If you're interested in spirits and read geeky blogs, or even if you just frequent cocktail bars, you've probably seen or heard about the new generation of American gins created by craft distillers, many using unique botanicals, that are different from the classic London dry style. I have extolled the virtues of some of these, such as excellent new gins from St. George Spirits in California and Berkshire Mountain Distillers in Massachusetts.
But it occurred to me recently that a simple truth has gotten lost in all the chatter about trendy new American gins: The most essential gins in the world still come from Britain. Yes, yes, there are wonderful new gins made in the United States -- and even France and Holland and elsewhere -- but none, to my mind, has replaced such standard-bearer London drys such as Tanqueray or Beefeater or Old Raj or other British styles such as Plymouth or Hayman's Old Tom.
There's a clear reason why British gins work better in cocktails: They're big, they're full of botanical aromas and flavors, they're what the geekier of us call "juniper-forward." Too many of the new American gins go for a softer, or more floral, or fruitier, profile, which can get lost when bitters and liqueurs are added. Those big, traditional flavors and aromas are what make gin so perfect in cocktails. After all, who drinks gin straight? Even die-hard, just-wave-the-vermouth-over-the-glass, Very Dry martini drinkers at least dilute it a little with ice and add an olive.
Of course, British gins are the kind that scare away so many American drinkers who are weaned on vodka -- the kind that make people say, "I feel like I'm being whacked in the face by an evergreen tree!" Perhaps because of all that stiff-upper-lip stuff, the British seem not to fear gin the way we do.
Gin is not a gentle spirit. It has always been thus. For evidence, all you have to do is look at the 18th-century engraving "Gin Lane" by William Hogarth, depicting London's infamous, depraved gin craze, when gin was branded as "Mother's ruin." It took several acts of Parliament -- setting fees and stricter regulation of sales -- to bring gin under control, and then just barely.
Gin has always been high proof. I would be skeptical of a gin that clocks in at less than 45 percent alcohol by volume (or 90 proof). In fact, by 19th-century standards, even the British gins of today would seem tame. So it's no surprise that, as part of the larger trend of cask-strength whiskeys or overproof rums, we are seeing a renaissance of old-style, higher-alcohol, "navy-strength" gins.
Navy-strength gins must be 57 percent alcohol, or 114 proof, the same requirement that the Royal British Navy had for gins beginning in the early 1800s. The reason given back then was: Gunpowder could still be fired if 114 proof gin was accidentally spilled on it. This was the same era when the gimlet was invented by a Royal Navy doctor named Sir Thomas Desmond Gimlette so sailors could mix gin with their daily lime ration to prevent scurvy. Yes, this is all a true story.
A handful of navy-strength gins are available in the mid-Atlantic area, including two from the U.K., which I highly recommend: Plymouth Navy Strength Gin ($38) and Hayman's Royal Dock of Deptford ($26). There are two gins by American distillers, Perry's Tot by New York Distilling ($32) and Leopold Brothers ($45), that are also well made. A word of caution: These spirits are for people who really love gin.
D.C. area bartenders have embraced navy-strength gins, especially Hayman's Royal Dock. "I love them," says Derek Brown, who with his brother Tom co-owns the Passenger, Columbia Room and the new Hogo. "They lend weight and intensity to gin drinks. Sometimes London dry gins at regular proof can seem light and summery."
Brown suggests trying a cocktail like the Martinez with a navy-strength gin like Hayman's Royal Dock: "It becomes a weightier drink, sippable on a cold winter evening."
Adam Bernbach, bar manager at Estadio and Proof, prefers Hayman's Royal Dock as well. "I prefer to utilize it to balance things that might lean too sweet with most other gins," Bernbach says. For instance, he recently used it in a highball with house-made carrot soda.
Joe Riley, fine-spirits manager at Ace Beverage, says he has been selling more navy-strength gins this year, mainly because a year ago, they weren't available. Riley recommends the classic Pink Gin, the drink of the British Empire.
Navy-strength gin is "really only 10 percent higher in alcohol than, say, Beefeater, but what a difference that 10 percent makes in terms of lift and delivery of flavor," Riley says.
He adds: "And I'm continually pleased that my gunpowder is no longer being fouled by lower-proof gin."