Friday, December 9, 2011

Holiday Gift Ideas for the Cocktail and Spirits Lover: 2011

It's that time of year again, so I thought I'd provide a few updates in the area of holiday gift ideas for anyone that is still hunting for that perfect gift.  I stick by the suggestions I made in my post last year, so rather than go through in quite so much detail, this time around I'm going to focus on new, or newly discovered, products that have caught my eye as gift ideas.

There have been several worthwhile reads that have caught my eye in this past year.  Perhaps tops among them is the The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender's Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy By Jim Meehan (Cocktail Kingdom, The Boston Shaker, Amazon).  This book is a cocktail compendium from one of the most celebrated bars of the so-called cocktail renaissance, a good buy for a beginner or seasoned vet of mixing drinks.

Another general cocktail book that debuted this year is a first from the editors of Imbibe magazine, The American Cocktail: 50 Recipes That Celebrate the Craft of Mixing Drinks from Coast to Coast (The Boston ShakerAmazon).  There's also the 75th Anniversary Edition of the Mr. Boston Official Bartender's Guide that's worth taking a look at (The Boston Shaker, Amazon), and which you can also get signed by editor Jonathan Pogash at the Boston Shaker this Sunday, Dec. 11th, from 1-3pm (the signing will also include a signing of Bloody Mary, by the author and Mr. Boston editor Jonathan Pogash's father, Jeffery Pogash - ).

For something a bit different, you can try Bitters - A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All by Brad Thomas Parsons (The Boston Shaker, Amazon).  This book combines a bit of history with a wealth of recipes for homemade bitters, classic and modern drinks highlighting bitters, and even foods featuring bitters as an ingredient.  If you want to make this gift extra special, the author is doing a book signing at The Boston Shaker on Dec.17th. from 2-4pm (according to the facebook page for the event, you can also buy a copy of the book online and in the notes request that it be held and signed by the author to be picked up after).  They are also selling the book bundled with a set of bitters!

Last, for someone that might appreciate a bit of reading on the historical side, there's America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops by Christine Sismondo (The Boston Shaker, Amazon).  This book provides a witty look at the institution of the american tavern and its kin.  A good read for a history buff (like me!).

Ingredients and Garnishes
It's no secret that Luxardo maraschino cherries are the bee's knees.  But, if you have a Manhattan lover that might want to try something a bit different and also very tasty in his or her Manhattans, there's Barker & Mills Bourbon Vanilla Cocktail Cherries (via The Boston Shaker).  Yum!

If you know someone that might be interested in exploring the world of old school soda fountain recipes (or to experiment when it comes to cocktails), The Boston Shaker now sells two exciting products to help out:  Extinct Acid Phosphate and Lactart.  I did an earlier post with some mention of how these can be used, but for the full explanation, check out Darcy O'Neil's site Art of Drink, or pick up a copy of his book Fix the Pumps (Amazon).

Bitters are always fun to collect, and there's always new ones coming out, so never hard to find something someone doesn't have.  You can simply check out The Boston Shaker and/or Cocktail Kingdom and find a wealth of different options.  Also, in addition to some fun sets I've mentioned previously, The Boston Shaker has several different sample size sets from Scrappy's that are worth checking out for some variety (here, here, and here), along with some packaged sets that they sell.

For carbonated water needs, my go-to is the Soda Stream.  However, just to throw out an alternative (don't have experience with it myself), Isi has put out the Twist and Sparkle, a product designed for carbonating water and other liquids using Isi CO2 chargers.  My bet is the Soda Stream is more economical in the long run, but the Twist and Sparkle bills itself as an alternative that uses less counter space.

Another cool, but more pricey idea for the cocktail enthusiast that has it all is a set of Blue Blazer mugs from Cockatil Kingdom.  Essential for your flaming beverage transfer needs.

Hopefully that gets you started.  Cheers, and Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Happy Repeal Day 2011!

Today, December 5th, marks the 78th anniversary of the repeal of the 21st Amendment, also known as Repeal Day!  For those of you in Boston, LUPEC Boston is hosting a Repeal Day Bash tonight to honor the occasion - more details here.  Other Boston area festivities include a celebratory dinner at Church and another Rowes Warf Sea Grille.  Failing that, you can always make your own celebration by visiting a your local tavern of choice or just hoisting one back at home.  If you want some inspiring cocktail ideas appropriate for the occasion, you can check out my post from last year on the topic or just hit the cocktail blogosphere - I'm sure there will be no shortage of suggestions!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Bitters in the City

This past week, I took advantage of my usual southward migration for the Thanksgiving (to CT, that is), to stop off in New York to do a little visiting of friends and places.  During this trip, I managed to stop in at Amor y Amargo, a relatively new experiment from the makers of the Bittermen's brand bitters and Ravi DeRossi, the mind behind a number of high end cocktail bars including the wonderful Death & Company, which conveniently enough is right down the street from Amor y Amargo down in the East Village.

Amor y Amargo is billed as a "bitters tasting room."  Rather than beer on tap, they have house-made sweet vermouth and pre-mixed Americano cocktails.  Behind the bar is an extensive collection of Italian amari and other kinds of potable bitters behind the bar, and of course the full array of Bittermen's brand, and select other cocktail bitters along the bar top.  Another thing that immediately caught my eye on the bar was the full array of the Bittermen's new liqueurs, which I had heard about but not yet seen in the retail scene in Boston (I was told they do have a distributor in MA now, however, so it should only be a matter of time).  Amor y Amargo's cocktail menu features a list of amaro/bitters focused original drinks, and bitters-focused variations on classics.  Many of the drinks feature one or more of the aftorementioned Bittermen's liqueurs, and/or their cocktail bitters.

