The morning sun had barely cleared the cottonwood trees along the Boise River when the nine of us began to sip gin. The group called itself a "ginsmithing panel"--which certainly sounds more respectable than a breakfast cocktail party--and Scott Probert, the head distiller at Bardenay in Eagle, assured me we were gathered in the distillery for a legitimate reason.
"What we're doing is comparing our standard batch of gin with the proposed batch of gin," he said as he poured two separate gins into glasses set on a table in front of us. "We're going to smell and taste and see how they match up."
Probert poured the standard batch, a sample of the Bardenay-distilled gin the panel had previously tasted and approved, into an opaque glass to the right of each of us. He then poured a newly distilled or "proposed" batch into a matching glass to the left. Gin is made of a complex mix of flavors. It was our job to compare the two batches and offer recommendations on how to make the new batch match the old, thus ensuring the spirit's consistency over time. Since Probert distills gin every two weeks, the ginsmithing panel meets just as often--and several of these morning volunteers had been sipping for the cause for close to a decade.
Bardenay's ginsmithing protocol required that we arrive at 8:30 a.m. under the belief that our senses would be sharper in the morning; we were also required to skip coffee and breakfast to further protect our palates from distractions. Like a wine tasting, Probert instructed us to first swirl our glasses, then bury our noses and inhale. For this first-time ginsmither, that first breath felt like a juniper-infused slap in the face.
Kevin Settles, CEO and owner of Idaho's three Bardenay distilleries and restaurants, was sitting across the table and must have noticed my face-slapped look.
"We get a lot of people who say they want to join," he said with a grin. "But then when you talk about no coffee beforehand and going into work after you've been sipping gin in the morning, it kind of weeds out a lot of people."
According to Settles, Bardenay in Boise was the nation's first restaurant-distillery to produce hard alcohol post Prohibition, serving its inaugural cocktail on April 25, 2000. Settles now distills rum at the Boise branch, vodka and lemon vodka at the Coeur d'Alene branch, and gin in Eagle. Gin makes up about 25 percent of Bardenay's total annual output of 2,800 cases of spirits, all of which it sells in Idaho. The rum and vodka are relatively easy to make, Settles says--only the gin requires a tasting panel.
"The flavors in the gin are so complex that no one person could make sure that we stayed consistent," he said after he'd taken a studied taste of the first of the morning's gin. "And if it was a simple flavor, we wouldn't bother with the panel."
Gin is not simple. Nor is its history. It's a descendant of a Dutch medicinal drink first made in the 1500s called genever, the Dutch word for juniper, the dominant flavor in gin. Genever, though, is made from malt wine, a dark liquor that tastes more like whiskey than the vodka that gin is built from.
The gin we'd recognize today was adapted from that Dutch recipe by the English in the 17th century, but it was less a medicinal drink than a heavily adulterated attempt to make rotgut palatable. Early English gins contained juniper but were also occasionally cut with turpentine and other dubious ingredients meant to mask the bite of bad alcohol.
In the 18th century, when authorities tried to put a lid on the rampant abuse of this cheap, often-toxic beverage, riots broke out in London. "Mother's ruin," as gin was then called, had become the meth of the day. By the 1920s, though, its quality and reputation improved. Fresh herbs and spices replaced the turpentine. Today, high-quality, subtly flavored gins are a favorite of America's growing craft distillery movement.
"I usually start with the juniper, and I've got a little grinder here," Probert said.
A few days before our tasting panel, Probert showed me how he makes a batch of craft gin. On a table he spread out 12 colorful, aromatic ingredients, from spices to roots to fruit. First he ground handfuls of juniper berries to a course powder.
"We just want to open up the berries so that we release all the oils," he said. In an instant the room filled with the pine-forest-meets-sea-breeze scent of good gin. Then Probert sprinkled on some coriander, nutmeg, cardamom, star anise and orris root, a root in the iris family with an aroma reminiscent of violets and chocolate. He then peeled off thin ribbons of zest from the skin of a grapefruit, a lemon and an orange. The room smelled like a botanically diverse tropical island. Finally he added a single mint leaf, wrapped the whole mound in cheesecloth and submerged it in a small still filled with Bardenay's house-made sugarcane vodka. He then fired up the still to transform the flavorless vodka into multidimensional gin.
Back at the morning tasting, the panel sipped the results.
"I'm happy with the intensity on the nose," Probert said after the panel had gone back and forth between the old and new distillates, sniffing, sipping and spitting (you really don't want to drink gin, even craft gin, before breakfast). "But the palate seems a little flat," he added.
"I almost wonder if it's the same ingredient we messed with last time," Kevin Settles suggested after another long sniff.
"Lemon?" asked Karen McMullen, who has been on the panel for seven years.
Ashley Wood, another Bardenay distiller, nodded with conviction. "Lemon."
Probert then went from glass to glass with an eye dropper filled with lemon essence, adding a drop to each glass of the new gin batch--he separately distills each of the 12 flavor components so he can add them later.
"There are certain ingredients that we rarely use," McMullen said. "And it's so potent that when we add it, they'll put literally a couple of drops in a tank of 40 gallons and that makes enough of a difference."
After another round of sniffing, sipping and minor, drop-by-drop adjustments the group seemed satisfied that the old and new gins were now indistinguishable.
"I think it's quite good," panelist Bob Tate said as everyone shook their heads in agreement.
"A few times over the years, we've actually walked away and said we can't get there today," Settles admitted. After a half hour of tasting your palate goes south, and on those rare occasions, the group has had to give up and come back another day. But not this day.
As everyone got up to adulterate their palates with a well-deserved cup of coffee, Settles told me the best way he knows to judge how well the group had done their job: "Take a bottle and have a cocktail at home on a Friday night. That's when you really know if we got it right."