Just like a perfect dish, understanding complementary flavours for different gins is key to building a truly great drink
When I’m not ‘on the clock’ writing about gin, cooking is a passion of mine – specifically, cooking without recipes. There’s something magical in the art of combining herbs, spices and ingredients to create something unique and delicious.
In the early 2010s, contemporary-style gin exploded from niche into the mainstream. Making cocktails with some of these new gins suddenly felt a bit more like the kind of cooking I enjoyed. Distillers experimented with an ever-increasing range of botanicals. Some of these botanicals paired great with tonic water and sang when combined in the precise ratio of the Negroni.
Others? They didn’t. But was a nicely balanced juniper and mint-forward gin inherently flawed because it didn’t work in a Gibson?
My greatest inspiration for working with these new gins was to learn from the established culinary tradition of food and drink pairing.
“The classic principles are classic for a reason: they’re timeless,” says Karen Page, who together with Andrew Dorenberg has co-authored a series of James Beard Award-winning books on food pairing. Though their books such as The Flavor Bible tackle the problem from a culinary perspective, she notes, “The principles are the same, no matter what you’re using.” Scott Beattie, author of Artisanal Cocktails and former bartender at Cyrus in Healdsburg, California, cited the book among his influences. The same goes for Nate Fishman, bartender among the renowned cocktail creators at Liquor Lab.
How do books like this work?
Think of it as an ingredient dictionary. You look for a flavour and you’ll see below it a list of other ingredients which pair best with the ingredient entry. These pairings were aggregated through research and conversations with chefs.
Karen and Andrew begin with an example familiar to many gin drinkers. “A classic gin example from What to Drink is Hendrick’s gin, whose cucumber notes should have you scouring the pages of The Flavor Bible and/or The Vegetarian Flavor Bible for cucumber pairings.” They cite a few of the pairings listed – chillies, cilantro, dill, garlic, lemon, mint, onions, parsley, pepper, salmon, salt, sugar, tomato, vinegar and yoghurt.
A few cocktail pairings immediately come to mind from this list. The citrus and mint might suggest a Southside, the tomato might lead to a Red Snapper, or the onion might suggest a natural application in a Gibson.
They continue, “More experienced users can use each of those flavours as jumping off points for further improvisation… if it goes with chillies, it might also go with red pepper flakes; if it goes with onions, it might also go with other alliums; if it goes with sugar, it might also go with other sweet ingredients.”
New gins, new flavours
“Deconstructing the flavour profile of the spirit you’re working with is an important first step,” Karen and Andrew say. “It can be helpful to identify dominant botanicals and to look them up to see what flavours pair well with them.”
Distillers are increasingly disclosing botanical lists with their products. This helps a little, but because a botanical is listed doesn’t always mean it can be tasted. There’s no shortcut here. Sip the gin neat. What do you taste? What don’t you taste?
Deconstructing based on botanicals can also be difficult until you become familiar with their flavours once distilled. Simply perceiving the overall impression can be a good starting point. Is it floral? Is it piney? Is it savoury? These can be helpful first steps until you feel confident that what you’re tasting is coriander.
Since Karen and Andrew wrote their book What to Drink with What You Eat in 2006, a lot has changed. “Food is also increasingly diverse, offering new pairing options from around the world,” they say.
In the gin world, we’ve seen this trend play out as well. Ingredients which we might not have even been aware of a decade ago are now commonplace. You might have never heard of lemon myrtle before having a bottle of Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin. Cipó cravo might have never been part of your bar programme before Amázzoni Gin launched. In short, many of the botanicals that we experience in gin have places in culinary traditions around the world.
If you’re not familiar with how to pair a gin that features lemongrass prominently, look to a cuisine that does for inspiration. Even quotidian botanicals such as lavender have a home in regional cuisines – maybe look towards Provençal.
Pairing drinks with food can be another way of emphasising their botanical profile. Aquavit – a botanical spirit very similar to gin, except instead of juniper it has caraway and/or dill seed as its foundational botanical – has a long tradition of being drunk neat alongside meals.
Gin, while rarely appreciated this way, offers a new way to pair and appreciate unique botanical profiles. For example, try a bold juniper-forward gin with game meats such as pheasant, or pair a mint-forward gin with a vegetarian entrée of aubergine.
|Cuisines||Gins featuring this botanical|
|Greek||Gordon’s Sicilian Lemon Gin (UK)|
Sipsmith Lemon Drizzle Gin (UK)
|Provençal||Golden Moon Gin (US)|
Threefold Aromatic Gin (Aus)
|Moroccan||That Boutique-y Gin Company Mojito (UK)|
Cardinal Spirits Terra Botanical Gin (US)
|Brazilian||Cadenhead Old Raj Dry Gin (UK)|
Gabriel Boudier Saffron Gin (France)
|Vietnamese||Crows Small Batch Gin (Philippines)|
Iron Balls Gin (Thailand)
|Scandinavian||Opihr Gin (UK)|
Sacred Cardamom Gin (UK)
|Alsatian||Never Never Distilling Co. Triple Juniper Gin (Australia)|
Triple Three Just Juniper Berry Gin (South Africa)
There may have been a moment where it would be shocking to say that a gin didn’t have to work well with tonic, but I think that moment has passed. As gin has evolved to incorporate a more diverse range of flavour profiles on top of its juniper core, so have the ways that we can use and enjoy gin.
Whether it’s in a tried and true cocktail, a riff of your own creation, or simply sipped neat at dinner with friends, gin is meant to be a celebration of juniper and botanicals. The culinary arts provide a framework for inspiration – for enjoying the bountiful gin harvest that’s been bestowed upon us.