Let’s talk about gin.
The first time I ever tasted gin, to the best of my knowledge, was a sip of a Sapphire and Tonic my good friend Nora was drinking. I took my sip and tilted my head, considering, and then I told her: “this tastes like cologne.”
My opinion’s changed a bit in the years since. Gin – spicy, juniper-y, citrus-y gin – is delicious, and if you don’t think so, then I submit you simply haven’t found the right gin yet. You need to find your gateway into that world, and from there your tastes will expand until, like me, you one day find yourself sitting in front of sixteen bottles of the stuff and thinking each of these is completely different.
Find the right gin, and I think you’ll find that you can appreciate what it brings to the table. Certainly it’s a lot more interesting than its unflavored cousin vodka (and that cousin’s clumsy but well-meaning son, flavored vodka). It’s also much more complex, but don’t let that scare you; in addition to being a full-on flavor experience when taken neat or on the rocks, gin mixes wonderfully with a wide variety of other liquors, juices, and even wines (see my recent article on Champagne cocktails).
So what is Gin? Hailing from the Netherlands, gin was originally called genever, which is the Dutch word for juniper. It’s a clear liquor typically distilled from fermented grain, often wheat. During the distillation process, the alcohol is flavored either via vapor infusion, liquid infusion, or both, with botanicals – herbs and spices chosen for their complementary flavors and scents. Principal among these, and the reason for the original name, are juniper berries. Piney and herbal, juniper berries are what make gin smell like gin, and you would think given how strongly scented they are that “all gins taste the same” … but you’d be wrong.
The variety is substantial, even among various brands of London Dry gin, the least-sweet and most juniper-forward of the gin varieties. Also available in a wide range of brands is a modern type of gin often referred to as western-style gin, which tends to downplay the juniper notes, creating a softer gin that lets other botanicals play more of a starring role.
Then one must consider Plymouth gin, which can only come from Plymouth, England, and is earthier and slightly sweeter than London Dry (and is only currently represented by a single brand, also named Plymouth).That’s not all; Old Tom gin and genever itself, which are both making a comeback in the US market, are sweeter than the other gins, and genever is also often aged in wooden barrels, taking on a golden hue. Finally you have sloe gin, which isn’t really gin at all, it’s a sweet liqueur made by infusing neutral spirit with blackthorn fruit.
For this article, we’ll be sticking with London Dry and western-style gins (and one gin that’s on the verge of being an Old Tom: Tanqueray Malacca). There are an unbelievable number of gins on the market, and it would be impossible for me to cover them all here. To that end, I’ve tightened my focus: I knocked out the low end, and I’m avoiding most “super premium” gins. Most of the bottles here can be found for between $15 and $35 at decent liquor stores or online. I’ve tried to include a good mix of old standbys and small batch, craft gins. I’ve also tried to feature both American and European brands. If a gin wasn’t featured here, that doesn’t mean it’s not good, it just means I didn’t get to it this time around.
This isn’t a competition. While I have my favorites, I like all of these gins, and I can’t tell you which you will prefer. What I can do is try to give you an impression of each gin. I’ve done this by not only taking tasting notes, but also by putting all of the gins through a “Martini Test” using identical proportions: 3 ounces of gin to half an ounce of Dolin dry vermouth, with a generous dash of Regans’ Orange Bitters and a hefty orange twist. I’ve presented my notes as I wrote them, with only minor edits for clarity. I hope they help.
As always, I offer full disclosure: samples of all of the gins mentioned in this article, except Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, and Tanqueray Ten were provided by the companies or their PR firms. Gins are listed in alphabetical order by brand name, with their style, alcohol by volume (ABV) percentage, and average price point.
Beefeater (London Dry) – 47% ABV – $16
It’s fitting that we start our list with Beefeater, one of the classic London Dry gins that you’ll find behind bars across the world. Very reasonably-priced, Beefeater’s a great everyday gin to stock at home. It works very well in martinis, gin & tonics, and other cocktails.
A distinct lemon note right up front which leads into spicy juniper. Just a trace of alcohol. Opens up with some floral notes if you let it sit.
Very warm immediately, then rapidly cools off. A little bit of white pepper (not unlike Bombay Sapphire but less dominant). Juniper shows up next and then things get warm and very spicy. A little cinnamon, a little clove. Finish is medium-length and tingly.