After sampling a glass of their fine house vermouth, I inquired about the new liqueurs, and the bartender was kind enough to pour me a tasting of each of the liqueurs they had for the offering:

the Commonwealth Tonic Liqueur, as stated, a kind of tonic syrup turned liqueur; Amère Nouvelle a kind of citrus-oriented, Amer Picon like liqueur; Hiver Amer the Bittermen's limited edition cinnamon liqueur made for the winter season; Citron Sauvage a grapefruit liquer; and Amère Sauvage - Gentiane Américaine, gentian flavored liqueur.  I have to say, I found all of them enjoyable, but if I have to pick just one, the Tonic Liqueur really stood out for me.  It was a delicious and unique twist on a familiar taste and I could very much see myself reaching for it as an old and faithful friend alongside some sparkling water and gin.

As far as actual cocktails, I sampled the Eight Amaro Sazarac and the Autumn in Manhattan, both of which I enjoyed.  If it's not already apparent, however, you should really be in the mood for amaro-like flavor if you plan on tipping back some of the cocktails at Amor y Amargo.  The bar is stocked around, and the menu designed around their bitters focus, so don't expect to be able to order your run of standard mixed drinks and spirits (if you really are dying for something like that during your visit though, Death & Co. IS a short walk away, and could make a suitable follow-up).  I also took a nibble from Amor y Amargo's Spanish-influenced petit plate menu, specifically the Patatas Bravas, which were well prepared and quite tasty.

One other note worth pointing out about Amor y Amargo is that it also doubles as a general store for the Bittermen's brand bitters and other sundry cocktail tools and products.  Their website also mentions some classes to be taught at the bar sometime in the future, which also sounds like an interesting proposition.

If you're still not sold on the fact that this is a good spot to go if you are a cocktail geek, one other anecdote I can mention is that while at Amor y Amargo, I ran into my fellow Bostonian Jenn of the Nightcapped blog. Amusingly, the last time I ran into her was at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic when we were both attending a seminar on Italian Amari.  So if nothing else, I can at least tell you that the bloggers have definitely discovered where to get their amaro on, even those of us from 200 miles away!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Local Events: Shakin' It Up this Sunday

For those looking to put a little spice into their Sunday night this weekend, the Greater Boston Beverage Society, a non-profit "organization developed to preserve and promote Boston’s cocktail and hospitality culture and spirits history," is hosting its first big event this Sunday, Nov. 13th:   Shakin' It Up at the House of Blues.  The event will include cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and entertainment for the price of admission.  Said entertainment will include a bartending competition, live comedy, and musical performances including a performance by Prince tribute band Lovesexy.  There will also be a silent auction which I can only hope will feature some exciting items for the cocktail and spirits enthusiast.  The aforementioned attractions run from 5pm - 11pm, and tickets run $40 for pre-sale and $50 at the door.  Tickets, as well proceeds from the silent auction, will go towards helping fund the Boston Cocktail Summit in 2012, the GBBS's attempt at the first city-wide cocktail event in Boston (a worthy cause!).  Tickets are available via Livenation here, and some further coverage on the event can be found here, courtesy of LUPEC Boston.

Friday, October 7, 2011

A First Forfay Into Phosphates

Once upon a time, in a far off land known as Canada, there was a recovering chemist named Darcy O'Neil.  One day, he took his chemist skills, married them with his appreciation for bar-tending and vintage cocktails, and created the website Art of Drink, which would become one the most visited of all cocktail blogs on the Web.  One of the more recent of Darcy's undertakings has been exploring the lost art of the soda fountain, which he did first on his site, and then in a book published at the end of last year, Fix the Pumps.  Most recently, his new passion garnered the attention of Imbibe Magazine, which did a feature on Darcy and the now somewhat reviving phenomenon of the soda fountain (at least in a few cities) in their July/August 2011 issue.  Fix the Pumps is a great read (and Art of Drink a great resource).  It gives a fascinating historical account of the rise and eventual fading away of the soda fountain in the late 19th and early 20th Century, including accounts of, and recipes for, a wide variety of interesting drink forms that the average person has never even heard of.  One such drink form is the phosphate.

Phosphates were a popular form of soda fountain drink in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries that were characterized by the addition of "acid phosphate" as a key ingredient.  Acid phosphate in turn is a liquid composed of phosphoric acid, phosphate salts of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium.  As with many such beverage concoctions, acid phosphate started out as a popular medicinal additive, and was proclaimed to cure sundry ailments ranging from indigestion to "sexual exhaustion."  There's quite a bit of other interesting history, but I leave you to pick up a copy of Fix the Pumps for it.

Darcy has actually been producing acid phosphate some other exciting extinct ingredients for sale, most recently under the moniker Extinct Chemical.  Alas, however, with the operation being based out of Canada, they were not the easiest thing to procure for this Boston boozehound.  HOWEVER, a short time ago I became aware that The Boston Shaker has started stocking some of these products, including acid phosphate.  So of course, I picked up a bottle to play with.

As far as the initial question you might have of what exactly does acid phosphate taste like, it has a tartness to it that's reminiscent of tart candy.  I would say it's a little sweet as well, or at least "tangy."  I've heard acid phosphate described as something you can use as a substitute for citrus or sour fruit to provide tartness, although I wonder if that's a bit deceptive.  Many of the recipes for phosphates in Fix the Pumps and other sources often include both acid phosphate AND a sour fruit flavoring agent, e.g. syrup made with lemon juice or oil, or sour cherry syrup.  Perhaps it could be said that it's either a substitute for tart fruit flavor, or something that can amplify the tartness of tart fruit flavoring agents?  In any event, I of course had to make a drink with the stuff.

For my first phosphate, I went with the Angostura Phosphate, the first recipe listed in Fix the Pumps under the phosphate heading.  It is also the recipe mentioned by Imbibe magazine in their discussion of phosphates (perhaps they too didn't really know what direction to go in so they went alphabetic?  Great minds think alike.  Or maybe just lazy minds).

