Gins come in many different styles and traditions. From London Dry to quirky, regional craft gins. So it doesn’t seem meaningful to call a gin “good” simply because it adheres to a specific flavor profile, or because it is distilled in a specific tradition or style. Therefore, I evaluate each gin based off what it has accomplished:
- How complex is its profile?
- How smooth is it?
- How does it fit in a martini or other cocktail?
- Are its flavors well-balanced?
- Does juniper stand out as its predominant tone?
- How does its cost stand up against the quality of its experience?
Having established these boundaries, I choose to use the following criteria when evaluating a gin:
Character refers to two different aspects of the gin. First, how many pieces are in the orchestra? Second, when they play together, do they complement each other well? Gin is not unlike an orchestra in this way. There are specific flavors we expect to be present. Juniper should stand out. That’s not to say there is no room for innovation, but these should be strategic, well-balanced and restrained moves.
You might think of “smoothness” as how easy the gin is to drink. While that’s true, it’s easier to think about smoothness by identifying it’s inverse. One component of the inverse of gin’s smoothness would be “heat.” Heat can be a sign of an overproof gin, or one that smells strongly of alcohol when it is first opened. A low score for a gin’s smoothness should be tempered with character and balance in order for it not to obliterate a cocktail.
Another component of the inverse of gin’s smoothness has to do with the juniper itself. The selection of juniper, and the role that it plays in the gin can also contribute to how harsh the gin tastes (or, moreover how the gin feels). Again, the harshness of the juniper should be well balanced in the gin.
At some level all reviews are rooted in a mix of subjectivity. My criteria and system are no different. I hold up “smoothness” as a virtue because it demonstrates restraint, and respect for gin as a tradition. American distilleries in particular often jack up the heat (principally driven by alcohol content) to compensate for a lack of imagination. Hence why I include “smoothness” as a way to hold the artisan accountable, rather than take the easy road out.
Similar to character, “balance” refers to two different qualities of the gin. First, is the gin well-structured? In other words, given the complexity and cohesion of its construction, do the flavors work well with one another, or do a few players overshadow the others? Second, does this gin play well with others? Does it find its proper home in a martini, a gin rickey or gimlet? Or does mixing this gin destroy the experience? (One might would expect this category to be dominated by mature gins in traditional and London Dry categories.)
I contend that given the nature of gin distillation as an art form, the distiller has a unique opportunity to impart a specific ‘sense of place’ through the flavor profile of his gin. Not at the expense of the juniper, but in complement to it.
This criteria is self-explanatory. Given how much a bottle of this gin costs, how does it compare to the experience you can expect? Is this gin a good value? I include the average cost of a bottle of this gin in Chicago as a point of reference.