Gin embraces a spirit of change

Modern twist: New-wave G&T with cucumber.
Modern twist: New-wave G&T with cucumber. Photo: Jacky Ghossein

My late grandfather was a big pub man. He enjoyed pub life so much he built a Lilliputian bar on the top floor of his terrace house in Wales. Like all drinking men of his era, grandad Jim had a good selection of blended whiskies, Navy Rum and of course London Dry Gin.

I can still see the evocative labels: Tanqueray, Beefeater and Gordon's. Add to this holy trinity Gilbey's and, in more recent times, Bombay Sapphire, and you pretty much have the standard gin selection favoured by every bartender from Manhattan to Mumbai.

But as the 20th century progressed, even the most diehard gin drinkers could see their favourite tipple was on the wane. Gin and tonic, once a fixture on every bar list, began to look pretty old hat as drinkers turned more to Mojitos, Daiquiris, Margaritas and Negronis.

Sipsmith gin.
Sipsmith gin. Photo: Josh Robenstone

First made by Italian monks in the Middle Ages, popularised by the Dutch in the 17th century, and within a few years becoming the scourge of London's poor (both Hogarth and Dickens depicted its ruinous influence), gin looked like a drink whose end had come.

But gin is back. Feted by a new generation of drinkers looking for flavour, authenticity and artisan values, the gin shelf is groaning with new arrivals from Spain, the Netherlands, France and the US.

''I went gin tasting in Spain last year,'' says Alistair, the young barman at my local. ''They have gins like you wouldn't believe, and they drink them neat with fresh herbs.''

But it is a new wave of British distillers, led by Hendrick's, Martin Miller's and Sipsmith, which has done more than anything to turn around the fortunes of gin; remembering, of course, that England, Wales and Scotland have quite distinct gin-making traditions.

Even the much-derided G&T has made a stunning comeback, although the modern version is made with fresh slices of cucumber doused in this designer gin.

The explosion of boutique gin brands in Britain has been nothing less than astonishing. Three mates launched Sipsmith in a Hammersmith garage in 2009 with the first new copper still in London for almost 200 years. Many boutique distillers have followed. Penderyn Distillery produces Welsh gin using Macedonian juniper berries, Spanish orange peel and Sri Lankan liquorice root, while Blackwood's on the Shetland Islands incorporates wild flowers picked on the clifftops, and Edinburgh Gin goes one better with elderflowers and raspberries.


Encouraged by this foreign invasion, Australian distillers have been firing up their stills. Artisan producers are popping up in tropical Queensland, Perth, Kangaroo Island and Erina, on the NSW central coast.

While a couple of these domestic gins are definitely on the ocker side, with garish labels and improbable ingredients, there are plenty of serious contenders, including Moore's Vintage Dry Gin and Opal Blue Premium Dry Gin (both reviewed here). In the west, the Margaret River-based West Winds distillery produces two notable gins called The Sabre and The Cutlass.

Philip Moore, who runs Distillery Botanica on the NSW central coast, makes sophisticated gin aimed at the European palette - but with an infusion of native ingredients such as wild lime, macadamias and Illawarra plums. One Russian customer has developed a unique recipe for a dry martini. ''He simply pours my gin into a martini glass, breathes the word ''martini'' over the glass and drinks it,'' Moore says.

1. Plymouth 1883 Sloe Gin

Place of Origin England

26 per cent ABV, RRP: $59.99

For anyone used to clear London-style gin, this Plymouth sloe gin will come as a shock. The reddish-brown colour is due to the infusion of sloe berries - a type of wild English plum from nearby Dartmoor. The Plymouth distillery is one of Britain's oldest (gin has been made there since 1697), but this rich, seductive gin seems cutting-edge. The texture is syrupy, with hints of molasses, sweet cherry and almond. A favourite cocktail base, it can also be drunk neat or poured over ice.