Angostura Phosphate
1 oz. Lemon Syrup (see below)
1 tsp Angostura Bitters
1/2 tsp Acid Phosphate
7 oz. carbonated water
- Combine ingredients in a highball glass with cracked ice.
- Stir and serve

For the lemon syrup, Darcy has one recipe up on Art of Drink that's probably a little easier to work with in some ways compared to what I used (and in some ways not).  I used the recipe for lemon syrup in Fix the Pumps but reduced the yield.  This recipe in turn calls for "soda foam" as an ingredient.  Soda foam is basically an additive that causes more foaming/frothing in the end product.  Fix the Pumps has recipes for a couple different variants of Soda Foam.  The one for which I had ingredients on hand was a gum arabic/water solution.  Quick note on gum arabic:  I find it to be a huge pain in the butt.  It's a pain to acquire (try online or at a specialty health food/spice store; it's also called acacia powder), not especially cheap, and from my experience not the easiest thing in the world to work with (also, you have to make sure you are getting food grade).  I will leave a further lecture on that for another day, and merely put out the warning that recipes using it are not really for the feint of heart, or those handicapped in terms of cooking skill or patience (perhaps I'm just one or both of those?).  It's worth mentioning that I don't think it would be the end of the world to leave out the soda foam altogether in this recipe.  In all likelihood, you don't actually have a vintage soda fountain to mix up this drink, so the foaming is not going to compare in any event.  Usually adding some gum arabic to a syrup used in a cocktail will give you a bit of a thicker mouthfeel to the beverage; in this case, however, I think the amount is so small that I don't think this the gum arabic is the keystone of the drink recipe by any means.

So, with my slight alterations/suggestions:

Lemon Syrup
8 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 oz. lemon zest
12 oz. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. soda foam
- Bring lemon juice to a boil in a pot
- Remove lemon juice from the heat and add in the lemon peel/zest
- Cover post and let stand until cold
- Strain/filter and add filtered water, sufficient to bring volume up to 1 cup of liquid
- Dissolve sugar in the liquid and add in soda foam
- For good measure, I filtered again through a coffee filter
Soda Foam (Gum Arabic solution)
2 oz. gum arabic
4 oz. filtered water
- slowly add gum arabic to room temp/cold filtered water, stirring while adding
- once dissolved, let sit for approximately 1 hr
- skim off any precipitate that forms at the top, then filter through a coffee filter or other mechanism

This is a very tasty beverage!  You get quite a bit of the spice flavor from the Angostura, but at the same time it's not overly sweet, sour, or bitter; a nice bit of balance.  I dare say I might even go so far as to call it dry, in the positive sense associated with good cocktails, which is pretty surprising for a drink that's still predominantly flavored syrup and soda.  Not a bad start!

Friday, September 30, 2011

TV Time: Ken Burns' Prohibition

So in addition to being a bit of a cocktail buff, I'm also a bit of a history buff.  For both reasons, I'm interested in checking out the new three-part documentary Prohibition, which airs Sunday, Oct. 2nd - Tuesday Oct. 4th at 8pm on PBS.  Directed by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, the film is set to explore the Prohibition era from its roots to its unintended consequences.  From the film's website:  
The story of Prohibition's rise and fall is a compelling saga that goes far beyond the oft-told tales of gangsters, rum runners, flappers, and speakeasies, to reveal a complicated and divided nation in the throes of momentous transformation. The film raises vital questions that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago – about means and ends, individual rights and responsibilities, the proper role of government and finally, who is — and who is not — a real American.
For some write-ups on the film, you can check out pieces from Time and

Friday, September 23, 2011

Stocking a New Home Bar

Greetings!  My apologies for the long summer hiatus, but unfortunately other activities pulled me away for a while, first and foremost among them finding and purchasing my first home!  Now that that is done and I've settled in, I'm back on track (or back on the wagon, if you prefer).  Further, with the purchase of a new home, comes the buying of many many things to stock and set it up.  So, in that spirit, I thought it might be a good time to throw my two cents in on a topic that often gets many viewpoints on message boards and in the blogosphere, the question of what to buy to stock up a home bar.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

American Craft Beer Festival in Boston this Weekend!

A hot tip for Bostonian beer lovers -- the American Craft Beer Festival (ACBF) is being held this weekend, Friday June 3rd - Saturday June 4th, at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston.  There is one evening session on Friday and a morning and evening session on Saturday.  Tickets run $45+service fees/session ($50 at the door if not sold out), and include "access to over 500 craft beers, all 2oz beer tastings, compostable tasting cup, and fest guide."  Advance tickets can be purchased here

The ACBF closes out Boston Beer Week, which runs May 26th - June 5th this year.  Check out the website for other events, and maybe I'll see you at the ACBF!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Manhattan Cocktail Classic, Day 3

So alas, due to the beckon call of the real world (i.e. my day job), this was my last day at then MCC. I started the day with a seminar entitled "Spirits in a Blind, or How Spirits Professionals Describe Spirits with Something Other than 'I Like it,'" with Doug Frost and Steve Olson. The duo took us through a blind tasting of a swath of spirits, teaching us some techniques for spirits tasting, and helping us talk through and identify some of the flavors we experienced with each tasting.

I followed up spirits in a blind with another event with a spirits tasting emphasis, "Discovering Le Cognac." Steve and Doug were joined by Dale DeGruff, Paul Pacult, Dave Wondrich, and Andy Seymour this time. After giving a background on cognac, its terroir and characteristics, they took us through a tasting of 8 different cognacs, and a few cognac cocktails as well. Cognac is a spirit I am less familiar with than some others, so this session and the prior were in many ways the most enlightening of the conference for me. You can find much of the information they provided on a site the participants helped put together,

The last seminar I attended was "Tequila's Rebirth: Agave's Golden Age." Jaime Salas of Milagro tequila took us through the history of tequila, and its role as popular newcomer to the cocktail scene (as compared to other spirits).

Finally, I closed out the night with a trip to the Indy Spirits Expo at Soiree Nightclub. This event was jam packed with small producers and importers (and attendees!). I tried as many things as my remaining stamina would allow. Among the products that stick out in my mind now as great/interesting were Redemption Bourbon; Death's Door Gin; the Midnight Moon products from Piedmont Distillers; and several of the rums and amaros from the Classic and Vintage Spirits collection of Domaine Select Wine Estates. Also, while I didn't do as much sampling there because I am already familiar with many of their products, I must also give mention to Haus Alpenz, which in my opinion has a universally fantastic line of products that just keeps getting better and better.

