03 May 2007

Martini Gin-Tasting

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Yesterday’s Times featured a better-than-average consumer report detailing a a New York Times panels’ gin-tasting conclusions aiming at the ideal Martini.

The gins sampled included a commendably exotic selection.

Our favorite martini gin, Plymouth English Gin, could not have been more stylish and graceful. Plymouth has the classic juniper-based gin profile, yet it is uncommonly subtle and smooth. Still, it is assertive, its complexity emerging slowly but distinctly, the proverbial fist in a velvet glove.

By contrast, our No. 2 and No. 3 gins emphasized power. The Junipero, made in small quantities by the distilling branch of the Anchor brewery in San Francisco, came on strong with the traditional gin flavors of juniper and citrus, hitting all the right notes, though a little self-consciously.

The No. 3 gin, Cadenhead’s Old Raj from Scotland, at 110 proof, or 55 percent alcohol, was by far the most powerful gin we tasted: Tanqueray and Tanqueray No. 10 at 94.6 proof were the next highest. But while Old Raj packed a punch, its muscularity came across as bright and in control.

Two standbys of the American cocktail cabinet fared well as martinis. Seagram’s Extra Dry came in at No. 4. We found it surprisingly complex in the glass, with fruit, herbal and gingery spice notes, yet it didn’t stray far from the gin ideal, while Gordon’s London Dry adhered to the straight and narrow, with a slight emphasis of spicy cardamom and nutmeg aromas.

Tanqueray London Dry made a classic though quiet martini. Its livelier cousin, Tanqueray No. 10, with its emphasis on citrus flavors, may work well neat or with tonic, but was discordant in a martini.

In fact, in the context of a dry martini, few of the newer, hipper gins worked. Aviation is a popular gin out of Portland, Ore., but its predominant flavors of wintergreen, vanilla and anise had no place in a martini. Nor did the menthol and peppermint in G’Vine, a new French gin, the pronounced melon fruitiness in Hamptons, made in Minnesota, or the cinnamon emphasis in No. 209 out of San Francisco.

“What was really striking was how un-dry some of these were — like bathing in canned fruit or a postnasal saccharine drip,” Pete said.

We didn’t reject all of the less conventional gins. With its floral aromas, Hendrick’s from Scotland seemed to work from a different palette of botanicals, and it made for a lively, colorful martini. Bombay Sapphire was sort of jazzy — a martini that intrigued without really hanging together. Both Quintessential and Martin Miller’s hit odd notes, though they made pretty good martinis.

We each had a favorite that didn’t make the top 10. I liked Citadelle, a new-wave French gin. I felt its unconventional citrus flavors merged well with evergreen aromas, but the others disagreed.

Likewise, Audrey was pleased with that old standby Beefeater, while I found the flavors indistinct. Florence, who adores Tanqueray, liked the Tanqueray No. 10 as well, while Pete was more inclined to the G’Vine than the rest of us.

Complete article

I thought giving top marks to Plymouth (Travis McGee’s old favorite) was a very defensible choice.

Cadenhead’s Old Raj is interesting. It was clearly created to exploit the over-rich sucker market of those who will reliably buy any over-priced product, because they have to have “the best.” There is no legitimate basis for a bottle of gin retailing at $50+. (I’ve seen it priced closer to $80.) Its color is precisely that of snake venom, and rightly so, because Old Raj really does “biteth like the serpent and stingeth like the adder.” The stuff is so high proof, that it limits you to one drink (instead of your usual two). Two generous drinks mixed with Old Raj and you’re a goner.

My own opinion is that the panel over-praised Junipero and Hendrick’s, I think neither is well-balanced, and unreasonably slighted the classic Beefeater’s.

They should have included the humble Gilbey’s (the absurdly cheap bar gin), just to demonstrate how good a bottom-of-the-market in price terms gin actually can be.

And I would have added the little-known, moderately priced (around $27) Desert Juniper gin, produced by Bend Distillery of Bend, Oregon. Generously flavored with huge doses of the native Juniper berries which grow abundantly in the desert of Eastern Oregon, this particular gin has been a recent favorite of mine.


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