FOR DECADES, gin ruled America’s liquor cabinets and cocktail menus. In the 1920s, it was the bee’s knees, a simple mix of gin, honey, and lemon juice. By the end of World War II, we favored the sloe gin fizz, which built upon its predecessor by adding fruit-flavored gin and a dash of club soda. The classic martini, popularized by Dean Martin and others of the Rat Pack era, dominated the 1950s and ’60s.
“Gin has long since been the workhorse behind the bar,” says Naomi Levy, award-winning Boston bartender and founder of Beyond the Mixing Glass, an organization that teaches corporate team building through the lens of bartending and hospitality. “It lends itself beautifully to so many flavor profiles.”
That versatility also allows regional distillers to really push the envelope with innovative approaches to this time-honored spirit. Gin begins as a fermented liquid boiled to extract the alcohol. What results is a clear, nearly undrinkable spirit with high alcohol content. But add flowers, herbs, and spices (which must include juniper) and you’ve got something special.
“We’re starting to see a new American style of gin that’s really cool,” Levy says. “It has to have the juniper, yes, but beyond that it’s a blank canvas where the distiller can experiment with botanicals in some really innovative ways.”
New England is home to more than 60 craft distilleries and, at last count, 18 of them were making gin. It’s a perfect fit, says Levy, for a region that prides itself on a robust farm-to-table scene and a culture of artisan growers. We’ve picked four of our favorites to profile here. Each is utterly distinct, the recipient of multiple awards, and well worth a drive to the tasting rooms.
437 US Route 1 Freeport, Maine, 207-865-4828, coldrivervodka.com
YOU CAN THANK the low-carb craze for Maine Distilleries’ Cold River gin. In 2003, when the Atkins diet and its ilk were sweeping the nation and our dinner tables, potato farmer Donnie Thibodeau found himself in a quandary: Sales of spuds had plummeted, saddling him with a huge surplus. Thibodeau and his brother Lee, a neurosurgeon in Portland, approached longtime brewer Chris Dowe with an audacious proposal: Why not turn the languishing crop into spirits?
Dowe, who now serves as both managing partner and master distiller for the company, was immediately intrigued. It’s a quintessential story of Yankee thrift and ingenuity.
Maine Distilleries began its business by combining the potatoes with spring water from the nearby Cold River aquifer to create a lovely and highly drinkable vodka in a process they call “ground to glass.” A few years later, Dowe began experimenting with ways to finesse that vodka into a gin he describes as “London dry with an American twist.”
If not the first distillery to make a potato-based gin, Cold River was most certainly one of the earliest. Today, the business uses about 1.7 million pounds of potatoes each year to create nearly 8,000 gallons of spirits — all mashed in an industrial meat grinder, then distilled in a gorgeous copper still imported from Germany. Residual sugars from the potatoes add a hint of sweetness and give a particularly smooth feel. The gin includes the requisite juniper, along with orris root, coriander, angelica, cardamom, and lemon and orange peel.
You can visit the distillery, located in Maine’s bustling shopping mecca of Freeport. Learn how spirits are made, and after the tour, sidle up to the distillery’s distinctive 2-foot-deep bar, cut from a single piece of virgin white pine, where you can sip cocktails in view of the still. The menu includes everything from a classic lime rickey to the distillery’s signature fiore fredo, a refreshing mix of gin, club soda, and grapefruit-infused balsamic vinegar. They’re all great drinks, says Dowe, but he prefers to sip his Cold River in a purer form: “Always straight and on the rocks.”
SONS OF LIBERTY
1425 Kingstown Road, South Kingstown, Rhode Island, 401-284-4006, solspirits.com
“I FREAKING LOVE GIN,” says Sons of Liberty founder Mike Reppucci.
Reppucci, a Rhode Island native, left the Ocean State to attend business school in London. There, he also received a more informal education in whiskeys and gins and the range of characteristics they afforded. He returned to the States to find the craft beer movement in full swing and saw an opportunity to make spirits the same way. Reppucci apprenticed with a former master distiller at Maker’s Mark Bourbon in Loretto, Kentucky, and learned the science behind distilling.
All his spirits begin with the premise that great ingredients equal great results. Anything less, says Reppucci, is going to result in an inferior product. “If you start with crap, you’re just going to have concentrated crap.”
Sons of Liberty’s spirits begin as a Belgian beer made with wheat, oats, and barley. The oats, says Reppucci, are what give his gin such great texture. After distillation, Reppucci and his crew add juniper along with coriander, orange peel, lemon grass, and two different types of hops — all vapor-infused so that the gin collects the flavor and aroma without a lot of bitter tannins.