Thus ends my daily wrap-ups from the MCC. I will post some more highlights, tips and tricks learned, and other tidbits from the event in the near future. First, I need to go through my notes, and more importantly, get some rest! But as a final note, I must say, this was a great event that was enjoyed by both a slew of industry folk and amateur enthusiasts alike. If you have the chance to go next year, do it!

Manhattan Cocktail Classic, Day 2

I spent a good chunk of today as a volunteer at the MCC working the welcome table rather than as an attendee, so I have less to report on than yesterday. However, I can definitely say that it was my experience that this is a very well-run event with great organizers and a very friendly crowd of attendees. I actually had a great time working the front desk and chatting with the participants and my fellow volunteers.

Before volunteering, I attended a morning seminar on the Art of the Simple Cocktail with Elayne Duke. Elayne took us through the use of the simple formula of base plus modifier plus modifying agent to create tasty drink varients with ease through simple substitutions (while giving credit to David Embury for his pioneering thoughts on such cocktail creation). She also gave tips on how she thinks through designing a new drink, and let us sample some creations including a Godiva chocolate raspberry vodka drink with champagne, a honey drizzle, and a chocolate truffle and raspberry garnish.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Manhattan Cocktail Classic, Day 1

I've just wrapped up my first day at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, and while I am bummed to have missed the opening gala (I heard it was awesome), it has been a blast so far.

I started the day with a session on the Science of Mixology with engineer/bartender Anthony Caporale of Art of the Drink. Anthony took us through an exploration of several myths or hypotheses about drinks and looked at some experiments to confirm disprove them. Some of the topics explored included whether larger ice cools more with less dilution; the effect of glass chilling and shaking versus stirring on drink temperature; whether gin can be bruised; and some demonstrations on distillation and barrel aging.  Results of these experiments will show up at

Next, I attended a session on history and cocktails involving a panel led by cocktail historian David Wondrich. The thoughtful discussion revolved around the role of history in the modern trends in cocktails, and perhaps more generally, the role of historical narrative. We also had the pleasure of trying several vintage drinks, including a punch, the original Singapore Sling, and the Airplane.

My third session was entitled "Be a Part of the 'Next GINeration':  Tips & Techniques for Reinventing the Classic Cocktail Party."  During this session, mixologist Alex Ott led us through using items to be found on hand in the kitchen to spice up (literally and figuratively) spirits (in this case, the sponsor spirit New Amsterdam gin) to make new and interesting cocktails.  He also took us through some garnish techniques and showed off his skills with some improv cocktail concoctions.

Finally, I topped off the evening with a session on Aperitivo:  The Italian Happy Hour.  In this session, Joseph Campanale took us through a look at the Italian take on Happy Hour and some beverages that characterize it:  Italian vermouth, Campari, Aperol, and Cynar.  In addition to learning about each, we got the opportunity to sample each aperitivo and a cocktail that used them (in the case of Campari, we tried two variations). 

For some pics from the seminars, check out my twitter feed:

Friday, May 13, 2011

Off to the Manhattan Cocktail Classic!

This weekend should be a blast, as I will be off to the previously mentioned Manhattan Cocktail Classic!  Sadly, I am missing the opening gala, but I will be in town tomorrow to attend a few seminars (and enjoy a few drinks), and will be volunteering at the event on Sunday.  I'm also going to be trying my hand at some tweeting/micro-blogging this weekend in honor of the event, so if you care to follow along, take a look at my twitter feed here.


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Gin Tasting Results

A few weeks ago, I took a stab at hosting my first ever spirits tasting for a group of friends, with the spirit de jour:  gin.  There were approximately 15 attendees (plus a few other attendees that made it for parts of the event), ranging from avid martini drinkers to some that would sooner reach for some vodka.  For the benefit of the attendees, those that couldn't make it, and the reader at large, this post is a summary of the event, including background information I provided to the attendees, information about the spirits that were sampled, people's opinions of the spirits tasted, and some lessons learned from the experience of hosting such a tasting.  For those that manage make it through this rather long read, I've included some bonus material at the end as a reward; for those that want to skip around, here are some links to get you where you want to go.  Final note:  all gins tasted were provided by myself and the participants, and not paid for or solicited by any producer, retailer, etc.  (also, no vermouths were harmed in the making of this film).

Event Format
Background and Historical Notes
Tasting Results

Event Format
This tasting was organized into 3 "rounds."  First, we tasted a series of gins straight at room temperature.  Next, I mixed up Martinis using the same gins (with one exception discussed below) and distributed a sampling of each to the participants.  For the Martini recipe, I used something closer to the original/classic Martini formulation (2:1 gin/vermouth + orange bitters) -- I mixed each Martini using a 3:1 ratio of gin to vermouth, using Noilly Prat dry vermouth, and added one dash of Angostura Orange bitters.  For the final round, I mixed up and distributed Gin and Tonics made with each gin (I used a run of the mill grocery store bought tonic, Sterlings).  The idea was to provide the tasters some idea of how each gin tasted when mixed, using two go-to gin drinks.  There are inherent difficulties in doing this, of course; the choice of vermouth, bitters, or tonic can impact the results dramatically, with some gins working much better than others with various pairings; the ratios used can likewise have an impact.  Even still, my hope was to at least give the participants a starting point for gauging what they might enjoy if picking between the selections at a bar or choosing a new gin to pick up for the home.

We tasted a total of 11 gins, with one only being used in the straight tasting.  I knew going in that in short, this was too many.  That said, that was the number that ended up being available, so we powered through.  While palates may have been strained by going through this long a list, I think in general the participants were still able to appreciate the distinctions even towards the end of the tasting.  I would definitely recommend 8 or fewer for anyone that is trying to emulate this event, however.  In terms of the order of tasting, that proved to be a tough decision to make.  The route I chose to take was to begin with some more common gins that people would likely have the most familiarity with.  The next group consisted of somewhat lesser-known varieties that were more afield, but still generally adhered to the standard London dry taste profile.  Moving towards the tail end of the tasting, we tasted some gins that went further afield from the more familiar London dry gin taste profile.  Another option would have been to order the tasting along the lines of flavor profiles, however I did not trust my abilities as far as discerning those profiles sufficiently to go this route.  I think generally speaking,  people found the ordering to work fairly well (in particular, some people commented positively about the choice of starting with the more familiar brands).

