A botanical bonanza

The Alchemist tasting panel gathers for a round of international gins

The lineup featured gins from Japan, Italy, Spain and Canada, as well as the spirit’s traditional UK home. Dan Toulgoet photo

Summer is the season for refreshing gin cocktails, so it was only natural to think juniper for this issue’s tasting panel. Juniper, of course, is the signature flavour that defines gin, which is typically a grain spirit (though there are some fruit-based ones) that has been infused with botanicals that can include citrus peel, flowers, herbs, spices, stems, roots, seeds and fruits.

Think gin and you tend to think London Dry, the crisp, juniper-forward style developed in London in the 1830s. But there are a wide range of styles from all over the world. To sample a selection of them, we gathered at Tableau Bar Bistro with some of the city’s top barkeeps: Alex Black, bar manager of Wildebeest; Sabrine Dhaliwal, cocktail consultant and Pourhouse bartender; Adam Domet, bar manager of Pourhouse; J-S Dupuis, beverage director of Wentworth Hospitality; Robyn Gray of the Rosewood Hotel Georgia; and Ryan Johnson, bar manager of Tuc Craft Kitchen.

The panel blind-tasted 12 international gins. Here’s what they had to say.

The tasting panel, from left: Sabrine Dhaliwal, Ryan Johnson, Alex Black, J-S Dupuis, Adam Domet and Robyn Gray. Dan Toulgoet photo

$25.49, 40% ABV

This is one of the oldest of the London Dry gins (though it’s now produced in Scotland). The bartenders detected lots of juniper and peppery notes. “It’s a super classic London Dry. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.” Black said. “It’s perfect for the home bartender,” said Dhaliwal. Gray added: “A classic well gin.”

Cocktail: Gray suggested a Negroni, but Black countered with: “I don’t think it’s strong enough for a Negroni. G&T, classic two-to-one measure.”

Ryan Johnson noses
one of the gins. Dan Toulgoet photo
Luxardo Sour Cherry Gin

$50.58, 37.5% ABV

Although the gins were tasted blind, there were few surprises for a group of bartenders who know their way around a back bar. This was one of them, a new product from a company known for its maraschino liqueur. It had very little juniper on the nose, but an appealingly tart, juicy cherry flavour. “It’s like a vermouth,” Dhaliwal said. “It’s tasty.”

Cocktail: “It’s kind of a gin liqueur. You’d make your creative cocktails with this. You’re not going to find it in your classic cocktails,” Dupuis said. Gray suggested enjoying it on the rocks, while Dhaliwal thought it would work well in a gin fizz: “This is what you want for the summer. A little lemon, a little soda,” she said.

This is what you want for the summer. A little lemon, a little soda.

Hendricks Small Batch

$44.99, 44% ABV

There was a time when the cucumber-and-rose Scottish gin was ubiquitous in Vancouver. One sniff and Dhaliwal cracked, “2010 is calling…” and Gray responded, “…and they want their gin back.” He added, “It’s a new western style gin. I was surprised to find there’s elderflower in the botanical mix. And the rose and cucumber are distilled by perfumers.” Johnson also detected coriander and citrus, while Dupuis concluded, “It’s pretty. Dainty. Delicate.”

Cocktail: Gin and tonic with a cucumber slice. “You can’t really do anything classic with Hendrick’s, but it’s a good gin,” Black said. Dupuis added: “This is perfect for people who like gin Martinis without vermouth.”

The 12 international gins were tasted blind so the panel could focus on the flavours. Dan Toulgoet photo

$22.99, 40% ABV

The bargain of the bunch was also one of the favourites. The bartenders felt the classic Beefeater had complex notes of citrus, spice and florals, with a nice roundness, good balance and appealing viscosity. “There’s a lot more soft, expressive notes than the first one (Tanqueray), which was a lot more peppery,” Domet said. Added Dhaliwal: “Beefeater is the gin everyone should have at home because it’s so versatile.”

Cocktail: Everyone agreed that this would work well in pretty much every classic gin cocktail. “It’s good in your Corpse Revivers and Last Words,” Domet said. “Or a nice wet Martini, with a long strip of lemon.”

Beefeater is the gin everyone should have at home because it’s so versatile.

Ungava Canadian Premium Gin

$37.49, 43.1% ABV

The bright saffron colour of this Canadian gin comes from Arctic-sourced botanicals that include cloudberries, Labrador tea and rose hips. Johnson detected “honey and tropical notes.” Dupuis felt it had a peppery nose. Others commented on its high acidity and clean flavour. But Black said, “For as bright as it is, it’s boring on the palate.”

Cocktail: “It would go well with tea,” Gray said, and Domet noted that he uses it in a cocktail with a peppermint tea syrup that he calls a Bitter Southside.

