Not that long ago, ordering a gin drink was a simple thing. There were three standard choices: the Gimlet – a lime and gin concoction, the Dry Martini – essentially straight gin with an olive added, and the self-explanatory Gin and Tonic.(1) If you ordered at a proper establishment the gin would be one of Beefeater, Gordon’s or Gilbey’s, or perhaps Tanqueray if it was a more upscale place.
The potion you would be presented would contain:
- Gimlet: gin and Rose’s Lime Syrup, stirred with ice and served “up” (i.e. strained into a cocktail glass)
- Dry Martini: gin, possibly with a minute quantity of dry vermouth, served up
- Gin and Tonic: gin, bar tonic (hopefully Schweppes or Canada Dry) and a lime slice, served on the rocks in a lowball glass
So that was the way it was for a long time, but as you may have noticed, dull but simple, enduring standard, market leader and time-tested are phrases no longer in vogue. Constant innovation is the new shibboleth, and though this has not generally been a good thing in some spheres (politics comes to mind), it means boon times for those of us who enjoy a wee dram or two.
A potted history of the new drinks wave
The current golden age for drinkers started in the eighties when it suddenly emerged that wine could be made in places not named France. Soon afterward the first inklings were seen of the oncoming tsunami of craft beer. Single-malt scotches, so unpopular that even in the ‘80s fine distilleries like Port Ellen and Brora were going bust, unexpectedly became a thing and gained a mass following. Mad Men almost single-handedly revived the market for fine Bourbon.
Cocktails (outside of New York City) had sunk to the point that they were found in a “Martini Menu” that included no martinis but many sappy-sweet kiddie drinks (anyone remember the Monkey’s Lunch?). But thankfully, sanity has returned, and as signaled by Sex and the City and the famous Cosmopolitan (a sappy-sweet grown-up drink) we are now in the midst of a full-fledged cocktail boom, with a young generation of mixologists inventing new drinks and new takes on old standards, all made with exotic ingredients and artfully presented. Even Tiki Bars are making a comeback. It is indeed good to be alive. 😊
All things craft and beautiful
The numbers show that in general, in our part of the world at least, people are drinking less, but they are increasingly consuming higher quality products. So intrepid upstarts have responded with a wide and growing range of artisanal or craft products ranging from whisk(e)y to vodka to beer.
(Rant Warning) Craft beer has stolen so much market share that the top mass market brands are trying to buy out the creators wherever possible, and have even started producing faux craft beers that are marketed as if they came from bearded hipsters in a loft. Shock Top and Goose Island are popular examples of the big brewery fakes, while such fine brands as Stanley Park and Mill Street (Labatt’s), Creemore Springs and Granville Island (Molson’s), and Blanche de Chambly (Sapporo) have fallen into the hands of the same people who for a long time abused their oligopolistic control of the market by limiting Canadian drinkers to a near-identical range of bad, chemical-laden brews.
So their ongoing attempt to subvert and control the craft beer market does not bode well. But I digress… (2)
So back to the world of craft potables, and to get to the point, let’s talk about craft gin. For anyone wanting to enter the now-crowded craft spirits market, gin and vodka are the best vehicles. Making brown spirits requires a large investment in oak casks, where the whisky or rum lays dormant for years, all the while needing to be housed and protected. Whereas anyone with a still and a handful of juniper berries is in the gin business.
As a result, even in benighted Ontario, where government nannies decide what the citizens will be allowed to drink, there are now 14 pages of gin choices on the LCBO website. Many come from new producers, and the big brand distilleries have also expanded their ranges considerably.
With choice comes confusion. “But what is the best gin for me?” I hear you cry. Fear not friends. Last year a crack team of researchers assembled to answer for once and all the correct recipe for a Manhattan. The team is now hard at work solving your equally vital gin questions. Herewith is the preliminary report.
The 2019 Gin Challenge Research Project – Phase 1
To mistrust science and deny the validity of scientific method is to resign your job as a human. You’d better go look for work as a plant or wild animal. – P.J. O’Rourke
– Background/Literature Review/Experimental Design
Job #1 was to frame the problem. We aspired to taste all known gins in every possible drink formulation in a scientifically valid manner. However there were limiting factors to be considered: permanent damage to our livers was to be avoided, and more importantly the host was not to be left with a huge collection of part-bottles of gin that had been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
So we made the early decision to set some limits. With a vast array of gins already available and more appearing every day it would have been rather expensive to try and test everything available. Gin fatigue also loomed as a potential problem – it’s not a drink that lends itself to being tasted straight. So we decided that 16 would be the correct number, for no good reason other than the fact that when we were setting this up the Women’s World Cup was entering the round of sixteen.