As far as our actual tasting, I basically MC'd the tasting, providing a brief introduction during the first round to each gin that we were tasting and then trying to spur some discussions about people's reactions to each gin, the flavors they detected, and their relative preferences.  Each participant had a place card broken down into marked squares for each gin where the samples were placed (I used approx 2 oz. plastic cups for the samples).  I also provided a sheet with a corresponding numbered list of the gins for each round on which the participants could record their comments and provide a rating if they so chose.

Background and Historical Notes
Before getting down to the nitty gritty of tasting, I started the event off by providing my guests with a few background notes, first on the topic of spirits tasting in general and then on gin.  I'm far far far from an expert on spirits tasting, but while pointing out the fact that there isn't always consensus on its finer points, here are a few notes and suggestions aggregated from various sources that I provided to my guests:

  • One of the first things to take in when doing a spirits tasting is color.  Color is a bit of a mixed bag because, depending on the type of spirit and the distiller, there might be coloring agents involved.  For other spirits, much of the coloring will stem from aging, but since most gin today is unaged, something you can look for is clarity, which can clue you in on the quality or type of the filtration.  
  • After color, there's smell.  One thing to note here is that techniques for smelling wine, whereby you basically get in close and try to get the full bouquet, are problematic for spirits because of the higher alcohol content and resulting burn.  Consequently, some sources suggest keeping a distance of a few inches, and smelling again after becoming acclimated to the initial burn.
  • The next point on which there is at least some consensus is the suggestion to pay attention to distinctions between initial taste, secondary tastes, and aftertaste.  The general recommendation for tasting spirits straight is to do so at room temperature.
  • Some experts use a mix of water in the tasting process.  One source I consulted suggested using a 1:1 dilution to reduce some of the burn involved.  Other suggestions included mixing a few drops, but only in subsequent sips, not the first.  Still others avoid the water altogether.
As to gin itself, I first discussed the preliminary question of what is gin?  In simplistic terms, in the hierarchy of distilled spirits, you can begin with neutral grain spirits (aka grain alcohol). Add water, and you have vodka; add flavoring agents that include juniper, and you can have gin.  Phrased another way, Federal regulations for alcohol labeling and sale describe gin as follows:
    • Gin' is a product obtained by original distillation from mash, or by redistillation of distilled spirits, or by mixing neutral spirits, with or over juniper berries and other aromatics, or with or over extracts derived from infusions, percolations, or maceration of such materials. It shall derive its main characteristic flavor from juniper berries and be reduced at time of bottling to not less than 80° proof.
Depending on whose list you go by, there's said to be 4 (or some would say 5) types of gin. The 4 most commonly asserted types are: Holland style, Old Tom, Plymouth, and London Dry. The earliest form of gin is Dutch/Holland style or Genever, which dates back to approximately the early 17th Century. Genever is very different from English gins, being made from malted grains that make it somewhat similar to unaged whisky. There are 3 types of genever: Jung (aged less than 6 months), Oude (aged more than 2 yrs) , and Zeer Oude (very old). The Jung style is actually a newer innovation, with oude style considered more classic (and frankly better tasting).

The next oldest style gin to appear is Old Tom. Old Tom gin is sweeter than its later than the now prevalent London dry, and was very popular during the eighteenth-century. Basically, early distillation techniques left a lot to be desired, so the sweetness of the gin was no accident, but rather an attempt to cover up the harshness of the distillate through the addition of glycerin & sugar. Old Tom's popularity fell off with the invention of the column still in the nineteenth-century, and the resulting creation of London dry gin.

London dry, popularized around late 18th, early 19th Century is what people usually think of today when they think of gin. It usually contains somewhere between 6-20 ingredients, and today is usually not aged (except e.g. Seagram’s, which includes a variety that is aged 2 months). It is worth noting, however, that aging used to be more common, and aged gins were referred to as Yellow Gins b/c of the color gained from the aging.

The final primary offshoot of gin styles is Plymouth gin - a subtly different version of gin closest to London Dry. Plymouth gin is the only gin with a protected geographical denomination.

Finally, some commentators also add “American Style” gin category, which correlates to micro-distillery style gins that have cropped up which take a slightly different turn away from the traditional London dry gin taste, often with different botanicals.

Tasting Results
Below are some notes from the tasting, including people's impressions of the various gins.  As noted, I am far from a spirits or tasting expert, and likewise none of the participants claimed to be such, so you can interpret these as layman impressions.  One gin was only used in the straight tastings, the Bol's Genever.  The reason for this is that genever, while fantastic in its own right, was never traditionally designed for or used for the Martini or the gin and tonic, thus, I left it out, suspecting that there are better uses for it than trying to make it fill a role for which it was not intended.  That said, I thought it was a useful addition for purposes of introducing people to the style and for comparative purposes.

1. Bombay Saphire
Place of Origin: England
Proof: 94
Price: $20-$24
Notes: A medium bodied gin made with 10 botanicals
Straight Tasting Notes:
  • Many people commented that they found the Saphire to be seemingly more fumes and burn than flavor, although some floral and perfume like notes were identified by some.  In particular, juniper flavor was not very prevalent. The Saphire was one of the least popular gins for drinking straight, with none of the tasters expressing a preference for it as a favorite for drinking straight.
Martini Tasting Notes:
  • As with the straight tasting, the Saphire was deemed a bit boring, and not especially flavorful by most accounts. That said, people did comment that it was relatively easy to drink, with less burn than in the straight tasting.
Gin and Tonic Tasting Notes:
    • Participants' reviews of the Saphire G&T were generally less than favorable, with most people deeming it mediocre or poor. The taste of juniper was said to be completely drowned out in the G&T. One taster noted some Bergamot flavor to the Saphire in this drink. It was not picked as a favorite.

