Spirit Guide: Getting to Know West Coast Gin

Welcome to "Spirit Guide," in which Wayne Curtis demystifies the ever-shifting spirits landscape one bottle at a time. This round: terroir-driven West Coast gins.

A few years ago, Lance Winters was hiking near Mount Tamalpais outside San Francisco, an area that’s home to a range of complex ecosystems, with everything from chaparral and California bay laurel to mixed conifers. He was struck by the aromas he encountered at every turn. “It was amazing,” he recalled. “I thought, I’m a distiller, I should be able to replicate this.”

The result, after much batching and testing, was St. George Terroir Gin, a bold and complex spirit that pretty effectively delivers the experience of that particular walk. It has become one of the archetypal West Coast gins, which tend to be defined by a particular emphasis on expressing terroir through the use of local botanicals.

In general, gin is the perfect spirit by which to explore the notion of place. The base tends toward the neutral (read: flavorless) and can be distilled from just about anything—grain, potatoes, molasses, honey. The flavors, then, come through a careful selection of herbs, spices, citrus peels, roots and more.

Those who insist, loudly and repeatedly, that they don’t like gin tend to have a particular taste in mind; it’s often described as “sharp” or “medicinal.” That’s a hangover from gin’s original intent as a favored nostrum of herbalists, who admired the medicinal qualities of juniper (thought to cure chest ailments, gout, stomach complaints, flatulence and a touch of the black death) and found that alcohol made a good vehicle to convey it.

Gin was popular in Europe throughout the 18th century, and reached escape velocity in London in the 19th, when the cleaner distillate of the new column stills opened the door for the London Dry style (or simply “London gin”), which had less sugar and employed a more subtle and narrowly targeted use of herbs. What emerged was a piercing, menthol-like sharpness of juniper tempered slightly with citrus peel and coriander; it came to define gin for generations.

But gin has blossomed anew. In America, the category exploded with craft spirit revival, at least partially out of practicality: many new distillers start out with a gin, which, unlike rye whiskey or bourbon, doesn’t require aging. As gin has evolved stateside, the West Coast emerged as an especially ripe habitat for its evolution. The region has the abundance of compelling natural ingredients full of enticing aromatics, a deep-seated connection to all things coniferous and a commitment to the sort of do-it-yourself-ism that leads to broad experimentation.

While Winters is often credited with drawing attention to West Coast gins (even though he rejects the notion of a “West Coast gin” category), the region is also home to a number of other calling-card brands, like Oregon’s Aviation and the new, but already coveted Elk Rider Gin out of Washington—both of which manage to embody where they come from. “The goal originally was not to create a gin,” says Winters of place being the impetus for his pioneering Terroir Gin, “but to capture the smells around Mount Tam.”

While U.S. regulations require that anything labeled gin still be married to juniper, adventurous distillers have used that as a launch point rather than a destination. We now have gins complex and nuanced enough to be sipped neat or on the rocks and a new spectrum of gin flavors that’s made mixed drinks more of a ride on the wild side—with some dead ends and spectacular wrecks, to be sure, but the end results can be sublime, adding new depth to familiar classics like the Negroni or the Gin Fizz. Even an old standby like the Gin and Tonic has suddenly become intriguing, like running into a friend who recently began wearing spats and a cravat.

Sipping gin today is more of an adventure than it has been since the days of William Hogarth, and the Left Coast is the perfect place to take something familiar and give it the room to evolve into something that pleases as it challenges.

The Pioneer

House Spirits Aviation Gin | Portland, Oregon
Collaborations between bartenders and distillers aren’t as common as you might think, so it’s fortunate that in the summer of 2005, bartender Ryan Magarian joined up with House Spirits distiller Christian Krogstad to jointly craft Aviation Gin. The result was a new style of gin they thought might appeal to the American palate—something bigger, rounder and more accessible than a traditional London dry. Magarian, who is less averse to categories than Winters, pushed for a new name to distinguish it: New Western Dry, which he defined as a gin in which something other than juniper first greets the palate.

Aviation strives to capture the fresh tang of the Pacific Northwest, employing a combination of cardamom, sarsaparilla and lavender, which together offset the suggestion of a pine forest. It works especially well in cocktails that call for a bit of citrus, like the Aviation, the classic cocktail after which the brand was named. 42 Percent ABV | $30 [Buy]

The Renegade

St. George Terroir Gin | San Francisco, California
This is not a starter gin for this who favor the subtle notes of juniper. It is big and brassy and totally upsets the juniper cart, although it remains visible (if somewhat in pieces) in the rearview mirror. St. George uses about a dozen botanicals, many of them foraged in the San Francisco Bay area, including coastal sage, Douglas fir, wild fennel seed and California bay laurel. It captures a hint of shadowy conifer forest—and more than a touch of California sun on parched chaparral.

I tend to agree with spirits writer Dave Broom, who finds this “too massively complex” be to used in a Gin and Tonic. It does, however, play extremely well on its own over a large cube (really) or in bolder cocktails, like the Bronx or the Hanky Panky. 45 percent ABV | $35 [Buy]

The Minimalist

Heritage Distilling Co. Elk Rider Gin | Gig Harbor, Washington
Elk Rider Gin hails from Gig Harbor, Washington, and is one of a series of spirits sold by Heritage Distilling Co. under the Elk Rider name. While relatively new, it’s already drawn favorable attention, including a coveted “Best of Category” award in the American Distilling Institute’s 2016 competition. The company’s Batch 12 gin also took home gold in the “Classic Grain-to-Glass” category. They’re clearly doing something right.

Elk Rider is a richly complex gin, with outsized piney notes and a curiously long citrus finish, so it’s certainly surprising to learn that it’s made with just three botanicals: juniper berries, coriander and orange peel. Produced in an Italian column still from a base of local Washington wheat, this gin offers a slightly peppery finish that sets up a nice badinage with tonic, and is bold enough to stand up to about anything else you can throw at it. 47 percent ABV | $28 [Buy]

The Victorian

Arbutus Distillery Empiric Gin | Nanaimo, British Columbia
British Columbia, like much of the Pacific Northwest, is an absurdly fertile terrain for gin, full of dense conifer forests and a riot of native herbs. It also has a human ecosystem that encourages Western gin—that is, the province’s tax structure is supremely favorable to those using local ingredients.

Empiric launched two years ago and is distilled in Nanaimo, about 35 miles across the Strait of Georgia from Vancouver on Victoria Island. As gins go, it’s a curious hybrid: It shares a lot of the juniper-forward traits of a London dry, but it’s flavored with a distinctive combination of locally sourced West Coast botanicals—notably rosemary and hops.

Most surprising are the crisp citrus notes by way of the clever addition of lemon verbena, which come through with a clarion call on the finish. Add some splashy, slightly foreboding packaging—locally designed, and suggesting back alley crimes on a foggy London night—and you can all but see the outlines of a new hit West Coast gin take shape against a full moon. 40 Percent ABV | $43 [Buy]