Yes, sipping gins are a thing – and once you embrace them, a rich bounty of flavours awaits you
Words and photographs by Andrew Faulkner
Gin’s image with the general drinking public is practically synonymous with cocktails, so it is hard for some people to wrap their heads around sipping gin.
“What? You drink straight gin? You don’t mix it with anything?”
Yes. Sipping gin is a thing. There has always been a substantial percentage of gin drinkers who think an ice cube is sufficient mixing, thank you.
Sipping gins offer depth and complexity without mixers and create new flavours in classic recipes. They thrive in spirit-forward cocktails. As craft gin makers uncover new recipes and flavours, a larger percentage of drinkers finds gins they enjoy neat or on the rocks, and an increasing number of distilleries make gins worthy of exploring.
The gins from Wonderbird Spirits – Gin No. 61 (the flagship), Gin No. 61 Cask Reserve and Gin No. 97 Magnolia Experimental – are very sippable new arrivals to the gin landscape.
Each one of the Wonderbird gins is more similar to each other than to other gins, yet each is an adventure unto itself – like going to a vast beautiful park and trying to decide whether to enjoy the forest, the meadow or the lake. It’s all the same place, yet somehow all different.
What sets these gins apart is the warm, viscous mouthfeel. And the binding element between them all is the base spirit.
Wonderbird is located in Taylor, Mississippi and distils from rice, but not just any rice: jasmine rice from Mississippi that has been fermented in koji before the alcohol fermentation. Wonderbird starts with what is essentially distilled sake. The jasmine rice gives off floral aromas and a creamy mouthfeel, as if it were a botanical, and is in delicate balance with the recipe’s red clover and pine needles, which are harvested from the distillery grounds. To taste, a vibrant, viscous blanket of lemon zest wraps its warming arms around your tongue. The gin has a refined juniper note running down the middle and across the top of the tongue. Each of the three gins is truly a spirit to sip and meditate on.
The barrel-rested version smooths out the peaks and valleys, filling them in with vanillin and wood sugars. Meanwhile, the magnolia expression is ripe with the aromatics of a sultry southern night, ripped from the pages of a William Faulkner novel. It carries an extra herbaceous note on the palate, like the freshly mowed lawn underneath that blossoming magnolia tree.
Just as jasmine rice plays a key role in Wonderbird gins, the base spirit of apple brandy plays a key role in the flavour of CapRock Gin. Lance Hanson, founder of Jack Rabbit Hill Farm, said he makes the base spirit with biodynamic Braeburn, winesap and Jonathan apples.
“There’s a very long fermentation process because it is all spontaneous,” said Hanson. “It’s native yeast, you know. We don’t inoculate. Everything is a natural fermentation. We use the yeasts that are on the fruit as well as in the air.”
Fermenting the cider in his cool cellar, where the ambient temperature is 55–60°F (12.8–15.6°C), takes from five to seven months and yields a very different cider than faster, warmer fermentations or commercial yeasts. Hanson tries to get the fullest expression of the fruit by fermenting the whole apple: skin, seeds, pulp, juice, everything.
The eau de vie is distilled slowly and softly before Bulgarian juniper, dried rosebuds, lavender, cinnamon chips, coriander, orange and lemon are added. Some of the botanicals are macerated in the high proof, and some hang in the vapour path while Hanson runs the still on low steam – overall, a light-handed distillation.
“We’re getting a real interesting balance between all the fruit, the juniper, the spices, the base alcohol – everything coming together in a way that, because of the way that we make it, you can pick up on all these things,” said Hanson. “It’s not muddled.”
When he is not sipping CapRock on the rocks, Hanson says the gin shines in cocktails such as a White Negroni or a Corpse Reviver.
A White Negroni is one of the cocktails that Danny Ronen, of Shaker & Spoon, recommends amid a long list of cocktails that work well with sipping gins. Substituting Suze and Lillet Blanc in lieu of Campari and sweet red vermouth brings the gin forward.
Spirit-forward cocktails allow each gin to showcase its botanical mix. The obvious choice is a Martini, and it need not even be a dry one. With the right vermouth, a 50-50 Martini can produce unexpectedly delicious combinations, as the aromatised wine interacts with the subtle components of the gin. A Southside is another cocktail that lets a sipping gin sing.
Ronen recommends a Gin Old Fashioned, a cocktail which he regards as super-underappreciated. Shaker & Spoon features an Old Fashioned variation called Sepal & Spice, which calls for Angostura bitters, orange bitters, a spiced prickly pear and hibiscus syrup, and a spritz of grapefruit oil over the top.
Bartender Kellie Thorn created the Sepal & Spice with Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin in mind. On the Shaker & Spoon website (www.shakerandspoon.com), she explains it far more eloquently than I can: “This is a vibrant explosion of character. Aromas and flavors of bright citrus and exotic spices harmonize together and are well supported by a mouthfilling and silky texture. It’s the kind of gin that can be enjoyed over a large ice cube on its own but also brings a lot to the table in a cocktail.”
Four Pillars co-founder and distiller Cameron Mackenzie put it a little more succinctly, “That’s our main gin. That’s the heart and soul of Four Pillars.”
This clean, crisp gin is very citrus-forward. Mackenzie cuts fresh oranges in half and hangs them in the vapour path during distillation. Along with lemon myrtle, the whole fruit puts a bright, fresh impression on the spirit, which is balanced by Tasmanian pepperberry leaf, yielding a white pepper/green tea note. But with 80 per cent of the botanical load being juniper, Four Pillars Rare Extra Dry sits firmly in the dry category. It is quite an elegant sipper and very refreshing on the rocks.
Ronen also recommends another sipping gin, one with a long history: Wint & Lila London Dry Style Gin, whose recipe was created in 1645 by the East India Company. Distilled since 1820 on bain-marie stills at the Casalbor Distillery in El Puerto de Santa María, Spain, this gin is fragrant with azahar, the blossom of Sevilla oranges.
With variations for conventional and organic, London dry and strawberry, this sweet and supple gin hits the palate very gently, with hints of lemon drop candy and mint underneath the juniper. In its sweetness, it is reminiscent of Barr Hill Gin from Caledonia Spirits, a well-known sipper that is softened by a little Vermont wildflower honey.
The first sipper that really captivated me was AMASS Dry Gin, made by Morgan McLachlan, a distiller and herbalist based in Los Angeles.
“We use 29 botanicals in AMASS. It is a lot, but each botanical serves a purpose in the matrix of the flavour profile,” said McLachlan.
Now, 29 botanicals may sound like a lot and it is difficult to imagine that every one is important, but the proof is in the sipping. This gin has finesse and is complex, constantly evolving in the glass, offering a new variation with every sip. It’s a real pleasure to relax with and contemplate.
“While we started off foraging more of the botanicals, once we started scaling, we reduced it to just the California bay and cedar leaf. Scalability and also responsible foraging practices are my reason for sourcing most of our botanicals,” McLachlan explained. “I am reluctant to forage botanicals unless I know that in doing so, I am not disrupting the local biosphere. Foraging plants and botanicals is a wonderful and empowering way to connect with nature, but to do it ethically, I believe that a deep understanding of the local ecosystem is necessary.”
AMASS Gin constantly leads the sipper around corners, finding hidden treasures: a hint of one flavour here, another there. The aromas conjure up memories as they rise out of the organoleptic bounty. One note comes up and while trying to put a finger on it, another eclipses it. It continually morphs.
Sipping gins are aromatherapy in a glass and a category that is rising. CapRock’s Hanson said, “I’d love for more people to just enjoy it on the rocks. That was my original idea. That’s how I drink it, and that’s how I love gin.”