    2. Beefeater
    Place of Origin: London, England
    Proof: 94
    Price: $20-$24
    Notes: One of the granddaddies of London dry, founded in 1820. Juniper forward with licorice and citrus.
    Straight Tasting Notes:
    • The Beefeater was considered sweeter and spicier than the Saphire by several tasters, and definitely more juniper forward in taste.  Some tasters noted the anise/licorice flavor in the gin tied to the sweetness, in particular in the aftertaste, which some found enjoyable.  Only 1 person expressed a strong preference for Beefeater for drinking straight, but it was generally somewhat better received than the Saphire (to the surprise of some).
    Martini Tasting Notes:
    • Several people commented that the juniper flavor became more prominent in the Beefeater when in a martini. One person listed the Beefeater martini as a favorite.
    Gin and Tonic Tasting Notes:
      • People seemed to find the Beefeater G&T somewhat underwhelming, though somewhat better than the Saphire G&T (though it was probably put in roughly the same category of preference). Tasters commented that there was more citrus and licorice notes brought out in this G&T, and that it was sweeter than the Saphire. The Beefeater G&T failed to get chosen as a favorite.

      3. Tanqueray
      Place of Origin: England
      Proof: 96
      Price: $18-$21
      Notes: Considered a juniper forward gin, Tanqueray's main flavors are said to be angelica, juniper, and corriander.
      Straight Tasting Notes:
      • Tasters detected a distinct coriander taste in the Tanquery, which some found savory and enjoyable.  The Tanqueray was also identified as having a stronger aftertaste, but less burn than the previous gins (people were divided as to liking or disliking the aftertaste).  As with the Beefeater, there was a more prominent juniper taste in this gin.  In addition to the juniper and coriander, the taste of Angelica was also noted.  Other descriptions included fresh, floral, and strong in herbal flavors.  Two tasters expressed strong preferences towards Tanqueray in the straight tastings.  The average sentiment towards Tanqueray straight was comparable to that towards Beefeater, with some preferring one or the other.
      Martini Tasting Notes:
      • Tanqueray received generally positive feedback as a martini gin. It was deemed smoother, and easier to drink than straight. Two tasters expressed a strong preference for Tanqueray as a martini choice, while a few people still found it to have a bit too much burn.
      Gin and Tonic Tasting Notes:
        • The Tanqueray was generally deemed to make a better G&T than both the Saphire and the Beefeater. It was said to have a stronger taste than some of the other gins, but not obnoxiously so as with some others. Tastes identified included angelica, juniper, and coriander. Tasters observed that the drink was more fresh and floral, and more herbacious than some of the others. People were divided on the finish/aftertaste - some found it very enjoyable, while others hated it. Despite few if any particularly negative reviews, Tanqueray was not chosen as the favorite by any of the participants - the most concise explanation might be that it was deemed interesting, but not exciting.

        4. Plymouth
        Place of Origin: Plymouth, England
        Proof: 83
        Price: $26-$30
        Notes: The only gin with a geographical denomination. Distinct from London dry, it includes sweet orange peel and cardamom along with the usual ingredients of orris root, juniper, angelica, coriander and lemon peel. Plymouth is alleged to have been a favorite of Churchill's.
        Straight Tasting Notes:
        • Opinions on Plymouth varied. Some people commented that it felt cleaner, lighter, and smoother than the previous gins, with less burn.  Some tasters also described a bitter element in the Plymouth, which some people liked or tolerated and others disliked.  The average opinion on the Plymouth straight was better than the first set of gins, with approximately 3 tasters choosing it as a favorite.  However, a few tasters expressed a strong dislike towards it. 
        Martini Tasting Notes:
        • Plymouth had positive feedback from the majority of tasters, but a few people did strongly dislike it, some considering it to have a bitter aftertaste. Those that liked it mentioned that it was light and fresh. Several people noted some sweet licorice notes in the taste. Five participants labeled the Plymouth Martini as a favorite, making it one of the most popular choices.
        Gin and Tonic Tasting Notes:
          • The Plymouth gin and tonic received generally positive feedback from a majority of tasters, but there were still a few people that strongly disliked it. Some others found it not unpalatable, but somewhat boring. Overall, however, the Plymouth G&T was one of the most popular. Five participants picked the Plymouth gin and tonic as a favorite, with one person commenting that the flavor profile supported the quinine flavor well.

          5. New Amsterdam
          Place of Origin: Modesto, California
          Proof: 80
          Price: $12-$15
          Notes: A relative new comer, with juniper, witchhazel and cassis flavoring; said to be a bit more citrus forward than some other gins.
          Straight Tasting Notes:
          • Tasters noted a stronger citrus element in New Amsterdam, which many people enjoyed. It was also described as smooth, and having a pleasant smell, and little burn. Some participants that disliked Plymouth appeared to enjoy the New Amsterdam much more (although the position of the gin as the next to be tasted might have affected this). The New Amsterdam was the most popular gin tasted for drinking straight, with 5 participants expressing strong preferences towards it. There were few, if any strongly negative comments about the New Amsterdam straight.
          Martini Tasting Notes:
          • The New Amsterdam Martini was generally deemed very drinkable. The stronger citrus flavor caused some people to compare it to a cosmo. Five participants expressed a strong preference towards the New Amsterdam martini. For some, flavoring was a little too cosmo-like for their taste, appearing too syrupy and evocative of the “girly drink” genre. Generally speaking, however, New Amsterdam had the highest general appeal amongst those tasted in the Martini round.
          Gin and Tonic Tasting Notes:
            • New Amsterdam generally performed well in the G&T round as well. Flavors/tastes mentioned included chocolate, orange, and bergamaot. Some people commented that for better or worse, however, that the drink did not have the usual gin and tonic taste to it. Some people found it overly sweet. Two or three tasters expressed a strong preference towards the New Amsterdam G&T over its peers.

