Friday, August 8, 2008

Gin & Tonic Taste Test

As many I encountered at "Tales of the Cocktail" already know, the New York Sun charged me to put together a Gin & Tonic blind tasting, to take place at The Clover Club the day after the convention. Much to my surprise, the guest tasters David Wondrich, St. John Frizell and Julie Reiner—all presenters at TOTC—managed to drag themselves to the tasting the afternoon after flying back to NYC. Not just drag themselves, actually. They look fresh as daisies.

Anyway, the piece ran a couple weeks back. Here it is, with the results.

The Best Gin for a Summer Elixer

By Robert Simonson

Before the mojito, before the caipirinha, the gin and tonic reigned supreme as a hot-weather drink, quenching summertime thirsts at taverns and backyard parties the world over. Born of practicality — the quinine in the tonic once helped combat malaria in the British Empire, while the gin made it easier for authorities to throw the bitter elixir down people's throats — it survived simply as a delectable liquid marriage.

Although more complicated drinks might be the tipples of choice for today's drinkers, the seemingly elementary G&T is enough of a classic to provoke debate on how best to serve it up. Favored gin-to-tonic ratios vary from 1-to-1 to 1-to-4. Britishers prefer lemon as a garnish, while Americans go for the more familiar lime wedge, which some simply shove into the glass, while others squeeze it over the drink. And then there's the question of tonic choice.

In testing how six gins (three classics, three newer brands) performed in a gin and tonic, a recent tasting panel opted for one part gin to two parts tonic, poured into a glass filled to the brim with ice and topped with a squeezed lime wedge. While new boutique tonics such as Q and Fever-Tree are preferred by many professionals in lieu of mass-market items such as Canada Dry, they're not always readily available to the average consumer, who might not live or work near a Whole Foods (but they could be worth a trip, as Charlotte Cowles writes today). Our control tonic: small, individual bottles of Schweppes, to ensure a fresh pour.

On the panel were myself; a cocktail historian and author of "Imbibe!" (Penguin), David Wondrich; a former bartender at Pegu Club and a spirits journalist, St. John Frizell, and mixologist and bar owner Julie Reiner, whose new Brooklyn saloon, the Clover Club, provided the setting for the tasting.

#1 (tie)
Profile: One of the classic exemplars of the London Dry Gin style, a Tanqueray Gin & Tonic is considered by many the benchmark for the drink. If you got through college without hearing someone pompously order a "Tanq & Tonic," you went to a dry school.
Comments: Panelists liked this one at first sip, finding it "balanced, fresh and tasty," with a "sharp cleanness" (Wondrich), and a palate not "overly juniper"-oriented (Reiner) with "a lot of lime rind" (Frizell). Said Wondrich, simply, "It's a very good Gin & Tonic."

#1 (tie)
Profile: This two-century-old spirit, produced in its namesake British port town and long associated with the British Navy, has recently made a comeback. Possessing a "Protected Designation of Origin" all its own, it is prized by spirit pros for its complexity of flavor.
Comments: As Plymouth is not usually a go-to gin for G&Ts, the panel was slightly surprised by the spirit's strong showing. But the words said it all. It was "perfectly right. A little bit a pepper and spicy citrus," (Frizell) with a "long, long finish. It keeps going and going." Just "very nice" (Simonson).

#3 (tie)
Profile: Bottled in London since 1820, Beefeater stands alongside Tanqueray as another standard-bearer of the London Dry style, a habitual choice for many Martini and Gin & Tonic drinkers.
Comments: Though not coming out on top, Beefeater did respectably with the panel, making a Gin & Tonic that was "nice and bright" (Frizell), "clean" and "appealing" (Wondrich) and "refreshing" (Reiner). Added Julie: "Mmm."

#3 (tie)
Profile: Junipero, which debuted in the 1990s, comes from the Anchor Distillery in San Francisco, the same folks who make Anchor Steam Beer. Made in small batches, it has won some converts, even among traditionalists.
Comments: Of the younster gins sampled, Junipero performed the best with the tasters. It was deemed "juicy, citrusy," though "not as clean and cutting," (Wondrich), while all noticed the "good deal of juniper in it" (Frizell). All in all, though, the Junipero Gin & Tonic was "pretty well-balanced," even if the finish lasted "the least amount of time." (Frizell)

Profile: This recently rolled-out gin has an unusual source: the giant E.&J. Gallo Winery. Softer, fuller and less dry than classic gins, the company has emphasized its shying away from what they call gin's "harsh" taste profile.
Comments: The remaining new gins—often called "botanical gins" because they play a bit fast and loose with their flavoring ingredients—took a drubbing from the panel. New Amsterdam reminded tasters of "hair tonic," (Simonson) "Fruit Loops" (Wondrich) and "something like violet" (Reiner). Frizell was more forgiving, saying "I don't dislike it. It kind of smells like a cheap Gin & Tonic."

Profile: This contemporary invention out of Portland, OR, has captured a won a lot of attention for its atypical cocktail of botanicals emphasizing lavender and anise seed, as well as its round, smooth delivery. The makers purport to have been influenced by the heavier (and older), Dutch style of gin.
Comments: There was no love in the room for the young gin from the Pacific Northwest. "This is just weird," was the first remark, with taste notes of "some flavor like mugwort," "swampy, musty, Grandma's attic" following (Wondrich). "It grabs you by the throat" (Reiner) and was "aggressive," (Frizell) and "the finish it bitter" (Reiner). In short, an Aviation Gin & Tonic didn't fly.


Matt Schacht said...

Thank you for this - I enjoyed reading the results. I am planning a similar tasting for my blog. I do plan to include permutations of tonic waters making it quite a complex tasting. I think Schweppes was a good "referee" tonic over the abysmal Canada Dry.

Geoff said...

I enjoy your breakdown of the various gins we did the inverse with tonics...

It's funny we thought that Canada Dry would score very low in a Tonic taste test, but it didn't.

Here's our piece on The Best Tonic for Gin

We tasted them all blind and it was very surprising to us how things ended up.

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