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Gin mixes things up in classic, contemporary cocktails
By Deborah Pankey | Daily Herald Food Editor
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Published: 7/14/2010 12:01 AM

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Take note, vodka, gin is back in the game.

In a year where flavored vodkas (espresso, ginger, bubble gum - really!) continue to take over liquor store shelves, gin quietly mounts a comeback.

Longtime players like Beefeater and Plymouth have introduced new blends (Beefeater 24 and Plymouth Navy Strength, respectively), while newer distillers including New Amsterdam and Hendrick's have added their names to the roster.

"Gin used to rule this country," says master mixologist Alex Ott, who has developed recipes for New Amsterdam. Gin martinis defined the classic cocktail era and the gin and tonic, developed hundreds of years ago to fight malaria and stomach ailments, could perhaps be the first cocktail.

Things began to change for gin in the late 1970s when new brands of vodka came to the U.S. every other week (or so it seemed) and the spirit started its meteoric rise. After seeing sales declines in the early part of this century, gin's numbers are creeping back up, albeit in baby steps.

Those in the industry suspect the growth will rise more rapidly as people discover new gins during this modern cocktail era.

The style of gin that most people are familiar with is London dry gin. Gin starts as a colorless, neutral grain spirit, distilled from wheat, barley or other cereal grain (just like vodka). What differentiates gin from vodka is the addition of juniper (gin has to have juniper) and three to 23 other botanicals like orange peel, savory and coriander, Ott explains. As international bar chef Tony Abou-Ganim puts it, "gin was the first flavored vodka."

"London dry" or "masculine-style" gin tends to be emphasize the juniper notes, says Abou-Ganim in his book "The Modern Mixologist" (2010 Surrey Books). Tanqueray and Beefeaters fall into this category.

Newer brands, New Amsterdam and Hendrick's, for example, treat citrus with a heavier hand for an "American-" or "feminine-" style gin. "The juniper is there, but you have to look for it," he said.

He credits distillers at Bombay Sapphire with opening up gin to a new generation and realizing "that younger drinkers need a softer entry into the gin category than the juniper-forward gin of our grandfathers."

Ott agrees; "We're seeing newer gins in order to turn Americans back to the spirit." The U.K., Spain and the U.S. are the top three consumers or gin.

Abou-Ganim counts Plymouth gin as a style unto itself; "well-rounded, fruit flavor that rests somewhere between the other two."

"There's a gin for everyone," he says. "The only way to really know what you like is to taste."

So don't discount gin as a spirit because you once sipped your Dad's Tom Collins. You just haven't found the gin for you.

"Gin is very personal," Abou-Ganim says.

Abou-Ganim suggests hosting a gin party and inviting friends to bring different bottles to the gathering. Experiment with garnishes too, he says, to determine which gin goes best with raspberries, cucumber, a pickled onion, an olive, a citrus wedge, and so on.

He says "you owe it to yourself to taste" a Negroni, an Italian-born, Prohibition-era mix of gin and vermouth that Abou-Ganim counts as his favorite cocktail.

"If you made this with 12 different gins you'd have 12 different cocktails," he said.

You might not use the same gin for a gin and tonic that you will for a Tom Collins or a Negroni.

"In my martini I may be in the mood for a Tanqueray with a blue cheese-stuffed olive, or Plymouth with a twist of orange or lemon or Bombay Sapphire with lemon and onion," he said.