Narrowing the field
It would also have been beyond the scope of budget and interest to try out every gin-based concoction, so we decided to concentrate on only two of the Big Three Gin Drinks – the Gimlet and the Gin and Tonic. The Dry Martini was down-selected because, well, it’s a nasty-tasting drink. As noted, straight gin is not that appetizing and adding white vermouth, an equally nasty beverage, does not help. The drink became popular in the US during Prohibition, probably for the reason mentioned earlier: gin is easy to make. It maintained its popularity through the postwar era, an age of heavy boozing.
I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host. — Dorothy Parker
Ultimately a less battle-hardened population came to their senses and said, collectively, “hey, this stuff is nasty. But I still want to get hammered in the fastest way possible”. And thus was born the Vodka Martini, made famous by James Bond and favoured during the era of the three-martini lunch on the supposition that one’s boss and co-workers would not detect the tell-tale signs of alcohol on the breath. (Slurred speech, bumping into things and needing a rest might still have given away the game).
So anyway, the martini was out. As were several other worthy drinks, including the classic Gin Collins, the ultra-boozy Fogcutter, and some sugary nuisances (Sloe Gin Fizz, the Singapore Sling). The estimable Negroni was also disinvited, as it might be worth its own research effort. But we would focus on perfecting G&Ts and the Gimlet.
Meeting this challenge would require researchers of the highest calibre, willing to pursue results with vigour and determination. Fortunately I was able to call once again on the proven skills of the Canadian Beverage Research Institute faculty. In fact we had sufficient volunteers to make up two teams, meaning that we could conduct experiments on consecutive weekends.
We aimed to provide scientifically-valid results upon which you, gentle reader, could rely. Oh, and perhaps have a good time in the doing. So to the extent possible the testing was blind. We did not discuss the product range in advance, and the researchers made their notes based on samples identified only by numbers. Only when we compared notes were the identities revealed, and the team members from the first experiment were sworn to secrecy to avoid skewing the perceptions of the next crew.
Scheme of Manoeuvre
Each experiment was intended to follow this programme:
- taste a “reference” Gimlet (Rose’s syrup and Tanqueray gin)
- record pre-festivities team photograph
- taste: five gins, seven tonics, two lime syrups
- taste five more gins
- sample one or more libations made with the preferred products
- repeat as necessary
And it did sort of work out that way. Indeed Team 1 bravely volunteered to continue the testing until all 12 available gins had been assayed.
Yes, that’s all well and good, but when are you going to get to the results?
Oh alright then. But first I must report that a few twists arose from the decision to split the experiment over two weekends. On the plus side, we were able to compare the results of two different groups. Perhaps surprisingly, their likes and dislikes were very similar, so it was looking as though we could plausibly claim some sort of statistical significance. However since some of the gin was provided by team members (¡muchas gracias mis amigos!), we taste-tested a slightly different range of products at each experiment.
Further, as the poet Robert Burns noted, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft agley”. Or as the poet Mike Tyson put it, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. And so it was to be. A nasty GI bug caused two of the Team 2 members to withdraw, and with them went the bottle of Bombay Sapphire. So our results can only be considered provisional.
As you have astutely guessed, the way to rescue the validity of the results and claim absolute authority for all time is simple: at some point soon we will conduct a plenary session where the top gins will face off head-to-head for world supremacy.
The results, please
First, the easy stuff.
You have two choices. Get a bottle of cheap and cheerful Rose’s Lime Cordial and you will be able to make respectable gimlets. Or make your own stuff, which is easy to do and orders of magnitude better. I will publish a recipe on this site, or you can find a good one online.
The contestants were:
- Canada Dry
- Selection (Metro’s house brand)
- Fever Tree Indian
- Fever Tree Elderflower
- Fentimans Traditional
- Third Place Cocktail Company (a syrup, to be mixed with soda water)
To make sense of the results you should know that we learned early on that gin can be divided into two main groups. The traditional gins are robustly flavoured and fairly heavy in the juniper department. Many of the newer gins are less junipery, letting the botanicals take centre stage.
Best tonic for traditional gin
The top choices were, not surprisingly, traditional tonics:
- Canada Dry (preferred by some to Schweppes, and ranked only slightly behind)
- Fever Tree Indian
- Selection (deemed acceptable, but lacking zing compared to the top two
Best tonic for craft and juniper-light gins
- Fever Tree Indian
- Canada Dry
Unusual but interesting in the right context
- Fever Tree Elderflower. This is a well-made product with a very floral and delicate flavour. Most researchers would happily drink it under the right circumstances, but it is really not recognizable as tonic water. So one to have in your larder, but expect odd looks if you serve this in a gin and tonic.