2. Opal Blue Premium

Dry Gin

Place of Origin Western Australia

40 per cent ABV RRP: $29.99

The state that spawned the craft beer revolution in this country seems to be doing the same for hand-crafted gin. This is a beautifully structured dry gin that combines the familiar kick of juniper berries with five wild-grown Australian botanicals (forest anise, rosella, lemon myrtle, wattle seed and forest berry). Expect a big hit of alcohol with subtle hints of mint, eucalypt and black pepper. This ''exotic gin'' is a hit with mixologists looking for extra kick in cocktails.

3. Larios 12 Botanicals

Premium Gin

Place of Origin Spain

40 per cent ABV, RRP: $49.95

Another one from the barkeeper's top shelf, this elegant Spanish gin takes the London gin formula and injects a splash of Iberian flair. The chic blue bottle is a good sign. This is a bewitchingly elegant gin, the result of a five-stage distillation process. Thankfully there is insufficient space to list all 12 botanicals, but they do include juniper, nutmeg, angelica root, coriander and citrus fruits. Enjoy in a classic martini or pour neat over ice and add a squeeze of lime in the modern style.

4. Gabriel Boudier

Saffron Gin

Place of Origin France

40 per cent ABV, RRP: $69.99

Oh, those French are just too much. Not content with producing a staggering array of their own liqueurs, eau de vie and other concoctions, they are now muscling in on the gin market. And how. This mahogany-coloured gin is simply delicious. The marriage of traditional English gin with Indian saffron is mesmerising, with notes of lemon peel, fennel, angelica and coriander. Perfect for a gin and tonic with a twist - or enjoy neat in a moody Parisian bar.

5. Hayman's Sloe Gin

Place of Origin England

26 per cent ABV, RRP: $73.95

This old-school English liqueur is a million miles from the commercial gins found in most drinks cabinets. In the 19th century, sloe gin was enjoyed neat as a winter warmer after sport - and it's easy to see why. The bitter alcohol is kept in check with a cascade of sweet and sour flavours (lemon peel, caramel, plum, molasses, coriander and of course juniper), which simply explode in the mouth. Serve chilled as an aperitif or let your bartender do his worst while you re-read your favourite Dickens novel.

6. Moore's Vintage Dry Gin

Place of Origin Erina, NSW

40 per cent ABV, RRP: $49.95

Artisan distiller Philip Moore has created a local gin good enough to rival the finest imports. His Vintage Dry is a triumph: aromatic, packed with flavour and delivering a crisp, dry finish. To a backbone of juniper berries and angelica root, Moore adds wild lime, cinnamon myrtle, macadamias and Illawarra plum. The result is distinctly floral with hints of lemon rind and pine needles. Serve with tonic and lime zest in a G&T or pair with Philip's Short Black Liqueur in a wicked Black Negroni.

7. Sipsmith

Country of Origin England

41.6 per smith ABV, RRP: $84.99

Sipsmith is the poster boy for English artisan gin. Housed in a London suburban street, this tiny company has taken the drinks world by storm since its launch in 2009. This is a big, manly liquor that burns warm and comforting in the chest. But the use of 10 exotic botanicals - including French angelica root, Spanish liquorice root and Spanish lemon peel - adds complex flavour. A favourite with bartenders, Sipsmith will take any cocktail to another plane. Or just savour this masterpiece neat over ice, Brit-style.

8. Aviation

Country of Origin US

42 per cent ABV, RRP: $78

From Portland, Oregon, Aviation is sometimes described as ''New Western Dry Gin'' - a nod to the Dutch genevers of the colonial US. Pouring crystal clear, Aviation is packed with fruit and citrus flavours, like an intoxicating slice of Christmas cake. To a rye-grain liquor base, the distiller has added botanicals such as lavender, orange peel, green cardamom, anise seed and Indian sarsaparilla. Mix with lemon juice, maraschino liqueur and violet liqueur to create a classic Aviation cocktail.

Gins available at all good cocktail bars and specialist bottle shops.