Bombay Sapphire, extra vermouth (always extra vermouth), shaken like the dickens, and served with a few plump Sable & Rosenfeld olives. That was the first martini I ever consumed, shaken up after a round of golf by my uncle James. We enjoyed them at dusk prior to a meal shared with my aunt Cynthia, the pleasant snap of the gin reminding me that this was not a wine cooler, but a proper cocktail. I’ve loved martinis for that and many other reasons since.
Gin originated in the Netherlands in the 17th century, where spirits mixed with the berries from juniper (or jeneverstruik, in Dutch) were used as medicine. British troops fighting in the Netherlands during the Thirty Years War brought their taste for gin back to England, where it took on a life of its own. Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Beefeater: all the classic London dry gins have a pronounced juniper backbone. Some find that appealing. Others refer to as too “piney”—which is accurate, since juniper comes from a sort of evergreen shrub. Those averse to its characteristic bite tend to favor more neutral spirits, like vodka, or sweeter spirits, like whiskey.
But the dry, austere face of gin has been changing. The craft cocktail boom has brought with it a new generation of talented and creative distillers, many based right here in the North—or the very far north in the case of Michael Swanson and his distillery, Far North Spirits, in Hallock, Minnesota (see our profile on Swanson and Far North). To Swanson, “New American” gin means that any and all botanicals are fair game. “With London dry, there is a list of botanicals that few stray from,” he says. “But with the New American style, it’s pretty wide open and allows for a broader range of experimentation with flavor.”
Far North Spirits produces two gins: Gustaf, a traditional London dry, and Solveig, a floral- and citrus-forward gin in the New American style. Every botanical in both gins is distilled individually then blended together, creating a superior spirit with greater depth and character. For Solveig, notes of lavender, thyme, and coriander are present, as well as those of black olives and fresh grain. It’s a vivid and beautiful spirit that is made instantly recognizable with its stark white bottle, distinct flavor, and creamy texture.
When Emily Vikre was looking for direction for the gin at her and husband Joel’s eponymous Duluth-based distillery, she knew she wanted a traditional juniper-forward gin. But she also longed for a gin that would make her favorite cocktail, the Negroni, shine. So she went on a self-proclaimed “tree-inspired gin mental rampage” and arrived at using cedar from a local lumberyard as a flavor component. “Juniper is already a sort of tree,” she says, “so I thought, how can we go one step further?” Accented, rather than dominated, by the wood, Vikre’s Cedar Gin truly does make an exceptional Negroni.
Minneapolis’ Tattersall Distilling founder and distiller Dan Oskey created his impossibly smooth and balanced gin with 22 botanicals. His flagship gin is so sublime it can (and should) be sipped neat with a cube or two of ice, which Oskey actually did offer on his menu upon opening his cocktail room earlier this year. With a well-earned reputation as a master of flavor combinations, Oskey strikes a beautiful balance in his gin with clear nods to Old World juniper-forward styles, and an appropriate amount of citrus and spice.
Often citrus forward, but not necessarily so, New American gins give distillers creative license to do just that: create, rather than simply make copies of a traditional style that already exists. Of course there will always be a place for the signature snap of a clean, crisp, juniper-forward London dry gin. But experimenting with these new products offers the home and professional cocktail enthusiast the opportunity to find their signature spin on classics like the Martinez or the Negroni. Sounds like a great research project to me.