the color gimmick. It's distilled using a dozen botanicals; the ones I notice straight off are liquorice root and cinnamon, which gives it a menthol-heavy flavor on first blush. The juniper, coriander and citrus notes hit mid-palate, and the finish is quite peppery, owing to its relatively high proof. It makes a vibrant, lightly sweet gin & tonic, and in a martini it only needs a whisper of vermouth, as it's so well balanced on its own. And it's blue! All I could ask for now is a gin that's Tanqueray green (not that I'm giving anyone any ideas...).
MONKEY 47 SCHWARZWALD DRY GIN (Germany; 47% ABV, $45/375 ml). An oddball German gin that's causing quite a buzz in the boozy world, Monkey 47 is distilled from molasses rather than the usual grains, and it contains a whopping 47 botanicals. You read right, FORTY-SEVEN. Just to give you a little context, most gins use a dozen or fewer, and I know at least one brand that uses only two.
How much of a difference does each botanical make? I couldn't tell you. But I can tell you that this is one powerful, complex gin. The juniper isn't overwhelmed by all the other herbs and roots and berries and God-knows-what-else; in fact, the familiar piny notes are amplified. One whiff of this baby and you feel like you're in a pine forest. There's a lot of other stuff going on, too -- a little bitterness, a little spiciness, a hint of sweetness, a kind of mushroom-y earthiness... simply a riot of flavor. As such, it's not the easiest gin to mix, but I find it makes a fascinating martini. All those botanicals in the gin blend with the botanicals in the vermouth (I like Dolin Dry) to actually tone things down a little, flavor-wise. Monkey 47 is one of the most expensive gins on the market, and it's too complex to drink every day. But it's a great one to have on hand for when you really want to challenge your taste buds.
PORTOBELLO ROAD NO. 171 GIN (London; 42% ABV, $32). The London address which gives this gin its name is that of the Portobello Star bar, which resides on the ground floor. The second floor is occupied by the Ginstitute, a small museum and general house of geekery devoted to all things gin. It was here that three gents with a tiny pot still, some botanicals and a crazy dream developed Portobello Road, a London Dry gin in the classic style. The most unusual botanical is nutmeg, which lends a soft, round sweetness to the proceedings. But they're not trying to reinvent the wheel here. This is simply a juniper-forward gin that's really, really well made. And what's wrong with that? Portobello Road's makers say the "perfect pour" is over ice, with tonic and a twist of grapefruit. But I like it any old way -- including in an Aviation, which is my gin cocktail of choice at the moment.
RANSOM DRY GIN (Oregon; 43% ABV, $30). Tad Seestedt, the man who founded Ransom Spirits in Oregon damn near 20 years ago, deserves a medal, or a monument, or something like that, for whipping up Ransom Old Tom Gin a few years back. It wasn't just the first modern recreation of vintage (in this case mid-1800s) Old Tom. It was delicious, too -- and it didn't taste like any other spirit on the market. Suddenly, for the first time in our lifetimes, it was possible to make a reasonable approximation of a Martinez, the 19th century forerunner of the martini. Today, there are more Old Toms out there than you can shake a reasonable-sized stick at, but Ransom is still up there with the best.
Seestedt's new dry gin is kin to the Old Tom, minus the barrel aging and sweetening added after the fact. But it still gives a tip of the cap to genever, the Dutch version of what the Brits turned into gin in the 1600s. It's dry, and it's juniper-forward, but it's also got a pronounced malty flavor. A little bit of hops, too. Beer lovers should really love this gin. I'm not a huge beer drinker but I love it anyway. I think it makes a nifty martini, but I love it best of all over ice or even neat. Gin served neat can be pretty gross if the botanicals aren't all in perfect alignment, but Seestedt pulls it off with Ransom Dry. Another reason his name should be in lights.
ROCK ROSE HAND CRAFTED SCOTTISH GIN (Scotland; 41.5% ABV, $50). This Scottish newbie isn't yet available Stateside, but should you come across a bottle in your travels, it's worth picking one up (you can also get it here). The bottle itself is quite a gorgeous, an opaque porcelain-type affair with a label that brings to mind the early 20th century design of Tiffany ... or is it Mackintosh? Both, I suppose. Anyway, the gin inside the bottle is quite a work of art as well. Rock Rose is made in tiny batches by two nice folks in Caithness, at the very tippy-top of northern Scotland, in a tiny still nicknamed Elizabeth. Come on, how adorable is that? Using local botanicals like rose root and sea buckthorn, it's on the sweet side, with lots of berry flavor coming from rowan berries, blaeberries... and juniper berries, of course. I'm not normally a fan of sweet gins, but Rock Rose is so delightfully smooth that I forgive its trespasses. The berry sweetness harmonizes beautifully with vermouth, to create a lush, almost decadent martini, and it's one of my favorite pink gins (gin with bitters) too. Worth seeking out.
TANQUERAY NO. TEN (England; 47.3% ABV, $34). I love Pearl Jam's first couple of albums, but I hate all the horrible bands they inspired (yes, I'm looking at you, Nickelback). Similarly, I love Tanqueray No. Ten -- a truly groundbreaking gin for its time -- but I can't stand most of the brands that followed in its wake. Named after the No. 10 still at Tanqueray's distillery, from whence it came, the offspring of classic Tanqueray amped up the citrus in its botanical mix, namely white grapefruit, orange and lime. What made a big change even bigger was that No. Ten used fresh whole fruit rather than the traditional dried peels, so it packed a lot of citric tang in addition to the juniper-forward blend of traditional Tanqueray botanicals. It hit the streets in 2001, and it really was the first 21st century gin. But for all the credit due the visionary dudes and dudettes who created this gin, Tanqueray No. Ten can also take the blame for all those "New Western Dry" gins that taste nothing like gin, which require an electron microscope and perhaps a specially trained dog to detect the juniper. Think about that the next time you're sipping on a brilliant No. Ten martini with a twist. Or rather, don't think about it. After all, why ruin such a tasty cocktail?