There’s a whiff of juniper in the air, recently, as small craft distilleries and consumers are re-discovering the pleasures of this ancient spirit: gin. A drink that many may have associated with their parents or grandparents is gaining a new reputation, moving out from beneath the shadow of giant corporations in their monotonous style, and flourishing again as young distilleries here in New York and around the country have experimented with and produced gins in a dizzying array of new and forgotten styles.
At its most basic, gin is a distilled spirit flavored with juniper berries and other botanicals. It can be traced back to at least the 17th century, when physicians in Holland produced a medicinal spirit flavored with juniper oils. Juniper was considered an important medicine, good for the liver and kidneys, and many early spirits were made not as cocktails, but as powerful elixers. This tradition continues even today; anytime we order a gin & tonic we’re following the example of British colonials warding off malaria by faithfully ingesting their quinine tonics … made more palatable, of course, with a splash or three of gin.
To be considered a gin, the predominant flavor characteristic has to be juniper; however the supporting cast of botanicals – exotic flowers and spices from around the world – is what gives gin its unique flavors and individual personality, in essence its identity. There are a few standard botanicals that most if not all gins have come to rely on to marry well with juniper: citrus peel and coriander among them. Beyond certain faithful friends, however, the distiller has an almost infinite library of flowers, fruits, herbs and spices to choose from: cinnamon and honey, star anise or elderberry or hibiscus; virtually any aromatic fruit, spice, or flower. Early gin manufacturers would compete to find ever more exotic herbs & spices, and often British and Dutch ships sailing to the ends of the earth would bring their bounty of strange botanicals back to the local distilleries, to more fully investigate their medicinal and culinary potential.
This is what makes gin actually quite exciting: choosing and balancing an enormous variety of ingredients to find just the right recipe, experiencing the almost alchemical feeling of combining powerful and rare herbs & spices with spirit to produce something invigorating, with flavors both delicate and strong, and a haunting aroma. The spirit is a canvas on which a palette of flavors and aromas can be imagined, and the distiller is challenged to try and put it in a glass.
In fact, it’s this very variety that we’ve come to forget with gins. It’s easy to overlook in this sea of London Dry style gin – the gins which for decades have stood for the very definition of what gin is – all of the alternative, historic, or just plain different styles of gin that are possible, and that are increasingly being made again. These include the ancient whiskey-like genever (or Holland Gin) style, the genesis of gin made from maltwine and aged in oak, this style was dominant in early American bar-tending; Old Tom, a sweetened gin predominant in Britain in the nineteenth century; Plymouth Gin, another British dry style softer than London Dry; Sloe Gin, a gin liqueur made with sloe berries; as well as many unique modern gins that defy easy categorization. The new-found vibrancy of the world of gin makes it a creative, exciting time for gin distillers.
NYDC will be making at least three different styles of gin, faithful to traditional process; a modern dry style, a naval strength gin, and an Old Tom. We’re excited by the many possibilities inherent in gin, and plan to release certain seasonal and limited production gins in the future.
We’re interested in sourcing as many of the ingredients as possible from New York State. Many of our spices are sourced from organic traders.
We’ve contracted rye and corn from Pedersen Farms, 3 miles outside of Geneva, NY. Rick Pedersen has 1500 acres, 600 of which is certified organic. We’ve spent time up at the farm, and are really excited about the quality of grains we’ll be getting. Our sources for ingredients not traditionally found in New York, such as our spices and juniper berries, are all organic and meet demands for high quality and consistency.
The smell of juniper is certainly in the air here in New York, and NYDC is looking forward to contributing to the burgeoning gin renaissance.