SpiritsHandpicked by IWSC

What is contemporary gin – and which are the best ones to try?

David T Smith takes a look at the gin distilleries embracing innovation - and picks out six of the best new-wave gins

Words by David T Smith and IWSC experts

Gin and tonic
Handpicked by IWSC

No spirit in the 21st century has had as great a transformation and resurgence in popularity as gin. Its unfettered, seemingly unstoppable rise has given birth to a host of new distilleries embracing significant innovation – not least with the concept of “contemporary gin”.

Contemporary gin is a twist on the well-established classic dry gin, giving focus to other flavours, such as floral or citrus notes, while still retaining that quintessential dry juniper character. The concept was identified in 2009 by Ryan Magarian, founder of Aviation Gin – long before the days of Ryan Reynolds.

The development of the category has inspired distillers to use an ever-more diverse range of ingredients, new techniques, and particularly novel botanicals including butter, ants, and – no word of a lie – elephant dung. New base spirits are being embraced as well, with gins made from distilled kirsch, sake and, most recently, garden peas. Meanwhile distillers are harnessing their scientific knowledge to produce gins that are smoked, salted or even flavoured with ultrasonic soundwaves.

In similar fashion, bartenders are letting their creative jucies flow, welcoming the broader flavour profiles and new flavours in a range of boundary-breaking cocktails. Some are even starting to create concoctions that call for more than one type of gin.

The diverse approach has opened doors to new drinkers who had previously thought that gin wasn’t for them. Such innovation and exploration can be a real force for good, but it’s important that, while harnessing new flavours, contemporary renderings stay true to the essence of gin and its key botanical: juniper.

As author and chief of World Gin Day Emma Stokes (aka Gin Monkey) explains: “The more successful contemporary gin producers understand that it’s the gin category they’re innovating in and that there’s no need to stretch the recipe to the point where it no longer resembles a gin, just to set themselves apart from the competition.”

Thankfully, there are plenty of great contemporary gins that walk this fine tightrope, as seen in the star performers at this year’s IWSC.

Martin Miller’s was one of the earliest contemporary gins on the market and continues to be critically acclaimed to this day. With its gentler juniper character, bright lime, and sweet violet, it has a crisp and vibrant quality that makes it exceptionally refreshing in mixed drinks.

But contemporary gin has helped to open new frontiers to gin distillation, with over 80 countries now producing their own gin. This has not only brought gin to new audiences, but has also allowed these distillers to tailor their products to their home market by embracing local flavours.

Take Craft Nordic Navy Strength Gin, from Purity Vodka in Sweden, which combines citrus and pine, as well as more woody and spiced notes. The high-quality base spirit ensures that the gin is smooth, despite its higher strength (57.1% ABV). A bold and intense gin, this is perfect for standing up to the heavy flavours of a Negroni. Its compatriot Fräkne’s Navy Strength Gin comes from the maritime town of Klocktornet, and its coastal connection is clear in the form of fresh, leafy and mineral notes from the two types of local seaweed used as botanicals. There’s also a big dose of juniper and a delightfully creamy texture; this is a great gin to pair with seafood.

Another innovative example is Etsu Gin from Asahikawa Distillery in Hokkaido, Japan, made using local citrus such as yuzu, florals such as cherry blossom, and green tea leaves. This results in an incredibly nuanced and complex gin, perfectly balanced so that each of these characteristics can be truly appreciated. It’s a lovely gin to sip neat or on the rocks and it makes a sublime Dry Martini.

Australia has become well-known for its gins, but neighbouring New Zealand is more under the radar. The newly-launched Albertine from Hastings Distillers (on the North Island) has crisp pine and cedar notes combined with fresh, luscious fruit, making it a great choice for any long drink, served with plenty of ice.

And staying in the southern hemisphere, African Dry Gin from Copper Republic in South Africa embraces the concept of Fynbos, the mountainous region of the Western and Eastern Capes where 80% (around 6,000 species) of all flora are endemic. The gin is rich and lively with jammy floral and fruity notes and a luscious leafiness. It is succulent and refreshing and makes a gin & tonic unlike any other – the taste of the Cape in a glass, and further evidence of the concept of terroir in spirits.

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