Very interesting. Still fairly hot up front even with the vermouth and ice tempering things. The pepper fades, but a noticeable herbal taste takes its place, complementing the juniper nicely. Some citrus is there around the edges. This gin works particularly well with the Dolin vermouth.
Beefeater 24 (Western) – 45% ABV – $25
Beefeater 24 starts with a similar ingredient list to its older brother, but adds grapefruit and two types of teas to the recipe. The gin is harvested from the “heart of the run” – the middle of the distillation process. The result is a gin that’s more citrus-forward than the traditional London Dry.
Light nose, with some juniper and orange peel. Pleasant spiciness at the end. Warm, moderate burn that lasts as you inhale.
Sweet juniper up front. More orange and then BIG warmth that fades relatively quickly. Long, lingering tingling in the mouth with a little hint of grapefruit.
Still sweet up front, with plenty of juniper, but the warmth has been tamed. Orange notes have been accented by the bitters and the orange twist. Nice, clean finish.
Bombay Sapphire (London Dry) – 47% ABV – $23
Boasting one of the most identifiable bottles in the liquor industry, Bombay Sapphire is a classic that most bars happily stock. It may be an old standby but that’s no reason to scoff. It’s an excellent all-around gin.
Noticeable alcohol note. Juniper up front as befits a London dry. Lemon and spice follow.
Wow! Peppery right at first, with a very strong attack. Juniper shows up next, leading into a long and very warm spice-laden finish.
Still a big, hot spike up front, but the peppery note is smoothed out a bit and lets the Juniper come to the front. Vermouth is largely overridden by a warm, citrus-y sweetness in the middle, and the pepper comes back at the end.
The Botanist (“Islay” Dry) – 46% ABV – $33
The Botanist is distilled by a Scottish distillery, Bruichladdich, which also makes several varieties of scotch. Located on the famous isle of Islay in western Scotland, they use 31 local botanicals, in addition to the traditional ones, to create this unique-tasting gin.
Soft and sweet. Not a ton of juniper. Warm. Slight earthy, herbal note, followed by a hint of almond. This might be insane but I get salted caramel at the end.
Oh, yum. Sweet and hot on the tongue, with lots of warm spice and a bit of lemon peel. The herbal notes stick around. No salted caramel to be found in the taste. There’s a lot happening in this gin. Maybe a bit too much, but overall I like it.
Sweet and warm. The gin really takes to the orange bitters. Citrus notes come out and the vermouth slides to the back. Some earthy flavors, perhaps from the Scottish botanicals. Warm spice shows back up at the end.
Broker’s (London Dry) – 47% ABV – $20
Created by two English brothers in 1998, Broker’s is a new entry into the world of London Dry gins, but one worth paying attention to. It has the classic juniper backbone, but a very unique set of characteristics that really set it apart from its peers. At $20, it’s a steal.
Very light and smooth. Not that much juniper for a London dry. Slight earthy note with light citrus overtones.
Complex! Slightly bitter and herbal/medicinal up front. Juniper suddenly shows up, along with citrus and an almost peppery note. Warmth is significant but fades fairly quickly. Lengthy but mild finish.
Up-front bitterness recedes and the juniper is more immediately prevalent. Warmth and pepper are still there, and really serve to balance the slight sweetness of the vermouth. This gin totally neutralized the vermouth — the pruney, “vermouthy” note is entirely gone. I wouldn’t know it was there if I hadn’t put it into the mixing glass myself.
Ford’s (London Dry) – 45% ABV – $27
Distilled in London, Ford’s Gin is a collaborative effort between Master Distiller Charles Maxwell and Simon Ford of The 86 Co. It’s an above-average entry at an appealing price. This gin makes a fantastic Aviation cocktail.
Very gentle. No alcohol burn whatsoever, touch of juniper. Quite a citrus bouquet, especially grapefruit. Coriander and other spices come later if allowed to breathe.
Warm and sweet up front with a fairly strong burn, opens to juniper first and then a big hit of grapefruit. Slight marshmallow note (Angelica?). Medium-length finish with a slightly floral aspect.
Super smooth. Not very sweet up front. Played nicely with the orange bitters, and the vermouth comes through quite a bit.
