It's something of an inside joke among bartenders: What's the easiest way to improve a vodka cocktail? Make it with gin.
Some people would recoil at the thought, no doubt. The modern cocktail boom was fuelled in large part by vodka, the white spirit with all the appeal of tofu – neutrality in search of other flavours. Then there's gin. Cool, spicy and bracing, it's a garden breeze in a glass, beloved by mixologists with a sense of adventure as well as a healthy respect of tradition.
"I would be comfortable saying that gin is the base of more classic cocktails than any other spirit," says Grant Sceney, lead bartender at the Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel in Vancouver. The Tom Collins, the rickey, the gimlet, various fizzes and that defining long drink of long summer days, the gin and tonic – all were totems of garden-party sophistication well before vodka ruled the world. "When people say to me, 'I hear this is a good cocktail bar, can you make me something fun?' I generally I will go with gin. It's the same with a few other bartenders I know."
They're fighting a tide, of course. In the past decade, vodka sales in Canada swelled from 3.2-million nine-litre cases to 4.8-million. Meanwhile, gin's growth curve has been flatter than a rag doll's cardiogram, holding constant at about 730,000 cases. It's been pretty much the same story worldwide.
But numbers tell only a limited tale. There's vigour in gin's veins, and new respect for a spirit that has finally buried the demons of its Prohibition-era, bathtub past.
In sunny Spain, a gin stronghold, bartenders have been taking the classic gin highball to new heights. Order a G&T at a fashionable club and here's what can happen. A waiter shows up tableside and ignites a sprig of thyme beneath an overturned wine glass to season the bowl with aromatic smoke. Then into the glass goes a handful of ice and your choice of as many as two dozen gins. Next comes any one of about 10 tonic brands, trickled down the shaft of a long cocktail spoon (supposedly to preserve the bubbles). Then the garnish, which could be lime or lemon peel, fresh thyme, basil or rosemary – take your pick.
"Everybody can have their own personalized gin and tonic, there's no two alike," says Alfonso Morodo, co-owner of Madrid-based Global Premium Brands, which makes Gin Mare, a superb brand launched two years ago as the first Mediterranean gin. Available in Nova Scotia and Ontario (not yet even in the United States), it's distilled in small batches with such ingredients as Italian basil, Turkish thyme, Greek rosemary, and Spanish arbequina olives.
At Killjoy, a two-week-old charcuterie bar in Vancouver, wine shares the spotlight with a cocktail list daringly focused almost entirely on gin. There's even a section called "the legends of gin," featuring new creations by famous mixologists, like the Gin Gin Mule from Audrey Saunders of New York City's Pegu Club, a summery mix of Beefeater, ginger beer, mint and crushed ice. You can have your choice of four tonic waters for a custom G&T, too, including premium Fentimans from England and Q Tonic from Brooklyn. "There is a lot more openness from the customer in trying gin, whereas five or six years ago it wasn't happening," says Trevor Kallies, bar and beverage director for the Donnelly Group, which operates Killjoy and 15 other Vancouver-area establishments.
The modern aversion to gin is slightly ironic in a world awash in flavoured vodka. After all, that's essentially what gin is, a neutral spirit (a.k.a. vodka) steeped in so-called botanicals, including juniper, citrus peel, coriander, cassia bark and orris root. Juniper, the defining ingredient, marks the line where flavoured vodka and gin part company. Like deep-tissue massage, you either love it or equate it with pain.
That's why many of the new, premium brands, like Gin Mare, have been playing down the shaving-cream essence of juniper in favour of other botanicals. The trend started many years ago with such widely available, offbeat offerings as fruity Tanqueray No. 10, spicy Victoria Gin from British Columbia, and the sublimely refreshing Hendrick's, the latter strongly infused with cucumber and rose petal. But it continues apace. Three years ago, venerable Beefeater expanded its lineup with kinder, gentler Beefeater 24, adding Japanese and Chinese teas to the botanical mix.
As a die-hard fan of the classic style known as London Dry, however, I'm excited that the invigorating zing of juniper is finding new, and arguably more balanced, expression behind the bar. It's the unapologetic essence of top-ranked bargain brand Broker's, which figures in an inspired signature aperitif at the new Toronto hotspot Edulis, imparting a savoury kick to Lillet Blanc, house-made tonic and cucumber in the Lillet Cocktail.
In the super-premium category, there's the perfectly tuned No. 3 from England's Berry Bros. & Rudd (my go-to gin for a dry martini) and The Botanist, a sumptuously refined example from Bruichladdich, a single-malt distillery on Scotland's island of Islay. At Blue Water Café + Raw Bar in Vancouver, bar manager Keith Trusler mixes The Botanist into a classic negroni (equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari) and ages the mixture for two weeks in a miniature, five-litre French-oak cask. "It's a high-quality product that shines through as the drink softens and mellows in the cask," he says of The Botanist.
Two other gems can only be purchased direct from craft distilleries in Canada: The Loyalist, released last month by 66 Gilead in Bloomfield, Ont.; and Schramm Gin from British Columbia's Pemberton Distillery, made from a luxuriously earthy base spirit distilled from local organic potatoes. For my money, it's one of the best on the planet. I like The Loyalist for a gin and tonic with lime, and I'd bet the Royal Family would too, if only for the name, inspired by Prince Edward County, Ont.,'s roots as a United Empire Loyalist settlement. When it comes to Schramm, though, I'll take mine neat or on the rocks. But then, I love potatoes. Much more than tofu.
How to make a Lillet Cocktail
"To me, the harmony of the gin, Lillet and basil is what drink is about, not the tonic," says Tobey Nemeth, co-owner of the Toronto restaurant Edulis. Here's her recipe for the Lillet Cocktail:
1¼ ounce lillet blanc
¼ ounce gin
4 thin slices of cucumber disks, cut on the bias (on an angle)
2 large luscious leaves of basil
Tonic to taste
Sparking water to taste
Add basil to an old-fashioned glass and crush, or muddle, the basil with a muddler or back of a spoon. Add the Lillet, gin and some ice. Then add a splash (1 to 2 oz) of tonic. Top up with sparkling water.