Gin has always been a drink of dubious repute. Its history includes mass alcoholism, rioting, and bootlegging. Yet, add the slightest of accoutrements, the barest whisper of citrus zest, a splash of good aperitif, or a thin slice of cucumber, and “mother’s ruin” transforms miraculously into a sleek, sophisticated bon vivant.
Gin’s popularity in the United States rose during Prohibition, as it was a cheap alternative to other spirits and required no prolonged aging. Speakeasies added flavorings, juices, and fruit to mask the taste of these poor-quality “bathtub” gins, a precursor to our craft-cocktail movement.
When creating gin cocktails, it’s important to keep the type of gin you are using in mind; each style has a distinct flavor profile that can make or break the end product. London dry style, the type that most people think of as a typical gin, has the most pronounced juniper flavor. It is best used in drinks in which it doesn’t compete with too many ingredients. Plymouth gin is a bit less dry and is the only protected style, made exclusively in Plymouth, England. New World styles, of which Hendrick’s is the best-known type, often play down the piney flavors in favor of floral, vegetal, or herbal notes that won’t overwhelm more delicate juices or essences. And genevers, the first gin-like spirits, are another animal altogether, having a malted-grain base that gives them a light whiskey-like taste. They are definitely not a direct equivalent and shouldn’t be substituted for gin in most applications.
3391 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights
It’s not easy to find genever cocktails in San Diego, but Sycamore Den boasts two. In the Genever Lopez, tequila may be the predominant spirit, but the earthy Bols Genever doesn’t take a backseat. Lime, celery syrup, and Serrano spice bitters deliver light, bright citrus, herbal freshness, and just a frisson of heat. I love the distinct maltiness and a touch of white pepper in the Leafcutter. Maraschino liqueur dryly plays off a bit of honey, lemon, and an aromatic float of rose water that dissipates ever so slowly as you sip away.
2001 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
London dry style is the order of the day at Kettner Exchange. A lot of people think that a Gibson is just a Martini with a pickled onion instead of an olive, and they may be right — no one knows exactly how the Gibson came to be. The Perfect Gibson at KEX uses hearty Beefeater, but what makes this cocktail special is the lovely vermouth, Carpano Bianco, that imparts subtly sweet, fresh floral flavors, smooth vanilla, and a tinge of bitterness. The house-made pickled red onion, plump as a strawberry, was a tiny treat in the bottom of my too-quickly emptied glass. Their PD Collins doesn’t just update the classic Tom Collins; it gives it a complete overhaul. Once again, the choice of aperitif to team with Beefeater, Cocchi Rosa, really makes the drink with its berry, woodsy, spicy roundness, lemon and blood orange add sparkle, peach bitters and a splash of soda pull it all together.
4130 Park Boulevard, University Heights
(No longer in business.)
After seeing cucumber/lime/insert-gin-brand combos on dozens of menus, I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting much from Sausage and Meat’s West Coast East Side. But the St. George Terroir Gin, made in Alameda, California, uses local Douglas fir, California bay laurel, and coastal sage in this intensely aromatic New World gin. It makes a world of difference. On the other end of the spectrum, the Variety of Life uses Damrak, a Dutch gin that subdues its juniper level to let its citrus and honeysuckle flavors shine. There’s plenty of piquancy from lemon and Sriracha and a lovely honey finish.
830 25th Street, Golden Hill
If your only experience with gin has been an awful tasting gin and tonic, it might not be that you don’t like gin; it could be that you’ve been served substandard tonic. You can seek out some of the new, small-batch tonics, or visit Counterpoint, where they make their own. I couldn’t get much out of John, our mixologist, about the ingredients, but I really liked the result. Plymouth gin gives it an earthy, woodsy quality that’s pleasant to sip as you while away a hot summer afternoon. Plymouth gin is also used as the base of the house-infused Lemongrass Martini. The slightly sweeter style is a perfect complement to the distinct flavor of lemongrass. Just a splash of Dolin dry vermouth adds a slight aroma of thyme, lime zest, and white wine. Simple ingredients, beautifully paired.
4020 Goldfinch Street, Mission Hills
I recently had the pleasure to meet and chat about gin with Chris Simmons, general manager and certified catador at the Patio on Goldfinch. We share a love of aviation cocktails, and he introduced me to my latest gin obsession. The Aviation is reminiscent of a time when air travel was new and glamorous, reserved for the rich and famous, before airplanes became Greyhound buses with wings. But it’s a tough cocktail to do well: the brands you choose make a big difference, and careful measuring is critical. Chris uses Plymouth gin, Luxardo maraschino, lemon, and Rothman & Winter crème de violette. The result is a lovely, sophisticated nod to the era when humans first began to defy gravity. If the Aviation makes you long for the skies, the G Fizz will plant your feet right into the California chaparral. Chris paired Ventura Spirits Company’s Wilder gin with guava purée, lemon, a bit of simple syrup and egg white and shaken till frothy. Wilder gin has the most exquisite sage aroma, like hiking on a hot day when the sun is releasing the scents of wild herbs growing all around you. That dual hit of a savory gin nose and creamy, exotic guava flavor is a very intelligent use of the unique flavor profile of both. Of all the excellent cocktails I tasted, this was my favorite.