Gordon’s (London Dry) – 40% ABV – $12
The least-expensive gin on the list, Gordon’s is nonetheless a classic and well worth consideration. Like Beefeater and Tanqueray, Gordon’s tastes like a London Dry should taste like. It’s a great gin at an excellent price, good for sipping, for use in a gin and tonic, or for cocktail work.
Sweet and lightly scented without a trace of alcohol burn. Juniper is dominant but not overpowering, and there are notes of coriander and licorice to be had.
Soft and cool to the tongue. Surprisingly sweet up front. The dominant flavor is still juniper — no surprise in this classic London Dry. A long, mild, pleasant burn slowly comes on, bringing with it herbal flavors.
This is a very light martini — there’s no pronounced burn and even the flavors are somewhat muted. The juniper seems to have almost entirely disappeared. Both the vermouth and the orange bitters are quite prevalent, almost to the point of taking over the drink. Honestly, I quite like Gordon’s neat, but if I were to make another martini with it, I would omit the vermouth entirely and go with olives instead of an orange peel.
Greenhook (Western) – 47% ABV – $36
This is the most artisanal, small-batch gin on the list, the most expensive, and the hardest to find outside of New York City and the surrounding area. That said, if you can get it, GET IT. This gin is special.
Sweet and earthy. Low juniper even for a western-style gin. Something almost biscuit-y. There are savory notes here too that twine together with something floral.
Very sweet on the attack, then opens into an absolutely delicious mix of cinnamon and floral notes. There’s still juniper here but it’s not dominant. Lengthy but enjoyable burn followed by more of those savory flavors. The finish is super warm with lots of mellow spice.
Very flavorful. Sweet up front with a long but not unpleasant alcohol burn. Really took to the orange bitters, opening up all kinds of citrus notes that complement the spice.
Hendrick’s (Western) – 44% ABV – $35
Soft, soft, soft up front. Very little juniper. Almost a sweet, cotton-candy scent, followed up by light citrus and floral notes.
Soft again on the palate at first. Juniper still way in the background. Curious vegetal note — the cucumber? Cotton candy disappears entirely, this gin is actually quite dry. Big warm alcohol leaps forward next. Finish leaves a lot of lingering spice.
Smoooooth up front. No big hit of alcohol. This might be the least-juniper-y gin I’m covering in this article. Lots of warm floral notes here along with the aforementioned vegetal taste. Relatively low sweetness — plays well with the vermouth. Can barely taste the orange bitters at all.
Martin Miller’s (Western) – 45.2% ABV – $27
Created with traditional English botanicals and Icelandic spring water, Martin Miller’s is a relatively new entry into the market. Miller himself is something of a Renaissance man and this gin reflects his eclectic approach to life.
Medium juniper, bit of alcohol, floral notes (iris?), and something almost vegetal. Big lemon and a bit of orange peel aromas show up as it blooms.
Soft entry, follow by pronounced burn with really interesting sweetness (which fades after a split second), LOTS of aromatics and a big whomp of that lemon flavor. Loooong, mildly bitter finish that leaves the lips and tongue tingling. This gin just tastes “clean” to me.
The soft entry and the touch of sweetness remain. Vermouth is actually quite prominent in the middle. Gin seems to show up afterward, in the form of a spicy, earthy, lingering aftertaste with a pleasant bitterness. I think I actually like this gin better neat. If I were to redo the martini, I’d skip the orange bitters and add a lemon twist instead of an orange, to really accentuate that aspect.
New Amsterdam (Western) – 40% ABV – $13
I’ve recommended New Amsterdam before. It’s a fine gin made better by its price point. It’s soft and well-rounded, and does especially well in cocktails. I prefer a more juniper-forward gin for martinis, though.
Reasonable amount of juniper for a western gin. Mallow-y angelica scent is pronounced. Citrusy – definite orange peel note.
Soft on the tongue with a distinct sweetness that jumps into a pronounced but quickly-fading burn. Juniper is still there, so is the orange peel. Slight dustiness just before a short, clean finish.
Lots of orange at the front. Juniper falls away and the sweetness lasts longer — this is definitely one of the sweetest martinis on this list, along with the Malacca — without the hard burn that comes when taken neat. Warm spice follows the sweetness, and some of the vermouth flavor really comes through at that point. A very “soft” martini experience.
No. 3 (London Dry) – 46% ABV – $35
The recipe for No. 3 was created by the liquor distributors Berry Bros & Rudd, who’ve been located at #3, St. James’s Street since 1698. Man … they did all right. Infused with fewer botanicals than most gins, No. 3 is all about the juniper, which surprisingly makes it one of the most unique-tasting gins on the shelves.