The residual liquid from the brewing process can then be bottled as a sour beer in the spirit of a traditional lambic. By the time the distillers are done, that one mash may have become three different products. Consider it the brewer’s version of the nose-to-tail movement.
“We literally use every part,” says Reppucci. “That’s the Italian kid in me. When my mom would put a chicken in the oven to roast, she’d also put a pot on the stove for stock. You knew you’d be having soup later in the week. No part of the bird was going to go to waste.”
No moment of a visit to Sons of Liberty is wasted, either. There’s the tour of Reppucci’s immaculate distillation area and barrel-aging rooms, yes. And a tasting room that doubles as a rumpus room, complete with pool tables, cornhole, and foosball. But the real reason to visit is to get an education in how brewing and distilling work. Sons of Liberty offers tasting flights that allow you to sample both the originating beer and the resulting spirit. In some cases, that flight also includes second- and third-round beers and spirits as well. Sip the Belgian wheat and then the gin, and you can’t help but get a better sense of how they both came to be.
“You really see the light-bulb moment for people,” says Reppucci. “They begin to understand the distillation process in a whole new way.”
BERKSHIRE MOUNTAIN DISTILLERS
356 South Main Street, Sheffield, Massachusetts, 413-229-0219, berkshiremountaindistillers.com
For his eighth-grade science project, BMD owner Chris Weld wanted to construct a fully functioning still— until his mom put the kibosh on it. Years later, after a career working as a physician’s assistant on the West Coast, Weld would get another chance. In 2004, he and his wife purchased an apple orchard in Sheffield. It had its own water source, and eventually they got the idea to turn all of those apples into high-quality brandy. “The farm has this wonderful spring that produces granite-based waters,” says Weld. “It’s some of the best tasting in the world and has great mouth feel. We knew we had to do something with it.” He began experimenting with distilled spirits other than brandy and, after 50 variations or so, arrived at a gin he was proud of. Today, Berkshire Mountain Distillers produces two: Greylock, named the No. 1 craft gin by The New York Times, and Ethereal, a recipe that evolves from batch to batch and allows Weld to continue experimenting with botanicals — as many as 26 in a single bottle. The adventurousness and variety, he says, fit his personality . . . and the identity of the distillery.
Weld’s farm is the distillery’s heart. There, he’s planted a hundred juniper trees, along with angelica and orris, two other key ingredients in most gins. Three large commercial greenhouses contain licorice and what Weld calls “other funky botanicals.”
Expect to get your hands dirty while there: The tours are a wholly sensory experience, with an opportunity to handle some of the plants grown there.
46 Log Yard Drive, Hardwick, Vermont, 802-472-8000, caledoniaspirits.com
If there is a patron saint in the long history of alcohol, it is most certainly the honeybee. Consider this, writes Amy Stewart in The Drunken Botanist: “Every kind of fermentable fruit — from grapes to apples to the strange and lovely tamarind — is pollinated by bees, which means that without them, we risk a sudden and shocking sobriety, not to mention scurvy and starvation.”
The folks at Caledonia Spirits are doing their part to make sure none of that happens. Founder Todd Hardie began keeping bees at the age of 12 and has dedicated his life to apiaries and the landscapes they require to flourish. In 2010, he teamed up with Hardwick home-brew store owner Ryan Christiansen to craft a series of spirits that pay homage to the all-important honeybee.
A single batch (about 900 bottles) of its Barr Hill Vodka is distilled from 2,600 pounds of honey, all sourced from nearby upstate New York. That’s about 3 pounds of honey per bottle.
Caledonia currently offers two gins. Barr Hill is a light and floral traditional style. Tom Cat, barrel-aged in white oak, is a smoky spirit heavy on the caramel — both in appearance and taste.
Christiansen, who now serves as president and head distiller at Caledonia, says they source that oak from local foresters whenever possible. Finished bottles are sealed in wax from the same honeycomb where the honey was derived. It’s all part of an approach they call “landcrafted,” and one very deliberately intended to evoke a sense of place.
“Each time you look at one of our bottles, you are looking at cows and hayfields and the fringe of field and forest,” say Anna Bromley, marketing manager. “It’s about place and community and the delicate balance of it all.”
“We don’t want to be so big we’re detached from our customers,” she adds. “Or the place where we come from.”Kathryn Miles, a writer in Portland, Maine, is the author of “Quakeland: On the Road to America’s Next Devastating Earthquake,” which will be released by Dutton on August 29. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.