How to make the versatile gin a star spirit at your home bar

12:00 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016 Austin360 Eats

In this renaissance that has brought classic cocktails and maligned ingredients like vermouth back in favor behind the bar, there’s one spirit that many bartenders still find themselves coaxing their customers to try: gin.

But that’s not news. Gin, often made from a neutral grain distillate and infused or flavored with botanicals like juniper, has long made enemies thanks to misconceptions about its taste, its historical links to lower-class society and its downfall starting in the 1950s at the hands of a flavorless cousin named vodka.

Despite its rocky past, gin is making a comeback on bar shelves, for good reason. Its versatility makes it a chameleon in cocktails, blending with a wide range of ingredients to produce flavors ranging from sweet to savory, woody to herbaceous.

“When people say they don’t like gin, it’s probably that they had a really bad experience in college with one of those 1 1liter plastic jugs that are like $8,” Chris McClish, bar manager at Juniper, says. “Or they had a gin and tonic, which is a really aggressive sort of drink to get into gin with. But there’s a huge world of gin out there, so chances are, we can find you something that you like.”

In East Austin, Juniper got its name because of its focus on cuisine from northern Italy, a region where juniper trees are plentiful. Because the juniper berry is also the predominant botanical in gin — the one requirement that defines a spirit as gin — McClish knew the bar program needed a focus on the spirit, and it has a small but strong roster of lesser-known brands like Koval, Fords Gin and Hayman’s Old Tom.

One of the most important things to know about gin, according to Jessica Sanders of Backbeat, is that it falls into a few different categories based on distillation methods and “the amount and variety of botanicals that a producer will use, which ultimately determines the finished flavor.”

“In older styles of gin, juniper takes center stage,” says Sanders, who co-owns the South Lamar bar with her husband, Michael. “In newer styles, however, the juniper takes a backseat. That comes with the modern American palate. Gin fell out of favor because people were afraid they’d taste like Christmas trees.”

It wasn’t always that way, of course. Gin originated with the Dutch as early as the 14th century, when Holland pharmacists figured out that juniper — previously used for its medicinal healing properties — had another, more intriguing property when distilled.

This original spirit, known as genever, is “the O.G. of gin,” Sanders says.

Creamy and woody, with barley as the base instead of a neutral grain, genever spread from the Netherlands to other European countries quickly “on the back of warfare, religious persecution, nation building and trade,” according to spirits writer Dave Broom, who penned “Gin: The Manual” (Mitchell Beazley, $19.99) to chronicle gin’s European roots and the various brands of gin that now dominate the marketplace.

Once the English began making their own version of gin, that was it — the world was hooked. These distillers created a style of gin that we now know as London dry, and it’s perhaps the one most associated with gin, with juniper making a very bold statement. The London dry style is exemplified today in gins like Fords, Tanqueray, Beefeater and Sipsmith. (It’s worth noting that very few of these brands actually hail from London.)

In the 20th century, gin has risen, fallen and risen again in popularity. In its current resurgence, Broom writes that “the new small-scale distillers (have seen) an opportunity to do for gin what the microbrewery movement had done for beer, namely making it local, premium, feather-ruffling, and historically obsessed yet forward-thinking.”

Sanders places these gins in what she calls the New Western style. Distillers of this category, such as the makers of Scotland’s the Botanist Islay Dry Gin and Germany’s Monkey 47 Dry Gin, “tend to downplay juniper and add more botanicals,” she says. “The Botanist is made with 22 botanicals and has a hyper sense of terroir because some of them aren’t found anywhere else in the world.”

There is also the Old Tom style of gin, a much smaller category than the rest. Once a long-forgotten victim of Prohibition, it’s a sweeter, less botanically driven version that you can try at both Juniper and Backbeat, which carry Hayman’s Old Tom Gin made with added sugar.

“That’s what gin used to taste like for a long time, like a sweetened version of juniper booze,” McClish says.

He’ll prepare flights of gin for guests who notice the name of his restaurant and get curious, with an example of each style represented and including ones, like Mahon from the island of Menorca off the coast of Spain, that can’t be easily pinned down.

Many people tend to prefer gin in cocktails, of course, and McClish will whip up a boozy Martinez or a citrus-driven South Side depending on your preferences. Bartenders like McClish and Madelyn Kay of Vox Table, down the street from Backbeat, generally know which cocktails to make based on your flavor specifications and can help you dive into gin in the way most comfortable for you.

“I ask people if they want something citrusy, something floral, something savory,” Kay says. “If you base your cocktail off what kind of flavors they want, then they don’t even necessarily know what spirit is in it, unless you tell them.”

The type of gin that goes into these cocktails is imperative, she says, so the flavor isn’t drowned out by the other ingredients but also doesn’t overwhelm them. So if you’re making cocktails at home, be aware that each of the styles are suited for certain kinds of drinks.

Lighter in body and milder in flavor, gins like “Aviation and Hendrick’s are good in citrus-forward cocktails,” Sanders says. But these New Western styles, unlike London dry gins, “get lost in martinis. I think sometimes certain gins aren’t complex enough or powerful enough to stand up to stirred cocktails. The Negroni is another good example because Campari is a really powerful flavor. If you don’t have a gin that can stand up to Campari, that’s all you taste in the drink.”

For people who haven’t graduated to the Negroni’s big and bold personality, she says a Bee’s Knees — with honey and lemon — is a good cocktail to start with.

“Or a South Side, which is what the Backbeat (our signature cocktail) is based off of, with a nice blend of sweet, savory and citrusy,” she says. “I find that flavor profile tends to be really appealing to people when they’re trying gin. That’s a good reason why cocktails like the Last Word and the Corpse Reviver are so popular. The gin is able to be present but not overpowering.”

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