            6. Citadelle
            Place of Origin: Ars, France
            Proof: 88
            Price: $21-$24
            Notes: 4x distilled wheat grain base and a blend of 19 botanicals. Made with an old-style, distinctive process where "the base wheat spirit is triple distilled in a column still then the 19 botanicals are added and it is distilled in a quite small (200 liter) cognac copper pot still using naked flame."
            Straight Tasting Notes:
            • The Citadelle gin was described as very spicy, possibly too much so. There was a complexity that was noted about the taste (lots of spice and floral elements), but one comment echoed by several tasters was that it had a “salty” taste, which increased in the after taste (this might have been an interpretation of a more spicy and less sweet taste than some of the previous gins). No tasters selected Citadelle as a favorite in the straight tasting.
            Martini Tasting Notes:
            • Tasters remained underwhelmed by the Citadelle as a Martini gin. There were a few positive comments describing it as crisp and clean, however there were more comments that echoed the negative observations of the gin when drank straight (at least one person actually liked the gin straight better than in the Martini), and added the comment that it had somewhat of a bitter taste to it in the Martini. No participant chose the Citadelle as a favorite Martini gin.
            Gin and Tonic Tasting Notes:
              • Citadelle still received lackluster reviews in the gin and tonic round, although some people found that it worked better in the gin and tonic. There remained some comments that the taste was "salty." There were no participants that chose Citadelle as a favorite for gin and tonics.

              7. Ethereal
              Place of Origin: Great Barrington, MA
              Proof: 86
              Price: $30-$34
              Notes: A small batch artisnal gin made with 14 different botanicals. Intended to be a forward-looking gin of gins, rather than a classic London dry (Greylock Gin, also from Berkshire is intended to be more of the classic gin).
              Straight Tasting Notes:
              • Ethereal was also found to have a relatively complex taste with some spice to it. A handful of tasters expressed a strong positive view of the Ethereal straight, but there were likewise a handful of tasters that strongly disliked it (some of the negative comments again referred to a salty flavor, as well one comment describing it as chemically). On average, Ethereal was somewhat better received than the Citadelle, however only a few individuals expressed a strong preference towards it, with at least equal number having a strong dislike.
              Martini Tasting Notes:
              • Ethereal fared about the same in the Martini tasting as straight. Some participants found that it fared a bit better than in the straight tasting, describing the taste as smooth and light. One comment was that it tasted better on the second sip. Others remained turned off by the flavor profile (some people noted an excessive coriander taste). A few tasters did choose Ethereal as a favorite for Martini tasting, but the general feeling towards it was that it was not as impressive as some of the other choices (and it continued to have a few strong detractors).
              Gin and Tonic Tasting Notes:
                • The impressions of Ethereal did not seem to change too vastly when moving to the gin and tonics. Some people still found it somewhat boring, and a few aggressively disliked it. There was a spiciness to it that some people found pleasing, however, while others continued to argue that it tried to do too much. Two or three participants ranked Ethereal as a favorite for the G&T.

                8. Blue Coat
                Place of Origin: Philadelphia, PA
                Proof: 94
                Price: $26-$31
                Notes: A hand-crafted, pot-stilled gin from a small producer.
                Straight Tasting Notes:
                • The Blue Coat gin was deemed to have a more “classic” gin taste than some of the previous gins. Blue Coat was said to have a spicy taste on the front end by some tasters. It was said to have a “clean” sweetness on the front end that had less citrus and herbal flavor than some of the other gins. One comment was that it was similar in taste to Bombay, but somewhat simpler and sweeter, with less burn. The average opinion of Blue Coat was relatively positive, with 2 tasters expressing a strong preference.
                Martini Tasting Notes:
                • Blue Coat had a few strong proponents and a few strong detractors in the Martini round. Similarly, some people commented that they enjoyed the finish on the drink, while others enjoyed the taste generally, but disliked the aftertaste. One taster commented that it tasted like a more complex version of Ethereal. A few people commented that the taste was a bit medicinal. One taster chose Blue Coat as a favorite for the Martini; opinions in general were somewhat mixed.
                Gin and Tonic Tasting Notes:
                  • Opinions on Blue Coat for a gin and tonic again did not diverge greatly from the tastings of the gin in the first two rounds. Few if any people aggressively disliked it, and general impressions were more favorable than for the Citadelle. Other than a few people that really enjoyed it, most impressions were more middle of the road, however. Two people chose the Blue Coat as a favorite for gin and tonics.

                  9. Hendrick's
                  Place of Origin: Ayrshire, Scotland
                  Proof: 88
                  Price: $28-$32
                  Notes: A distinctive tasting gin that includes Bulgarian roses, cucumber, and corriander in the flavorings.
                  Straight Tasting Notes:
                  • Taster’s found Hendrick’s gin straight to be on the sweet side, with some describing it as smooth and fruity. The general impression appeared to be that it tasted like it would have potential when mixed, but was less impressive straight. Two tasters did express a strong preference for this gin amongst the straight gins.
                  Martini Tasting Notes:
                  • Several people found that the Hendrick's was much improved in the Martini. The vermouth was said to bring out the cucumber taste in the gin in particular, which produced a non-classic, but (to many) but tasty product. Juniper was said to get somewhat lost in the Hendrick's Martini (again emphasizing that it's a non-traditional taste), and in addition to the cucumber, coriander was also detected as having been brought out. Despite the non-classic taste, sentiments nonetheless tended towards the positive. One taster chose the Hendrick's as a favorite Martini gin.
                  Gin and Tonic Tasting Notes:
                    • Most agreed that the Hendrick's made for an interesting gin and tonic. It was described as fresh cut in the beginning, but sweet in aftertaste (some said cloyingly so). Some people said it went better with a Martini, but there was some sentiment that a cucumber garnish could have made it an excellent drink. Overall, impressions tended towards to the somewhat positive or somewhat negative, with few if any people loving or hating it. Two people pointed to Hendrick's as a favorite for the G&T.