Not recommended/what the hell were they thinking?
- Fentiman’s Traditional Tonic. This was by far the most expensive tonic tested, and 10 of 11 tasters pronounced it nasty and undrinkable. So Nicholas is the proud owner of the remaining seven bottles, which were otherwise destined to disappear down the kitchen sink. Avoid.
- Third Place Cocktail Company syrup. Thoroughly nasty, metallic-tasting stuff. Like sucking on an old penny. And deep brown to boot. Avoid.
A final note about the tonics: ensure that you use fresh stuff. The big 2l jugs are cheap, but over the course of a week we noticed a slight degradation in a bottle that had been opened for experiment 1.
Gin – the best of the best
We didn’t have exactly the same set of gins at each experiment, so I will give you the rank order from each group, followed by the rank order of the six gins that were tasted by both groups.
Team 1 results
- #1 (tied) – The Botanist (Islay/Scotland), Plymouth (England)
- #3 – Seventh Heaven (Quebec)
- #4 (tied) – Spirit of York (Toronto), Tanqueray 10 (Scotland)
- #6 – Ungava (Quebec)
- #7 – Seaweed Gin (Newfoundland)
- #8 – Tanqueray (Scotland)
- #9 – Iceberg (Newfoundland)
- #10 – Sixty-Six Loyalist Gin (Ontario)
- #11 – Dillon’s Unfiltered Gin #22 (Ontario)
- #12 – Hendrick’s (England)
Team 2 results
- #1 – Radoune (Quebec)
- #2 (tied) – Plymouth (England), Tanqueray 10 (Scotland)
- #4 – The Botanist (Islay/Scotland)
- #5 – Seventh Heaven (Quebec)
- #6 (tied) – Dillon’s Unfiltered Gin #22 (Ontario), Oshlag Gin Hibiscus (Quebec), Ungava (Quebec)
- #9 – Romeo’s (Quebec)
- #10 – Hendrick’s (England)
Results – Gins tasted by both teams
- #1 – Plymouth (England)
- #2 (tied) – The Botanist (Islay/Scotland), Tanqueray 10 (Scotland)
- #4 – Seventh Heaven (Quebec)
- #5 – Ungava (Quebec)
- #6 – Dillons Unfiltered Gin #22 (Ontario)
A couple of themes emerged during this process:
- In general the panels were quite accepting of non-traditional gins that featured interesting botanicals. But there seems to be a point beyond which they were not willing to go. For example, the Dillon’s “gin” is a well-made and interesting product, but it really isn’t gin at all, and was marked down accordingly. Testers noted that it could just as easily be labeled craft vodka or non-aged whiskey. So producers beware – spurn the juniper and you will be punished.
- Looking over the notes I was interested to see that in a blind testing most people rated the gin they normally buy at or near the top. This is a good sign, I think.
So what gin should you buy?
As noted above, these are preliminary results. We need to bring all of the top-rated gins together before we can decide who is king of the mountain. But you would absolutely not go wrong with any of the top-rated gins from either of the teams.
In my personal bar, I intend to stock Plymouth or Tanqueray 10, the Botanist, and Seventh Heaven or Radoune. I will also pick up some Seaweed Gin or Ungava from time to time.
Of course, that’s after I deal with the large number of leftovers. 😊 That may take a while.
Statement on Ethical Research
No animals were to be harmed in the conduct of these experiments. Researchers were not to be compelled to participate and were to be provided ample food and water throughout. Only mild bullying was to be tolerated.
I ran this plan by the Ethics Committee over a long and convivial lunch, and as the port was passed and the cognac emerged they came to the view that the likelihood of permanent harm being done to the participants was manageable. Or at least that’s the way that I remember it.
I sent a request to the House of Lords asking for some peers of the realm to review these results. They didn’t even bother to respond. And to think these people once ran a world-wide empire. Sheesh!
And finally, thanks to all the researchers who made this an entertaining project. And especially those who contributed hard-to-find gins and home cooking. Standby for the plenary session!
 There is learned debate about whether these are mixed drinks, not cocktails. Some authorities believe that to qualify as a cocktail a drink must contain three or more ingredients.
 And note that Molson’s and Labatt’s themselves were long ago bought out by giant mutinationals, Coors and AB InBev respectively.