Craft spirits are sweeping the nation, and gin is leading the pack. Why? Because gin is easy to distill and doesn’t require any time in a barrel. Thus, a new distillery can design a pretty label, buy some grain-neutral spirits and start selling product the next week—and distilleries across American are doing just that.
This has resulted in some incredible innovations in gin, a spirit that was mostly confined to the staid world of Bombay and Beefeater before the little guys started pushing things along. Unfortunately, it’s also resulted in a lot of cheap swill. How can you tell the difference?
We’re here to help. We taste-tested every craft gin in the Midwest that we could get our hands on. These included traditional juniper-forward gins, gins made with unique, exotic botanicals, barrel-aged gins and over-proof gins—22 gins in all, from Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Minnesota. We tasted them straight, in gin and tonics, and in martinis. We tasted them blind and we tasted them from the bottle. We even tasted some of them in other cocktails.
Some of this gin was pretty darn bad. Comments during tasting included “tastes like turpentine,” “adding vermouth just makes this stuff worse” and “burns with little flavor.” After weeks of work, we’ve emerged from the cocktail laboratory with some answers—and some surprises.
Here’s what we tried:
Clearheart Gin (Iowa)
Death’s Door Gin (Wisconsin)
Farmer’s Organic Gin (Minnesota)
Few Spirits Bourbon Barrel Aged Gin (Evanston)
Few Spirits Chai Gin (Evanston)
Few Standard Issue Gin (Evanston)
Great Lakes Rehorst Gin (Milwaukee)
Journeyman Bilberry Black Hearts (Michigan)
Journeyman Bilberry Black Hearts Barrel Aged Gin (Michigan)
Letherbee Autumnal Gin 2012 (Chicago)
Letherbee Autumnal Gin 2013 (Chicago)
Letherbee Gin (Chicago)
Letherbee Vernal Gin (Chicago)
Mississippi River Distilling River Rose Gin (Iowa)
North Shore Distiller's Gin No. 6 - Modern Dry Gin (Lake Bluff, IL)
North Shore Distiller's Gin No. 11 - Classic Dry Gin (Lake Bluff, IL)
North Shore Distillery Mighty Gin (Lake Bluff, IL)
New Holland Knickerbocker Gin (Michigan)
Pinckney Bend Gin (Missouri)
Quincy St. Old No. 176 American Gin (Illinois)
Scofflaw Old Tom Gin (Lake Bluff, IL)
Watershed Distillery Four Peel Gin (Ohio)
One general conclusion up front: Chicago rocks. Even blind-tasted, two of our top three gins are from the Chicago area. For whatever reason, we make some darn good gin in the Windy City. Another general conclusion: The age and size of the distillery matters very little. One of our top gins comes from a new place that only has a single still in a garage and another comes from a distillery that cranks out thousands of bottles. So which were the best and worst?
The Best: We couldn’t pick a single “best” gin, but we did narrow it down to three. The first of our winning trio is North Shore Distillery #11 from Lake Bluff, Illinois. Sold in a distinctive rectangular green bottle, this has been one of our favorite gins for years, and blind tasting bore out our hometown bias. The flavor profile is traditional and juniper-forward, with notes of honey and pink peppercorn, and it tastes great in a martini.
The second is upstart Letherbee, housed in Chicago. They’ve only been around for a little over a year, but they’ve already shaken up the spirits world by releasing a variety of seasonal gins, a barrel-aged absinthe and a competitor for Jeppson’s Malort. Their signature gin has dominant notes of fennel, and works wonderfully in gin and tonics and cocktails alike.
The final favorite is from Michigan. New Holland is best known for its beers, but their distillery turns out some excellent products. Their Knickerbocker gin, while not a favorite of our panel when tasted straight, was at the very top of the list when mixed – so much so that we decided it was worth including at the very top. The dominant flavor of this gin is coriander, along with juniper and black pepper. It drinks very hot by itself, but in a cocktail its herbal character shines right through (in fact, one member of our tasting panel had it in an arugula gimlet at Milwaukee’s Odd Duck last month), making it a perfect gin for a bitter drink like a negroni.
The Worst: And now the bad news—we encountered a few bottles that we don't recommend buying at all. Watershed Distillery Four Peel Gin is the aforementioned gin that "tastes like turpentine," and the unpleasant taste came through in the gin and tonic and martinis. However, you can hide it in a negroni, which is our plan for the almost full bottle we have left. You'll get pure ethanol, pure acrid ethanol, on the nose of Farmer's Organic Gin, and it's too sweet and flowery to use in any cocktail or sip straight. And then there's FEW. While it's not the firewater that Watershed and Farmer's are, each FEW gin we tried had an overwhelming corn smell and taste—it makes sense, given that it's made with a white whiskey base. We had the standard gin, chai gin and barrel-aged gin and didn't like any of them. The chai gin had spices right up front and then they quickly dissolved. For a warmly spiced gin, you're much better off with the Letherbee Autumnal Gin. And the Journeyman Bilberry Black Hearts Barrel-Aged Gin easily topped FEW's barrel-aged gin in a side-by-side test, since it's richer and rounder. We dig FEW's rye, so that's the only spirit we'll be getting from the Evanston distillery.
Where to buy the gin: The Scofflaw gin is available only at Scofflaw (3201 W Armitage Ave). Pinckney Bend Gin just secured distribution in Chicago and will be available here starting in January; until then, it’s available at the distillery in New Haven, MO. All of the other gins are available at Binny’s locations.