Why You Should Try American Gin (And What to Look For)

published Apr 23, 2014
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(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

A couple of weeks back, when we kicked off our coverage of gin at the 9-Bottle Bar, we looked into a few of the prevailing, historically established styles of this centuries-old spirit. But there’s a younger, brasher, emerging category of gin that we haven’t looked into yet — the expanding landscape of American gins — and it’s fertile territory for anyone who isn’t in love with the juniper-driven profile of most London drys or wants to explore intriguing alternatives.

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

As we’ve learned, the rules for what constitutes a gin are relatively lax compared to some other spirits categories; juniper should play an important role in a gin’s making, but, for the most part, other than that, producers have a lot of freedom to indulge their own personal taste. To many of the upstart shops propelling the current boom in American craft distilling, that freedom has proven attractive, and in recent years there’s been a sizable proliferation of new American-made gins on liquor-store shelves.

What Does an American Gin Taste Like?

Besides their shared nationality, it’s difficult to point to any strong commonalities among new American gins. For one thing, the roster keeps growing, and each new producer to enter the fold wants to be different from its peers somehow.

One of the few generalizations one can safely draw about American gins is that the field both descends from and stands in contrast to the spruced-up world of London dry gins.

American Gin from FEW Spirits

“I’m not sure that the category is established enough to really define,” Paul Hletko told me recently. Hletko heads up FEW Spirits, an Evanston, Illinois, distillery whose flagship product, launched in 2011, is an American gin. “To me, the distinction relates to how heavily juniper features in the botanical flavors. All gin is predominantly juniper, of course, but that’s the glorious thing of gin as a category is the diversity. London dry gin tends to have a much higher level of juniper in the mix than the ‘American’ gins.”

FEW’s American Gin includes the requisite juniper in its botanical build, but also vanilla, citrus, and even Cascade hops, an unusual gin ingredient which Hletko — who comes from a family of Czech brewers — grows in his home garden.

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Bluecoat from Philadelphia Distilling

Bluecoat American Dry Gin, out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, proudly wears the American mantle, taking as its namesake the nickname for soldiers who fought for the country’s independence. Philadelphia Distilling employs a pot still and all organic botanicals to make Bluecoat. As you might expect, Bluecoat sharply diverges from the London dry flavor profile, favoring fragrant, bright citrus peel over piney juniper.

Prairie Organic Gin

If fully organic production is an important factor in your spirits shopping, also consider Prairie Organic Gin, from Minnesota. Its light, herbaceous profile — with subdued juniper notes swirling amid sage and coriander — makes this bottle a versatile, approachable change-of-pace from traditional London dry.

Small’s Gin from Ransom Spirits

One of the more idiosyncratic American gins to hit the market is Small’s, which debuted in 2009 and hails from Oregon’s Ransom Spirits. Ransom’s proprietor, Tad Seestedt, and his collaborator in spirits development, Christophe Bakunas, based the recipe for Small’s on gins popular in the U.S. in the mid-19th century, when improvements in distillation technology allowed for a drier style of gin to become popular. “Our approach was to make a high-toned gin that married citrus, savory aromatics like angelica root and caraway with the juniper,” Bakunas told me. “And distilling in Oregon I felt it was important to have an iconic local ingredient. We settled on raspberries.” Fresh berries are added into the still for the final distillation, for just a hint of dark-fruit flavor.

In the not-too-distant future, there may be more to say about the ties that bind American gins. Bakunas is among a group of domestic producers circulating a petition to encourage federal regulators to set a legal definition for “American Dry Gin,” in hopes of assuring drinkers of what’s in the bottle they’re buying. Currently, the description they’re lobbying for would require an American Dry Gin to be batch distilled, made from 100 percent American-grown grain, and distilled and bottled within the United States using juniper as the predominant botanical.

Or, as the petition says, “American made and proud of it.”

Do you drink any American gins? Do you have a favorite?