Hudson Valley Gin
IF THERE IS AN IMAGE OF GIN embedded in the Western psyche, it is likely related to William Hogarth’s 1751 etching entitled Gin Lane. In it, Hogarth later wrote, “every circumstance of its horrid effects is brought into view...Idleness, poverty, misery, and distress, which drives even to madness and death.”
Gin was vilified in a manner similar to absinthe but, unlike wormwood in the latter, juniper, the essential ingredient in gin, remained a popular flavoring agent, perhaps the reason gin maintained a place in society alongside other forms of alcohol and spirits.
The original versions of gin evolved in Holland. Called jenever (juniper), there, it had a touch of sweetness and a modest amount of alcohol compared with other spirits. When English soldiers were sent to support the Dutch during the Thirty Years War (1618-48), they returned home with a thirst for the cheap liquor. Gin eventually took root in England by the early eighteenth century, leading to domestic production, specifically in the Plymouth area.
The spirit was relatively simple to produce: Typically, a fermented grain was distilled to isolate the alcohol. During a second distillation, the spirit was flavored with a set of botanicals, including juniper. Plymouth-style gin was fuller-bodied and more aromatic than jenever; with development of more efficient stills and distillation techniques, it evolved into a lighter style of gin, now known as London Dry. The English of the eighteenth century consumed their gin neat (without ice or other additives); in the U.S., however, it was often mixed with other ingredients, a practice that spread quickly through England and her colonies. Though its popularity waxed and waned through the next two centuries, along the way gin earned an image as a sophisticated drink to be sipped and enjoyed rather than guzzled.
For distillers today, gin is exciting to produce. “Some” juniper is the only requirement other than minimum proof, which means that creative distillers may add any number of botanicals to create a signature flavor nuance. For its Rustic Gin, Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery, one of the first to produce gin in the Hudson Valley, looked to the classics. “We wanted to make a gin that was unique enough, but not straying too far away from a classic London Dry,” says co-owner Jeremy Kidde. “We decided to mix [the gin] in a couple cocktails and we ultimately made our decision based on how it tasted in a finished product that someone would be ordering.” The end product is a blend of six botanicals—there is a clear focus on juniper, of course, but notes of citrus from fresh lemons and limes immediately comes to the forefront, making it perfect for classic gin cocktails.
Farther north at the Catskill Distilling Company, in Bethel (Sullivan County), Monte Sachs has created another distinctive gin in the classic London Dry mode. For his Curious Gin, Sachs sought to create a spirit that is more palatable and more appealing to a wider range of customers—a gin “made for people who don’t like gin,” he says. To this end, he uses a “gin basket” technique during distilling, which allows hot vapors to flow through the botanicals. That process, Sachs notes, “produces a much more delicate taste, aroma and flavor.” His recipe includes 14 botanicals (some in less than a “thumbnail-size” portion per 800-liter batch). The resulting gin is subtle and nuanced with juniper, with delicate citrus and layers of herbs and flower notes. Its gentle style makes it an ideal choice for a martini.
The crazy, funky complexity you get out of anything big and herbaceous works fantastically with gin.
At Orange County Distillery, in Goshen, John Glebocki and Bryan Ensall also are creating a unique gin based on an old model. Glebocki, a fifth-generation farmer, converted a hundred-year-old barn into a small distillery and tasting room, and he grows or forages everything needed to produce gin and other spirits on the farm, behind the distillery. Glebocki and Ensall worked with about 40 different botanicals before choosing just seven. The nose on this gin is reminiscent of some jenever-style gins—delicate juniper, with a floral, malty quality. Scott Levi, bartender at the elegant Nina Restaurant, in Middletown, describes it: “It smells like the farm, [there is] so much more going on—it’s like you’re smelling the earth.” Ensall adds, “It’s what we grow—we can’t get rid of the black dirt, nor would we want to.”
Local bartenders have embraced the local products. Jordan Thomas, of Rhinebeck’s hip cocktail lounge The Shelter, is familiar with Warwick Valley Gin. “I went on a kick for a while with Warwick martinis with a twist—that brightness is great and screams summer.” Thomas is a student of his craft, and his approach is driven by the classics. “My favorite is Chartreuse or herbaceous liquors,” he says of his gin mixers. “Especially in the summer, the crazy, funky complexity you get out of anything big and herbaceous works fantastically with gin. I still love The Last Word—it’s a great hot-weather drink.” His version of the Prohibition-era classic is refreshing and layered; notes of spice and fruit resonate on the palate, while the lively freshness of lime accentuates the citrus in the Warwick gin.
At Nina, Levi has taken a market-driven approach to cocktails, using fruit, herbs and even vegetables, often raiding the walk-in for whatever is in season. “Fresh everything is the key,” he stresses. He incorporates berries or cucumbers, and herbs such as mint or basil when contemplating a drink like his Cucumber Martini—Orange County Gin creates a savory bass note that is well-suited to his style.
For local gin lovers and cocktail enthusiasts, this movement back to quality gin is welcome and continuing to grow. A stalwart in the local distilling movement, Gardiner’s Tuthilltown Spirits also offers a gin based in wheat and apples, creating a delicate fruitfulness. Stilltheone Distillery, in Port Chester, offers two gins, one exclusively made from honey and another from a blend of wheat and honey. Other local distillers, including Hudson Valley Distillers, already have plans to release new gins.
With so many options, gin has become an enjoyable part of the new beverage lexicon, and even those skeptical about gin are likely to find a local version to enjoy. “Sometimes people are not interested,” Levi notes, but he enjoys “using gin and something else and having the person fall in love with a cocktail that they would have never ordered. It’s fun. Gin is fun.”