The New Wave of Gin

By Erica Nonni, Foodable Contributor

As the U.S. economy continues its rebound, food and beverage culture and creativity continues to flourish, and mixologists increasingly command celebrity status, what will be the next taste trend to tip? On the hunch that it might be gin, here are some insights from bartender tastemakers in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York.

Bartenders are drinking more gin — certainly more than their average customers at the moment — as they’re moving slowly away from brown spirits. This has less to do with brown spirits, which are still booming in sales, and more to do with bartenders always looking for something new.

Gin’s spiritual homeland is the United Kingdom. According to Niall Gordon, Head of Consumer and Industrial Goods at UK Trade & Investment in the U.S., exports of top-class British gin have risen by 37 percent in the past five years, with sales to 139 countries bringing in £1.76 billion. Sales of premium bottles are driving the growth, up nearly 50 percent in the two years to 2014. Seventy percent of British gin is exported, and the U.S. is a key destination market. 

Sarah Mengoni, head bartender at BLVD 16 at the Kimpton Hotel in Los Angeles, also represents Journeyman, a small-production organic producer based in Michigan. Mengoni finds that her customers have recently become noticeably more open to gin. Fellow mixologists Jamal Giles of Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill in midtown Miami and Enzo Cangemi of Brooklyn’s Extra Fancy, concur.

Jumping the Juniper Hurdle

Think of gin, and the next thing to come to mind should be juniper, its defining ingredient. According to Jacob Ehrenkrona, CEO at Martin Miller’s gin, juniper is a non-negotiable ingredient for a spirit to be classified as gin, both by tradition and by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (which oversees beverage alcohol imports). That doesn’t stop new distilleries, like Springbrook Hollow in upstate New York, from creating “gin” with no juniper at all but rather a bespoke blend of other botanicals. 

Why would a distillery go to market with a gin missing its traditional defining ingredient? 

“Fifteen years ago, you could only get London Dry style gin, which is very juniper-heavy, and it turned people away,” says Mengoni. “The trend is now for new ‘Western style’ gins. There’s still juniper, but it’s held back. So you’ll have gins with mint and other botanicals.” 

Journeyman gin even has a bilberry flavor component.

Jamal Giles' Cierzo Menta cocktail at Sugarcane in Miami | Photo courtesy of Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill

Jamal Giles' Cierzo Menta cocktail at Sugarcane in Miami | Photo courtesy of Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill

The New Wave

“Everybody has a gin horror story, just like everyone has a tequila horror story,” says Giles. “Yet I’m seeing a lot more people daring to drink gin again.” 

Who are these new gin drinkers? What’s inspiring them to reconsider a spirit so divisive? Mengoni says the new fans are generally cocktail drinkers, not spirits enthusiasts. Different from the bourbon and the mezcal craze — popular among enthusiasts — the new wave of gin draws in vodka drinkers who are effectively introduced to gin as a flavored vodka. This is an approach that Mengoni thinks is just fine. 

“The classic cocktail trend is huge, and a huge part of that is gin: more styles, higher proof. Introducing gin in a really beautiful cocktail is a great way to do it.”

Giles agrees. “The vodka drinker who’s catching on to craft spirits is the new gin drinker. The dark liquor drinker isn’t leaving dark liquor.” 

Popular new wave brands from England include Martin Miller’s and Cotswolds Gin. Martin Miller’s is particularly smooth and clean because it’s blended with pure, natural lava-filtered Icelandic water with a very low mineral content, and because of its premium botanicals fastidiously sourced according to season and place of origin. These are first steeped for 24 hours, then steeped again over bitter orange peels. This technique avoids the bitter finish and puts the juniper flavor in balance.

Cotswolds Gin is a new wave novelty because it’s an English gin brand owned by an American named Dan who lives “only a few fields away” from the distillery — fields that produce some of the very botanicals that go into his artisanal spirits.

For a domestic gin, Giles recommends St. Georges, which has three different expressions, all with botanical profiles featuring less juniper.

Higher Proof for Cocktails

The experts agree that, for cocktails, it’s generally best if the gin is at least 90 proof. London dry gin is usually lower proof, making new wave gins with higher proof a good choice for gin cocktails.

“Bartenders in particular are leaning toward Navy Strength gin (100 proof or more) in cocktails because they stand up to all the stuff we add,” says Giles. “But people are happy to drink lower proof gins in drinks like Bee Knees and Negronis. I see a lot of people drinking Hendricks with just soda and a cucumber slice.”

The Beverly Hills Freeway cocktail | Photo courtesy of Sarah Mengoni

The Beverly Hills Freeway cocktail | Photo courtesy of Sarah Mengoni

Cocktails for Surfing Gin’s New Wave

Sarah Mengoni’s The Beverly Hills Freeway cocktail:

  • 1.5 oz Martin Miller’s Westbourne gin (90 proof)
  • 1 oz blackberry syrup (1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, ½ qt blackberries, and a pinch of salt, all brought to a simmer, then strained when cool)
  • .75 oz fresh lemon juice
  • Dash of Fee Brothers’ Old Fashioned Bitters

Shake and serve in a coupe with ice and a blackberry garnish.

Enzo Cangemi’s White Negroni:

Gin is definitely becoming popular in New York, due to a revival of the aperitivo pre-dinner cocktail and the rise of the craft bartender. 

According to NYC mixologist Enzo Cangemi, a distinctive botanical mix is key to making one gin stand out from another. 

Enzo’s White Negroni is very simple but has terrific nuance of flavor because the botanicals infused in the gin combine harmoniously with the herbal Suze gentian liquor and the Cinzano Bianco.

  • 1 part gin (80 proof or 90 proof)
  • 1 part Suze
  • 1 part Cinzano Bianco
  • 2 dashes of cucumber bitters

Stir all the ingredients and pour into an old fashioned glass with lemon twist and cucumber peel for garnish. 

Jamal Giles offers up the Cierzo Menta cocktail, named for a strong, fall wind that blows down from the mountains in Spain. He starts with Martin Miller’s 80 proof and adds a house-made Granny Smith apple skins infusion that’s been vacuum sealed and steeped for one week. Then he combines it with lemon juice, Berentzen Icemint (fresh mint flavor), and a housemade orange syrup called Oleo Saccharum. This cocktail is served in a chilled coupe.