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Gin for the Win

Infused with everything from rose petals to strawberries, this spirit is gaining a new generation of admirers.

By: KATIE MCELVEEN

Not that long ago, gin drinkers looked on with envy as bourbon lovers regaled the array of flavor profiles — caramel, vanilla, toasty hazelnuts — found in their favorite brown spirit. In 1999, that began to change when the venerable Scottish distiller Hendricks created a gin infused with rose petals and cucumber. Though gin traditionalists may have been horrified by the new spirit, other tipplers were delighted with the change, and today distillers are flavoring their gins with Seville oranges and other citrus, thyme, tea, lemongrass, almonds and even seaweed. They’re mixing up the base spirit too, subbing out the usual wheat for rye and hops or, for a gin that thinks it’s whiskey, barrel-aging it. Sea Island embraces these new iterations, welcoming Four-Peel Strawberry Gin, a bright, citrusy gin created with Watershed Distillery.

 

Given this new freedom of flavors to play with, bartenders have jumped on the trend, creating drinks with so much personality that it’s hard for anyone to declare themselves unimpressed. Sea Island Lead Bartender Nic Wallace is himself a gin lover and is thrilled with gin’s new style. “Gin used to be a drink that people either loved or hated,” he comments. “These botanical gins are a really fun tool for creating new cocktails or for giving new life to old ones.” Wallace says that one of his favorite drinks to bridge clients willing to experiment with gin is a cocktail called a 20th Century, which, in addition to gin and other ingredients, offers a hint of cocoa. “It might sound odd, but when made correctly, it’s delicious,” he notes. “It’s a great drink for changing minds about gin.”

 

GIN BEGINNINGS

Gin’s characteristic medicinal taste comes courtesy of juniper, which was used as a therapeutic elixir. The first accounts of gin appeared in the 13th century. The Dutch perfected the technique, and gin — which the English shortened from the Dutch word jenever, also spelled genever — began being distilled in England in the 17th century. By 1751, gin had become so popular that the first of eight laws were passed by Parliament to restrict its sale.

 

Given gin’s storied history, it’s not surprising that several gin-based cocktails come with interesting legends.

 

The story goes that gin and tonic aficionados have the British Royal Navy to thank for creating their favorite quaff. Since gin didn’t spoil as quickly as beer — or take up nearly as much space on a ship — it was provisioned for sailors and soldiers, who mixed it with lime (to avoid scurvy), sugar and carbonated water and used the mixture to mask the bitter taste of medicinal quinine, which was used to prevent malaria. Today, carbonated quinine is still called tonic water; like gin, tonic waters have evolved to include essences of lemongrass, bitter orange, marigold and, ironically, juniper.

 

 

FAMOUS ITERATIONS

Wallace’s favorite gin drink, the 20th Century, was named for the 20th Century Limited, a luxury express train that ran from New York to Chicago from 1902 until 1967. The train was so well known that the drink named in its honor was created at the Café Royal in London. Then there’s the French 75, which is named for the French 75-millimeter light field gun, a deadly weapon that gave France hope against the Germans during World War I. As news of the war spread in 1915, a French bartender decided to create a specialty WWI-inspired cocktail coined “Soixante-Quinze,” or the Seventy-Five.

 

“Gin has always been versatile,” Wallace offers. “But today, with so many options available, it’s even easier to build a gin-based cocktail that even non-gin enthusiasts will find delicious.”

 

The French 75 (above) features gin and bubbly. The 20th Century gin cocktail (left) offers a hint of cocoa.

SEA ISLAND FOUR-PEEL STRAWBERRY GIN BY WATERSHED DISTILLERY

Introduced in September 2022, Sea Island Four-Peel Strawberry Gin blends Watershed Distillery’s award-winning Four-Peel Gin with fresh strawberries to create a bright, off-dry gin that’s free of artificial color or flavor. The gin, which makes a delicious French 75, is only available for pours at Sea Island. It’s the second private label gin between Sea Island and Watershed Distillery from Columbus, Ohio, with the first being the wildly popular Guild Chamomile Gin released in 2019.