Archive for May 8, 2012

Gin: the New Vodka?

I still remember my first taste of Absolut Citron—what a revelation!  This of course was back in the day, before the barrage of über-premium vodkas hit the market and just as large distillers began to mass market unique infused vodkas using peppers and “kurrants” for flavoring.  Finally, someone noticed that the vodka market was not performing to potential and that consumers were crying out for more variety and higher quality.  By 1996, Belvedere, the “first” ultra-premium vodka came on the scene, swiftly followed by Grey Goose and many other super premium labels like Ciroc, Effen, van Gogh, Ketel One, Chopin, Stoli and  Zyr, mostly made from base materials, like wheat, rye and potatoes.

After years of dominating the spirit scene, Vodka now accounts for roughly 32% of all spirit consumption in the US, according to Beverage Dynamics, with almost no apparent sign of slowing down.  One has to ask: how many more vodkas brands can the market absorb?  Haven’t we hit the saturation point, yet?  Apparently not, as statistics continue to show that vodka is still holding steady with imported vodkas actually still gaining market share.   Nonetheless, I have noticed that some focus seems to be diverting from vodka to gin, albeit, a spirit some consider to be nothing more than flavored vodka.

So, in anticipation of gins renewed popularity, I decided to explore some of the gins on the market with a group of friends one night.  Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing “scientific” about this tasting.  We simply brown bagged two big brand name gins and one micro-distilled one (I forgot one of my other bottles at home) and decided to see what people preferred and why.

Part of the Elixrr Gin Tasting Team: Jesse, Laura and Stacie

Blind tasting is always fun; it proves every single time how heavily influenced we are by marketing.   Blind tasting is also freeing.  It has the same effect as stripping to your birthday suit and wiping all your make-up off; there are no more barriers or artifice.   Blind tasting allows a drinker to finally focus on what really matters—taste, the nose, the feel on the palate.

Now about the line-up, gin A was Caledonia Spirits Barr Hill Gin, a micro distiller located in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, Gin B was Bombay Sapphire and Gin C was from Hendricks.   Bombay was the most traditional of the three gins tasted and for some, came across restrained, a touch understated and refined, which was the preferred gin by two of the tasters and the second choice by all other tasters.  The consensus overall was that Sapphire was a solid gin, the botanicals not over the top, very smooth, subtle citrus notes, a touch of anise and a light waft of juniper; it was clear why some mixologists view this as one of the most mixable gins available.

The Hendricks was a surprise, as it was preferred the least by the tasters.  For me, this was a particular revelation, as this is my go-to gin.  Somehow the unique combination of cucumber, rose petals, elderflower, chamomile, orange and lemon peel did not translate compared to the Barr Hill or Sapphire.  The Hendricks actually seemed a bit one dimensional, the botanicals not as pronounced and it almost seemed rough on the palate as compared to the other gins.

Caledonia Spirits Barr Hill Gin was the night’s winner, with 3 out of 5 proclaiming it their favorite of the evening.   This gin is heavily perfumed with juniper and almost lusciously sweet on the palate due to the addition of raw honey just before bottling.  This gin was easy to drink straight up, very round and viscous on the palate, with anise, juniper and honey lingering on the finish.

All in all, it was fun to give another spirit a try.  We later took our experiment in another direction by adding tonic water and muddled cucumber, mint and limes to the assorted gins to see which gin preformed the best…This time there were no winners, though.

More On Gin…

There are many gins on the market, some in the “London Dry” style and others in the “American Dry” style. To get a little more “Gin” perspective, I asked Bill Beard of Bowery and Vine, NYC, a trendy wine and spirits shop that caters to some of the country’s most discriminating spirit palates and cutting edge mixologists to give us his thoughts.

Bill Beard of Bowery & Vine, NYC














“For me, I can’t help of thinking/expecting an obvious juniper note on the palate when tasting gin. And the preferred style for me is the London Dry style, such as Plymouth Gin, mostly for my martinis and some of the classic gin cocktails…I do like gins with a restrained impact of juniper and a softer, more floral taste, also, those in what is now known as the American Dry style. Some are done well; some not.I’ve been enjoying an American Dry gin lately that is very cleverly done. The Greenhook Ginsmiths Gin from Brooklyn, NY has a solid juniper flavor, but some of the other botanicals – elderflower, cinnamon, citrus – are apparent and with terrific clarity.”

Other recommended gins include Berry Brothers and Rudd’s London Dry and Junipero Gin for an American Dry Gin.

Of course, the journey to discover the gin that works for your favorite cocktail could require exploration and trial and error—Lots of fun work!  At the end of the day, it is up to you.

The Craft Distilling Movement Takes Hold in the Green Mountain State


Marcia Elliott of Smugglers' Notch Distillery

Vermont has developed a reputation over the past two decades as a pioneer in the craft food and beverage movement with brands like Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, Magic Hat Brewery, Vermont Coffee Roasters and Cabot Cheese putting Vermont on the map.   Aside from these “big” brands, Vermont conjures up images of small family farmed meats, artisanal cheeses and the world famous maple syrup that connotes purity and quality.  Vermont, a “crunchy granola” hedonist’s paradise, is a brand that sells in the best restaurants and stores in the country.

