There is precious little middle ground with gin. For some, it's fightin' booze with the power to turn an otherwise upright person into a Dickensian slum dweller. For others, it's the apex of civility—shaken and served up with a pair of skewered olives. No matter, it's serious stuff.
Properly mixed and sipped responsibly, gin can be the pinnacle of summertime refreshment. We tasted three gins—all from parts of the world whence one wouldn't expect gin to hail—mixed with a healthy spritz of Fever Tree tonic water ($2.45 for a 16.9 ounce bottle) and garnished with fresh chunks of lime. Originally intended as a way for English sailors to fight malaria (hence the quinine in tonic water) and scurvy (enter: lime juice) while still keeping the seamen in high spirits (thanks, gin), the gin and tonic is simple but also unique in its ability to tease out the delicate botanicals and complex juniper flavors native to this fickle tipple. Here's what we tasted:
The Botanist Islay Dry Gin, $37.95—The word "Islay" (pronounced "EYE-la") is not one commonly associated with gin. An island in the Hebrides chain off the west coast of Scotland, Islay is a vaunted producer of Scotch whisky noted for its smoky, peaty single malt style. We wondered if everything carrying the name Islay smelled like the hearth of an 800-year-old pub. Turns out not. Billed as an artisanal gin of "layered complexity," The Botanist delivers on its promise of a "seductive experience." Pot-distilled, so its aromatics and botanicals are slowly teased out in a 17-hour distillation process, this gin trades the pungency of lower-quality offerings for a velvety mouth feel that dissolves into an play of crisp citrus and refreshing floral tones. There's danger in seduction, of course, and weighing in at 90 proof, The Botanist could wreak havoc if mishandled.
Martin Miller's Gin, $27.60—Though gin originated in the Netherlands, it was the English who made it an imperial spirit. A relatively young brand, launched in England in 1999, the eponymous distiller Martin Miller set out with the intent to craft an iconoclastic gin. Distilled in the London dry style, which imposes strict rules limiting additives and colorants other than water, this gin goes through two distillations—the first with a palette of five botanicals plus juniper and a small boost of lime peel, and the second with bitter orange peel, lemon and more lime peel. Miller eschews "exotic additions" that "smack more of hype than innovation." Simplicity isn't the only thing that sets Martin Miller's apart. The gin is finished with Icelandic spring water. Floral and up front on the nose, this 80 proof gin carries a faint licorice note on the palate and touch of lingering sweetness. Mixed with tonic, it's a satisfying interplay of sweet and bitter that would be tough to beat even at a higher price point.
Old Boise Gin, $24.95—As Islay and Iceland aren't noted for gin production, neither is Caldwell. Still, this is a worthy effort from Old Boise Spirits. Boasting a similar roster of botanicals to the other gins in our tasting, Old Boise throws in an entry that marks it as truly a product of the Gem State. Yes, there is potato in this gin. Clocking in at 84 proof, Old Boise comes off much stiffer on the nose and features a strong juniper aftertaste that lingers. Classic gin notes shine through even when mixed with a healthy three-parts of tonic. There is no danger of forgetting you're drinking gin, which we think is probably a plus. Old Boise plays just fine as a G and T. However, if you want to tamp down the gin aftertaste, we suggest swapping the tonic for Fever Tree ginger ale, as the spicy-sweet ginger smooths some of Old Boise's edges.
While members of our tasting panel agreed they would purchase Old Boise over most mass-marketed gins, the winner—by the merest of margins—was Martin Miller's for its complexity sans confusion. Bonus: The price is most definitely right. The Botanist was a close second, but its smooth character would probably be best served as a martini to let its sophistication shine.