Very, very juniper forward. Touch of grapefruit to be had as well.
Just a massive initial juniper note — lots of pine and resin. This is not a bad thing! Some floral notes afterward. Leads into modest warmth that coats the tongue. Medium length finish that ends with an interesting grapefruit note.
Still a lot of piney juniper to be had. The floral notes come back with a touch of bitterness that works well with the vermouth. Grapefruit goes missing but some sweet, earthy angelica notes arrive. I think this might be a better olives gin than an orange bitters & twist gin.
Tanqueray (London Dry) – 47.3% ABV – $20
Here we have another classic. Tanqueray is, to me, the very definition of a London Dry gin, and it works whether you’re drinking it neat, mixing a martini, or crafting a Tom Collins. You’ll have a hard time finding a bar that doesn’t stock the famous green bottle, and at twenty bucks it really should be a fixture in your home as well.
Very soft – no alcohol burn and not a ton of scent. Juniper is at the forefront. Maybe a bit of coriander, a bit of licorice.
Juniper. Not pine-y like No 3. but just a really solid, up-front juniper flavor. Warm on the tongue but not aggressive. Leads to a nice earthy taste and a lot of tingling on the tongue.
Lots of juniper still to be had at the start, as expected. Long sweet note – a little bit of mallow, a little earth – leading to a delicious, spicy, medicinal bitterness, kind of similar to how Broker’s tastes up front. Vermouth is not terribly prevalent. Orange bitters are totally lost – I wouldn’t know they were there. Very little citrus. Still makes the lips and tongue tingle pleasantly.
Tanqueray Malacca (Western) – 40% ABV – $???
This one’s a bit of a tease; you can’t buy Tanqueray Malacca at liquor stores right now. It’s a limited edition and mainly only available to bars and restaurants. Of course, you can always go to a quality cocktail establishment near you and see if they have the stuff. It’s worth looking for.
Light on the juniper, and very citrusy – particularly grapefruit.
Super-soft entry. Not a lot of burn. Grapefruit is still there, along with a strong spice note I can’t identify. Gin is quite sweet, but not “sweetened” (ie: not cloying). Slight licorice and clove notes. Medium-length finish.
A sweet, slightly medicinal taste that’s not prevalent when tasting the gin neat absolutely leaps forward. Vermouth seems to be pushed way to the background. Orange bitters work beautifully with the grapefruit notes. Long, VERY sweet finish.
Tanqueray Ten (Western) – 47.3% ABV – $34
Introduced in 2000, Tanqueray Ten is heavily focused on bringing out citrus elements to play with the other gin botanicals. It costs a bit more than the London Dry, but it’s a nice splurge and makes a great martini.
Much stronger than Tanqueray. Sweet. Quite licorice-y with juniper pushed toward the back. Warm orange and grapefruit notes. Almost a bit of bubble gum.
Sweet and citrusy. There’s lemon, grapefruit and orange in abundance, with a little bit of white pepper as well. The bubble gum is still there (probably sounds awful but it’s actually quite good). There’s also just the faintest whisper of fresh mint. Long, pronounced burn at the end.
Grapefruit note right at the front, along with some sweetness. The pepperiness REALLY comes out in the middle and I like it a LOT. Not a lot of “warm” flavors like cinnamon or mallow — this is a “cool” gin. The vermouth plays very nicely with this one – it’s there, but it’s like a good bass player, providing structure without getting in the way. Lengthy tingling on the tongue even in martini form.
Van Gogh (Western) – 47% ABV – $28
The last of our gins, Van Gogh showed up in 1999 and blends ten botanicals together to create an experience that I would say falls just on the western side of the western/London Dry line.
Subtle nose, no alcohol burn. There’s some juniper and a whole lotta lemon to be had. Their literature says licorice, but my nose isn’t refined enough to find it.
Sweet turning rapidly to a big, warm blast of alcohol. Citrus really leaps out for a moment, then fades into mild wood and licorice notes, ending with a lengthy and pleasant, slightly astringent bitterness.
Smooths out substantially. Sweetness is still there, and the licorice shows up much more readily. Orange bitters help bring a smooth citrus finish. Wouldn’t want to drink this with olives.