It has only been in the last decade or so, however, that a fledgling micro distilling movement has begun to take hold in the Green Mountain State, with some of its newest established producers, like WhistlePig and Smugglers’ Notch Distillery already garnering nationwide acclaim.   The “old timers,” if one can describe craft distillers who got their start in the late 90s and early 2000s, have also held their own nationally.  Vermont Spirits leading the way with their award winning vodkas and Saxton River’s Sapling Liquor taking home a Gold Medal recently from San Francisco World Spirits Competition.   There are about 15 licensed distillers in Vermont, with some not operational yet.  Those who have begun to produce spirits have worked to offer unique products, often using base materials sourced locally.

The Green Mountain state’s micro distillery movement began cautiously in 1989 with the establishment of Vermont Distiller’s, whose line-up included gin, vodka and a bourbon based cordial flavored with maple syrup.  After close to a decade in business, Vermont Distiller became defunct by the late ‘90s, but the state wasn’t without a micro-distillery for long.

Duncan Holaday of Dunc's Mill

In 1998, Vermont Spirits started by owner and founder Duncan Holaday, opened its doors.  Vermont Spirits became known for producing premium vodkas, their Vermont Gold made from maple sap, a true labor of love for those who have ever harvested maple sap, and their Vermont White made from milk sugar.   But, before any of these unique, premium vodkas could be brought to market and the distillery developed, Holaday had to carefully do his own due diligence regarding the business side of craft distillation.  That is when he realized that the chief barrier to getting his distillery up and running was in finding the appropriate equipment, the right amount of capacity and scale for a micro-distiller.


Before micro-distilling gained momentum, manufacturers of distillation equipment domestically focused on outfitting mostly large-scale, industrial operations. “In the 90′s in the US there were either huge stills 60-200 feet high or little illegal stills for do-it-yourself, home distilling. Finding the right size stills for what was to become the micro-distillery movement in the US has been an interesting development, or rather evolution,” said holaday.

Individuals wanting to craft their own spirits commercially often purchased too much capacity, too soon, with sometimes-dire financial consequences.  So, Holaday developed his own stills reflecting the capacity he needed.   This allowed him to get the distillery started in a manageable way, and simultaneously through his example, helped lower the barrier of entry that had existed for other aspiring artisanal distillers.

By the early 2000’s the industry started to blossom in Vermont.   In 2002, Flag Hill Farm came on the scene with an apple brandy and some hard ciders.  A matter of months later, Green Mountain Distillers opened its doors and began producing organic vodkas, organic gins and an organic liquor, made from, you guessed it, maple syrup.   Saxtons River Distillery started up a few years later and now produces its own maple liquor, called Sapling Liquor.  Now coming fast and furious, WhistlePig, Caledonia Spirits and Winery, and most recently Smugglers’ Notch Distillery have begun production.

Not surprisingly, Holaday now works as both a consultant to other micro distillers hoping to get their distilleries off the ground.   About a year ago he started releasing his first rums from his new project, Dunc’s Mill distillery (reviews on some of his rums to follow).

WhistlePig has already received rave reviews for its 100% rye whiskey, sourced from Canada and bottled in Vermont.  Caledonia Spirits and Winery, started by the “bee guy” Todd Hardie uses pure Vermont raw honey as a key component in all his spirit production, including his Bar Hill Gin, Bar Hill Honey Vodka and an Elderberry Cordial.  The most recent distillery to get off the ground is Smugglers’ Notch, in business for about a year, they have started by making a vodka and soon will be coming out with a rum.

It is exciting to watch the growth of these new artisanal distilleries, not just in Vermont but, all over the country.  But, according to Bill Owens of ADI, much of the craft distillery movement can thank small and medium size wineries’ decision to start making spirits in addition to their wines around 12-15 years ago.  “It sort of started under the radar.  They [wineries] started coming back from Europe with stills to make eau de vies and brandies.”

Of course, the craft brewery movement didn’t hurt micro distillers getting their start, either.   Some states saw that the craft brewery movement brought people to the state, adding much needed tourism dollars to their bottom lines, according to Owens, and these states have encouraged the micro distiller movement.  Only time will tell how big the industry will get and how disruptive it will prove to be to the large players in the market.  What is certain, is that these producers are injecting excitement, innovation and forcing the quality levels to increase in the spirits market, all of which benefits consumers—good news!


A quick view at some of Dunc’s Mill’s offerings:

Dunc’s Mill Maple Rum, light amber in color, vanilla, butterscotch andmaple on the nose, light-medium bodied, viscous with maple and burnt sugar notes on the palate.

Dunc’s Mill Elderflower – Made from a blend of Vermont elderberry blossoms, Austrian Elder essence and Caribbean sugar cane, the rum is clear in color, viscous with perfumed notes of elderflower and violets.