Alex Black detects some of the more elusive botanical notes. Dan Toulgoet photo

$46.99, 41.6% ABV

The first gin to be distilled within London’s boundaries in nearly two centuries, this is an aromatic update of a traditional London Dry. The bartenders described it as floral, delicate, earthy, savoury, textured. “It’s very pretty,” Johnson said, “and it has a beautiful roundness.” Dhaliwal added, “It tastes like walking through the forest after the rain.” “There’s a word for that,” Black said. “Percocet…no that’s not it. Petrichor, that smell after the rain.”

Cocktail: A Gibson or Negroni. As Domet said, “This is your classic stirred gin cocktail.”

Think all gins are clear and juniper-driven? The Luxardo and Ungava beg to differ with their pops of flavourful colour. Dan Toulgoet photo

$48.99, 43% ABV

Roku is a new premium gin created by the House of Suntory in Osaka, Japan. “Now that’s interesting,” Dupuis said. “Very different from everything we’ve tried. Yuzu, floral, lemon.” Others detected notes of preserved lemon, pomelo and clementine, and layer upon layer of complex flavour. As Black said: “This is a killer gin. Super approachable. I don’t need anything else to go in this glass.”

Cocktail: “This would make a really good Martini,” Dhaliwal said. “I would make a 20th Century with this. A classic 20th Century. No egg white,” Dupuis added.

Now that’s interesting. Very different from everything we’ve tried. Yuzu, floral, lemon.

The Botanist Islay Dry

$46.99, 46% ABV

Produced by the venerable scotch whisky house Bruichladdich, this gin is famous for using 22 botanicals hand-foraged from the island of Islay. “It’s super soft and elegant,” Johnson said. “I love this gin. I absolutely love this gin,” Dupuis said, summing up the general opinion. “There’s a beautiful balance of aromas. That’s a great gin.”

Cocktail: Johnson suggested a French 75, but Domet disagreed: “A dirty Martini. I mean subtly dirty, nothing disgusting. Maybe some saline solution instead of the brine.”

Sabrine Dhaliwal celebrates all the creative cocktail options gin has to offer. Dan Toulgoet photo
Gin Mare

$68.26, 40% ABV

This Spanish gin is unique in that it uses olives, rosemary and thyme in its botanical mix for a distinctly Mediterranean flavour. “Now this is a dirty Martini,” Johnson said. Both savoury and citrusy, it made Dhaliwal think of beaches: “Sitting on a patio, eating tapas and drinking G&Ts on the Spanish coast.” “It makes me want to have some cured ham,” Domet added.

Cocktail: A Spanish style Gin & Tonic. “A G&T with olives and rosemary,” Gray said. “And half the garden thrown in it,” Black added.

Adam Domet matches gins to the cocktails they work best in. Dan Toulgoet photo
Bombay Sapphire

$26.49, 40% ABV

Despite its premium-brand image, this gin did not wow the panel. The described it as dry, dusty and almost neutral in flavour, likely because Bombay vapour-infuses its botanicals rather than macerating them. “It’s hard to pick anything out of this,” Johnson said. “This is your gin if you like vodka sodas but want to branch out. This is your training wheel gin,” Dupuis said. “It’s the gateway gin,” Dhaliwal chimed in. “The Barefoot wine of the gin world,” Black added, to which Gray said: “It’s the lager of gins.”

Cocktail: A highball of some sort. “I think because there’s not a lot of expressiveness, you want this to be as cold as possible,” Domet said.

J-S Dupuis compares the Luxardo Sour Cherry Gin to “a gin liqueur.” Dan Toulgoet photo
Bombay Sapphire East London Dry

$28.99, 42% ABV

The original with the addition of Thai lemongrass and Vietnamese black peppercorn. “Number 11 is literally number 10 cranked by one. This is when you want to get out of the gateway,” Dupuis said. “It’s a good modern cocktail gin.” “It’s much more expressive than the last one,” Domet added.

Cocktail: “I think it would be good in Cosmo or a Clover Club,” Dhaliwal suggested. “Or a Ramos Gin Fizz,” Johnson added.

This is a classic French 75 with absinthe, on the rocks, made proper.

Bombay Sapphire Star of Bombay

$39.99, 47.5% ABV

The tasting ended on a high note with Bombay’s premium expression, which is made with 12 botanicals including bergamot, orange peel and ambrette seed. “I get a fennel note,” Black said. “This is good.” “It’s fucking delicious,” Gray added. “This is their redemption gin: ‘We’re sorry we made Bombay Sapphire.’”

Cocktail: “This is a classic French 75 with absinthe, on the rocks, made proper,” Black said.

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