Ever since the tweaks in the liquor laws made distilling in Washington state legal, we’ve seen a pretty wide assortment of spirit and liqueur selections become available. But the highest concentration has been of gin and vodka. The latter is understandable—vodka is the most basic of spirits and can be made easily from pretty much everything. Gin, though, is a bit more peculiar. By definition, it’s just a juniper-flavored spirit, but making one that’s both tasty and individual can be difficult, involving careful and precise additions of other flavoring agents. And you have to decide if you want a classic London-style gin (also called “dry” gin), a newer style of gin that gives other botanicals more influence with the juniper, one of the gin offshoots (like Old Tom), or something in between.
So why has our state managed to put out so many good gins in such a short time? Is it because many distillers grew up around pine trees, which smell like gin? Is it an underappreciated influx of U.K. immigrants? Marc Bernhard, the owner and distiller at Woodinville’s Pacific Distillery, whose much-laureled Voyager gin was one of the first Washington gins available, echoes a refrain repeated by most of our state’s gin makers: It’s love. His passion for gin traces back to when he was little and his dad would give him tiny sips of well-made gin and tonic. That taste, and those sips, never left his memory, making gin the natural choice when he started the distillery in 2007.
But how does this love turn into award-winning spirits? It isn’t easy. As Andrew Friedman, owner and bartender at Liberty in Capitol Hill (a bar that carries approximately 80 gins), says, “Anyone can get some juniper and make ‘gin.’ It takes quite a feat to make really good gin.” When Bernhard was crafting the formula that became Voyager, he experimented with batch after batch, and then tapped local genius cocktail-writer Robert Hess (drinkboy.com) to assemble a tasting panel to blind-taste seven experimental batches. He also included a market-leading gin. All his gins scored above the big-name gin, but two specific formulations had the highest marks. He blended those two to create Voyager.
This dedication is found in many local gin artisans. The new Alpinsit gin from Paco Joyce, Ishan Dillon and David Waterworth, the owners of the new Vashon Island–based Seattle Distilling Company is the result of much time spent, as Joyce says, “tinkering with this recipe, adding a little of this, a little of that, looking for that perfect balance.” They’ve also focused on using local ingredients, including “Vashon-grown elderberry, lavender, coriander and hazelnuts” with an eye to “create something of this place, something unique to the Northwest.”
Our gin landscape is particularly intriguing for cocktail connoisseurs and those who sip gin neat because there is such a range of strong and boldly individual flavor profiles. For a bar owner such as Liberty’s Friedman this provides a perfect palette for creating wonderful cocktails. He’s “looking for something with some backbone, something that’ll stand up to mixers.” The end result is better drinks in bars and better drinks at home.
A.J'S GIN PICKS
Voyager Gin, Pacific Distillery ($25)
Starting with a forthright mingling of aromas—citrus, cardamom and pine—and then delivering a confident juniper flavor that echoes our local evergreens and a peppery and memorable finish with every sip, Voyager is a fantastic match for those who like a classic London dry gin. It works well in cocktails, including making a dandy martini. No tasting room, but you can get Voyager nearly everywhere. 425.350.9061; pacificdistillery.com
Big Gin, Captive Spirits ($30)
Matching its name perfectly, this gin boasts a big juniper taste. That’s not to say there aren’t other flavors, from citrus on the nose to slight floral accents and a smidge of sweetness. But it isn’t shy about the juniper—which is a blessing to those who like a classically minded gin. This makes a lovely Negroni. Ballard-based Captive Spirits also has a barrel-aged version of the gin. It does not, however, have a tasting room but Big Gin is available at Whole Foods, Wine World and most liquor stores. 206.852.4794; captivespiritsdistilling.com
Alpinist Gin, Seattle Distilling Company ($38–$40)
Released in June, the most recently debuted gin on the list lets its range of regional ingredients—Oregon juniper, Washington lavender, elderberry, coriander and hazelnuts—shine, with a solid juniper base that doesn’t overwhelm the other spice, nut and fruit essences. This balance makes it a very pleasant drinking companion—on its own and in cocktails. It’s perfection in a gimlet, for example. Tasting room: Vashon Island, 19429 Vashon Hwy. SW; 206.463.0830; seattledistillingcompany.com
Gun Club Gin, Sun Liquor Distillery ($32)
While I’m a fan of its gentler Hedge Trimmer gin, Sun Liquor’s Gun Club rates a little higher in my mind (but why not try both?), because of its intriguing essences of herbs and spices. When sipping, you’ll discover thyme, pepper, caraway and even a faint trace of garden vegetables. It doesn’t hide the juniper, though; it just augments it. This makes a mean Pink Gin when you add angostura bitters and a twist over ice. Bar and distillery: Capitol Hill, 514 E Pike St.; 206.720.1600; sunliquor.com
Halcyon Gin, Bluewater Organic Distilling ($34.50)
A newer entry into the local gin-iverse (opened in 2012), Halcyon is an all-organic spirit delivered in American-made bottles (a rarity). It’s in the London style, and has notes of orange, lemon and other spices surrounding its solid juniper flavor. It matches well with mint and orange in summery cocktails, and recently won “Best Washington Gin” at the Seattle Gin Society’s annual Ginvitational. Tasting room: Everett, 1205 Craftsman Way, Suite 116; 206.369.0739; bluewaterdistilling.com
Old Tom Gin, Sound Spirits Distillery ($39)
Here’s a wild card: Old Tom, originally made in the late 18th century. Sound Spirits’ version rests in oak barrels for a month and has a spice forwardness that’s less juniper centered. It’s also a stitch sweeter (as it should be) and darker in color. Of course, you should use it to make a Tom Collins, designed for this style of gin.
Tasting room: Interbay, 1630 15th Ave. W; 206.651.5166; drinksoundspirits.com
Not sure of how to make use of tasty Washington gin? Click here for three cocktail recipes that’ll help you reach a gin nirvana.