The rise of the classic cocktail scene has brought gin back home to cocktail menus, and the complex quaff remains an industry darling even if its sales figures have yet to reflect the level of innovation and passion that surround it. Gin’s on-premise popularity has been fueled by mixologists’ enduring devotion to the spirit and, in part, by new entries in the category that feature a less juniper-forward botanical blend, dubbed “New Western” gins by some.
“Gin marketing has successfully done its job,” says H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of Elixir, a bar in San Francisco. “The historical facts and mixology realities are solid and admirable, but we have an abundance of gins because they created a market where there was none.”
Old-style, juniper-forward gin brands continue to lead the gin category. According to Cheers parent The Beverage Information Group, the top three brands overall are Seagram’s, Tanqueray and Gordon’s. While these complex tastes can sometimes pose a flavor challenge for consumers who are used to the more approachable flavors of vodka, a bar manager’s enthusiasm can be used to spark consumer interest.
The very juniper-forward flavor of gin definitely needs explaining. Gin is a category that people can come into with apprehension, says Tony Abou-Ganim, principal of the Las Vegas-based Modern Mixologist consultancy, who believes that excitement about the category can be increased with the right influence from bartenders. “We need to show customers the range of gin and gin-based cocktails.”
Ehrmann adds that with the plethora of gin flavors available, it can be hard for consumers to decipher the style of the gin. “If people ask for gin, we talk them through what they may want. It’s the same as any other decision the customer may make,” he explains. “We guide them through the decision-making process based on their tastes. It’s about teaching people how to taste a spirit like they would a wine.” This natural complexity of flavors is likely to play out in gin’s favor.
History and Innovation
Bartenders all over the country are mixing up a range of cocktails based on the classics or new, locally produced gin entries. Jim Meehan, bar manager at bar PDT in New York, likes to use the traditional, juniper-forward gins. “Classic cocktails are made with gin,” he says. “Classic styles have stood the test of time because they are good and are great in cocktails.”
Meehan notes that dry tonic—not from a soda gun—also is a great mixer for gin. “The gin and tonic has been a huge boon for gin, especially now that we have dry tonics,” he says, adding that it really allows you to enjoy the flavors of gin without being overwhelmed as you would with a Martini. One popular gin cocktail at PDT is the White Birch Fizz, priced at $14, made with Plymouth Gin, Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot Liqueur and egg white. Top gins and genevers at PDT are Plymouth, Beefeater, Tanqueray, Hendrick’s and the somewhat recently reintroduced Bols Genever, all priced at $11.
When they think of gin, many consumers think back to the juniper-focused gins that their grandfathers drank, and some find this flavor less than approachable. The New Western gins, complete with their alternative botanical mix, can be a great entry to the category. Many bar experts believe that Bombay Sapphire began the trend.
“It really goes back to Bombay Sapphire,” says Abou-Ganim. “The flavor profile was a new botanical mix at the time—a softer, more feminine flavor. My theory is that it was the first new style of gin.” However, the strong brand introduction had its drawbacks for the category as a whole, as Meehan notes. “It converted vodka drinkers to Bombay Sapphire drinkers, not gin drinkers.”
Fast-forward years later, and the entrance of Hendrick’s Gin, marketed as a “peculiar gin,” also helps tip the tables toward gin. Many bar managers agree that Hendrick’s is a high-quality gin that is softer and often considered more inviting for newcomers. “It has a nice juniper flavor, yet it introduced two other flavors [cucumber and rose] that had not been in a gin before and work very well in a wide variety of cocktails,” notes Ehrmann. “They were one of the early adopters of the New Western philosophy, and they did it right from the start.”
The list of new offerings continues to grow as the micro-distillery movement in America continues to grow, and as top players enter the fray. Some top names mentioned by bar mangers include Aviation Gin—which is promoted by Ryan Magarian, who coined the term “New Western”—Beefeater 24, Tanqueray No. 10, Bluecoat American Dry Gin, North Shore Distiller’s Gin No. 6 and Desert Juniper Gin.
“The New Western style is adding another flavor component that may offer something more appealing to the consumer,” says Jacques Bezuidenhout, a cocktail consultant who also serves as national mixologist for San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. “They add something new and interesting that may attract the new consumer who may not want a heavy juniper gin.”
Such gins are a hit at Elixir, as they were created for the non-juniper lover, explains Ehrmann. He features them in cocktails such as the Gin Jubilee, priced at $10 and made with Bluecoat gin, honey and bing cherries, and the Peppermelon, $10, made with Right Gin, honey syrup and watermelon juice. Top gin sellers at Elixir include New Western and traditional gins such as Tanqueray, $7, Bluecoat, $7, Plymouth, $7, Beefeater London Dry, $7, Hendrick’s, $8, and Right Gin, $8.
All kinds of gin are popular at Paley’s Place in Portland, Ore. “More often than not, people are willing to try gin,” notes Kimberly Paley, co-owner and general manager of the bistro, which features 10 gins priced from $8 to $9 a pour. “When we are making the drinks with gin, the smells and aromas are very enticing—floral and savory. It makes it a little more enticing.”
While the cocktail menu at Paley’s focuses on the classics, the local flavors also are brought into the mix. For example, Paley’s Negroni, $8, features Desert Juniper Gin, Campari and punt e mes, served with a twist. “Our customers are interested in seeing the locally crafted spirits, and they will try new gins if they are gin drinkers.” She notes that gin actually outsells vodka by roughly three to two.
Ehrmann often plays around with various gins to discover which works best for a drink, starting with something in mind but testing his theory just to make sure. “I do a test with a few other gins to see if I picked the best one,” says Ehrmann. “Sometimes I’m surprised to see which one tastes better.”
He notes that alcohol content and botanical blend play a role in what works best in cocktails. “The 47 percent ABV London Dry gin holds up in certain cocktails better than any of its counterparts, and it is irreplaceable in those recipes,” he explains. “You want to play with and complement the dominant flavors.”
At Kimpton, Bezuidenhout likes to bring a balance of spirits to the cocktail list. “When it comes to gin, I want the consumer to be able to enjoy a classic gin cocktail or a new style gin cocktail at any Kimpton Bar,” he explains. “I show bartenders the difference between stirring and shaking a classic gin cocktail, like the Martini or Negroni.” He says he believes some consumers shy away from gin because they have experienced incorrectly made gin Martinis. He notes that “introducing new gin cocktails will bring new consumers into the category.”
For example, Kimpton’s The Fifth Floor Bar & Restaurant in San Francisco features the classic-style Last Word, priced at $11, made with Beefeater Gin, green chartreuse and fresh lime juice. Meanwhile at Kimpton’s Square 1682 in the Hotel Palomar in Philadelphia, the Indian Summer, $12, made with Tanqueray No. 10, Pimm’s No. 1 and pineapple juice, is a hot seller. Top gins at Kimpton include Beefeater, $8, Tanqueray, $9, Plymouth, $9, Hendrick’s, $10, and Bombay Dry, $8.
Cocktails have influenced gin demographics, as it is starting to expand beyond the older set. In fact, gin is popular among Millennials, who are highly influenced by what is recommended at the bar. Gin’s future lies in the bartender’s and bar manager’s ability to educate the consumer. As Bezuidenhout says, “Bartenders are leading consumers in the right direction to what may be more appealing to them.”
A well-made cocktail doesn’t hurt, either.