Ginning Up Excitement for a Misunderstood Spirit
The Texas distilling business is exploding at a phenomenal rate and several of our homegrown distillers are turning their attentions to gin. Mike Groener is the CEO and President of Genius Gin here in Austin, and he's passionate about piquing people's interest in gin. "Since vodka took over the market, folks got more interested in neutrality," he says. "Some gins have powerful flavors which didn't appeal to vodka drinkers. Plus everyone seems to have a bad view of gin left over from a drunken night early in their life. So we're trying to dispel rumors about gin. Luckily, we know gin was very important in the cocktails of pre-Prohibition days, and the best bartenders in town are showing renewed interest in those classic cocktails."
So let's dispel some rumors. The process for making gin is fairly simple. You start with a high-strength neutral spirit, then add juniper berries, along with herbs, spices, fruits, nuts, or anything else you can imagine to lend aromas and flavors. The English and Dutch take their gin very seriously, so the EU has standards about what goes in gin. London Gin is their highest designation, distilled gin is just below that, and if it's just called gin, watch out. In the U.S., the meaningless definition for anything called gin is that it has to be at least 80 proof and smell like juniper berries. Note "smell like" even allows using chemicals for the aromas. You can imagine the aftereffects induced by these cheap gins. American gins with "distilled gin" on the bottle added their aromatics during one of the distillation phases. While not an absolute guarantee of quality, you can safely assume it is usually better than plain gin. Most Texas gins are made to stricter standards than even the EU's London Gin. The important point is that it makes good sense to buy a locally made product. That way you can meet the makers, find out how they make their spirits, and save yourself a blistering hangover. Remember: Good, cleanly made gin is no harder on you than good vodka. Bad gin is no harder on you than Sterno.
There are two ways to add aromatics and the choice is quite important. You can steep them in the alcohol, much like you use a tea bag in water, or, during distillation, you can let the evaporating alcohol rise through the flavorings. Those who like intensely aromatic gins will prefer the former, while those who prefer a gently flavorful tipple will prefer the latter. Genius Gin uses both methods. "We're always learning," says Groener. "We aim for a very rich style of gin in both our products. Our Navy Strength gin is bold and full-flavored for people who like cask-strength whiskies. Our regular gin is great for a perfect martini, or just with soda, or a gin sour with an egg white." The Navy Strength gin is indeed full-flavored and, at 114 proof, it's pretty alcoholic, as well. It really needs to be mixed in a cocktail to come to life. My favorite concoction for the Navy Strength is as a tall, simple gin and tonic with a twist of lime. High quality tonic water is essential. The Standard Strength is 90 proof, which is still higher than most gins. While Groener likes it with just soda, I think it reaches its peak with sour-type cocktails, like a gimlet, a Fitzgerald, or a Rickey. My personal favorite is a gin sour.
Groener, who is 33, believes the love of gin is generational. "Gin started making a comeback when really high-quality cocktail bars reappeared," he says. "My generation is demanding great gin, and that's driving the best bartenders to order more and different styles. What's going to happen soon is that we're going to be able to walk into almost any bar in town and get a high-quality gin cocktail. We hope most people get their first taste of Genius Gin in a good bar. If they love it there, we think they'll look for it at their store, too." Though Groener is currently focusing his energies on selling his product to bars, Genius Gin can be found at Austin Wine Merchant, King Liquors, South Lamar Wine & Spirits, and select Spec's and Twin Liquors outlets.