                    10. Bol's Genever
                    Place of Origin: Amsterdam, Holland
                    Proof: 84
                    Price: $39-$43
                    Notes: Bol's is world's oldest distillery. The base of this gin is a triple distillate of grain, wheat, and rye (the Dutch sometimes refer to this as "maltwine"). Bol's first started distilling genevers in 1664.
                    Straight Tasting Notes:
                    • The Bol’s was another gin that yielded both strong negative and strong positive opinions from different tasters. The tasters all agreed that the taste was substantially different than the other gins. The smell was described as more grainy and buttery, and the taste distinctively more whiskey-like. Two participants chose the Bol's as one of their favorites.
                    Martini Tasting Notes:
                    • n/a
                    Gin and Tonic Tasting Notes:
                      • n/a

                      11. Hayman's Old Tom
                      Place of Origin: London, Endland
                      Proof: 80
                      Price: $23-$26
                      Notes: One of the first Old Tom style gins to return to the American market. "Legend has that Old Tom Gin got its name from the entrepreneurial practices of a certain Captain Dudley Bradstreet. In 1736 Bradstreet acquired a property in London and a stock of gin. He set up a painted sign of a cat in the window and spread the word that gin could be purchased 'by the cat'. Under the cat's paw sign was a slot and a lead pipe, which was attached to a funnel inside the house. Customers placed their money in the slot and duly received their gin. Bradstreet's idea was soon copied all over London. People would stand outside houses, call 'puss' and when the voice within said 'mew' know that they could buy bootleg gin inside. Very soon Old Tom became an affectionate nickname for gin. "
                      Straight Tasting Notes:
                      • Unsurprisingly, tasters generally found the Hayman’s to be very sweet. For some, particularly those that expressed a taste for sweet drinks, the sweetness was quite appealing (one comment was that it was sweet, but not cloying). Four tasters expressed a strong preference towards the Hayman’s, and with the exception of a few tasters who found it excessively on the sweet side, it was generally enjoyed.
                      Martini Tasting Notes:
                      • General impressions on the Hayman's Martini was that it was overly sweet. Some people commented that it tasted better straight. A few tasters didn't mind the sweetness too much, but in general this was not considered a Martini gin.
                      Gin and Tonic Tasting Notes:
                        • The Hayman's actually performed pretty well in the gin and tonic tasting round (perhaps a bit surprising, since to my knowledge the drink was not formulated for this type of gin). It was still a bit too sweet for some people's taste, but overall it was not objectionable and considered drinkable by a majority of the participants. One person chose the Hayman's G&T as their favorite.

                        The first thing to mention - don't confuse the comments here as describing any of these gins as "bad."  Unlike the possible outcome if we were drinking an array of spirits bottled in plastic, there were no choices that universally led the participants to wretch.  Rather, some flavor profiles appealed to some people more so than others, and some had a greater appeal to the group than others.  Similarly, don't assume that the results here tell you what gins are best for a Martini or a mixed drink.  At best, what we have here is a starting point.  Change up the vermouth, or mix a different drink, and the flavor profile of a given gin can yield a very different result, a fact that's always worth keeping in mind when knowing the role a particular brand of spirits can play.

                        Now, that being said, one takeaway from this even is as follows; flash back a few short years ago, if I, or most any other of the participants were throwing a party, the goto gin we'd probably have stocked up on was Bombay Saphire.  If I, or likely many of the other participants, were looking for a general consumption "party" gin today:  New Amsterdam is a winner.  It won't be the favorite of everyone, but for the money the general appeal was substantial and the strong opposition few and far between.  Plymouth, a favorite of many a cocktail officionado today, performed strongly as well.  However, one takeaway was that even Plymouth had its strong detractors.  Thus, don't assume even something as touted as Plymouth will necessarily have universal appeal.

                        Along similar lines, another thing worth noting about these results is that people's preferences varied quite a bit across the spectrum of gins tasted.  Even without getting a bunch of professional spirits reviewers together, you can get 5 people in a room tasting gins and get 5 different picks of favorites.  The flavor profiles, and peoples' tastes, do in fact vary that much.

                        Finally, the performance of the smaller distillery gins, and I will lump Citadelle in with them, is worth discussing.  If you read some professional reviews of these gins, many of them are actually reviewed very well.  So why did they not "kill" at this tasting?  In many ways, I don't think the result is that surprising.  The selling point of many of these gins is the complexity, which is something that someone with a more refined palate for gin probably has a greater appreciation of (compare the palate of a new 21 year old on their first drink of Scotch to someone that's been drinking Scotch for 30 years).  Who knows, if given a second or third try, maybe even our participants would rank a few of these higher.  But, put in front of a more layman gin drinker - while you can expect some people to really enjoy the flavor, these gins are much less guaranteed to have universal appeal, which means you are just going to have to try them to see what you like!

                        ...and finally, a little extra material for those that have hung in this far.  If you have a taste for gin, here are 4 gin drink suggestions to try if you haven't already.
                        Last Word3/4 oz. Gin (London dry)
                        3/4 oz. Green Chartreuse
                        3/4 oz Maraschino Liqueur
                        3/4 oz. Lime juice
                        - Shake with ice and strain into cocktail glass
                        note:  for a very tasty variation called the Latest Word, found at Craigie on Main, use Bol's Genever in place of the London Dry gin.

                        Tom Collins (a/k/a John Collins)1 tsp powdered sugar
                        juice of 1/2 a lemon
                        2 oz gin (Old Tom for the traditional; genever for an interesting variant; or London Dry/Plymouth)
                        Soda water (6 oz. or enough to fill)
                        - build the drink in a tall glass filled with large ice cubes and stir.  Dave Wondrich notes in his book Imbibe! that a old trick used by bartenders was to add the sugar last to create an extra fizz at the top.

                        Pegu Club Cocktail2 oz. Gin
                        1 oz. Orange Curacao
                        1 tsp. lime juice
                        1 dash Angostura bitters
                        1 dash Orange bitters
                        -Shake with ice and strain

                        Martinez1 oz. Old Tom gin
                        2 oz. Sweet Vermouth (Carpano Antica is great if you have it)
                        1 tsp. Maraschino Liqueur
                        2 dashes Boker's Bitters (if unavailable, Orange bitters are a common sub)
                        -  Stir with ice and strain into cocktail glass
                        note:  some prefer 1:1 gin:vermouth, although the above is said to be more historically accurate.  

                        And thus endith today's look at gin!