With its pronounced botanical profile, gin has among the greatest potential of all spirit categories to evoke a sense of place. Yet most gins rely on dried, imported ingredients and, flavorwise, many fall into just a few standard camps, such as London dry or the more citrus-forward New World or New Age style. Within this latter group, West Coast gin, a catchall category that eludes strict definition and encompasses a widening array of flavor profiles, has become an exciting playground for bartenders.
Though West Coast gin doesn’t have a strict definition, bottlings in this category tend to share a few characteristics: a striking botanical profile that strays far from traditional London dry, an emphasis on non-juniper ingredients and an unapologetic identification with their place of origin. Lance Winters, master distiller at St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, kicked off the movement with the release of Terroir Gin in 2011—though it wasn’t really his intention to be a pioneer. Drawing on his sense memories of hiking around Mount Tamalpais, he initially didn’t create Terroir as a gin at all. “When I first conceptualized it, it didn’t have any juniper: The whole idea was expressing a sense of place through distillation,” Winters explains. But at the suggestion of his wife, Ellie, he added the botanical to a recipe that includes several ingredients from the Bay Area, like coastal sage and bay laurel. He also uses more traditional gin botanicals like orris root and angelica—chosen for their ability to evoke decaying leaves on a forest floor—and cinnamon, dry-roasted in a wok to bring out the distinct aromas of the dry chaparral landscape.
Although local ingredients play an integral part, imported botanicals are necessary to achieve Terroir’s specific sensory aims; other West Coast gins, like Los Angeles–based brands Amass and Greenbar along with Sebastopol’s Spirit Works, also source both close to home and farther afield.
Other West Coast gins, meanwhile, focus exclusively on local ingredients. Gray Whale Gin incorporates six botanicals, all foraged from or farmed within California, including Temecula limes, almonds from the Central Valley and juniper from Big Sur.
“It was never our intention to create yet another London dry. We already have a plethora of choices on that front,” says Gray Whale co-founder Marsh Mokhtari. Instead, the gin’s botanicals draw inspiration from the migratory path of the eponymous cetacean. Mokhtari calls it “a taste of the Pacific Coast in a glass.”
North of California, craft distilleries draw inspiration from a different landscape. Freeland Spirits in Portland, Oregon, makes several gins using local botanicals, including Forest Gin. The unusual recipe, which includes chanterelles, salal berries and nettles, aims to transport the drinker to the cool Oregon woodlands. Making Forest Gin was a challenge, according to Freeland master distiller Molly Troupe. “I had an idea on what this recipe would taste like, but as I was putting it together, pipette by pipette, it revealed a completely different personality,” she says, describing the bright gin as “truly a walk through the woods on a bright, dewy morning.”
Because of the category’s panoply of flavors and aromas, West Coast gin can sometimes be challenging in traditional cocktails. Swapping one for a London dry might require a little rejiggering of ratios. An initial neat pour should point drinkers in the right general direction. Of course, the lazy option works fine too: Pretty much all of these are well-matched with tonic or simply a splash of soda.
Above all, keeping an open mind is paramount. “I recommend throwing away your expectations,” Winters says. “Imagine that you’ve just discovered a new color and you’re trying to paint with it. Figure out what fits.”
Taste the West Coast in Four Gins
St. George Terroir Gin
The OG West Coast gin is as transportive as it claims to be, plunking the drinker in the middle of a sun-warmed hiking trail with aromas of dried clay, Douglas fir boughs and decaying leaves. California-grown citrus brightens up woodsy herbal notes from bay laurel, coastal sage and fennel seed that prickle across the palate, each successive sip revealing another layer of landscape. It’s practically a sensory onslaught.
Winters likes to use Terroir in a Negroni with St. George’s Bruto Americano amaro, or in a Bramble. With a subtle sweetness, the spirit plays well in cocktails designed for Old Tom gin, like the Martinez, or genever, like the Improved Gin Cocktail. Unrelenting in its complexity, it’s a muscular match for Chartreuse in a Last Word, and well-suited for a Gin Old-Fashioned.
- Price: $40 (750 milliliters)
- ABV: 45%
Freeland Forest Gin
Portland’s Forest Park, a lush 5,200-acre refuge of Pacific Northwest flora and fauna, was the inspiration for this gin; Freeland Distillery sits just five blocks away. The spirit tastes as if concocted by forest elves: dewy and damp, earthy, alive. Rotovap distillation teases out subtle but distinct flavors and aromas from the botanicals: Douglas fir tips are as crisp as green needles soaked in cold rain, while boot-crushed herbal notes emerge from nettles, and salal berries lend a bracing, bright fruitiness.
Chanterelle mushrooms are the most curious ingredient of all, but their forest-floor umami ties the rest of the botanical profile together and makes Forest Gin ideal for savory drinks, like a Gibson or an Alberto. Brooke McKinnon, Freeland’s Oregon tasting room director, suggests complementing the spirit with earthy and bitter ingredients, like Cinzano Bianco and Luxardo Bitter Bianco for a White Negroni, or Strega and Nonino Amaro in the Into the Wild, a Gin Sour.
- Price: $40 (750 milliliters)
- ABV: 45%
Gray Whale Gin
Sourcing only from California, Gray Whale uses a small slate of ingredients: juniper, fir, lime, kombu, mint and almonds. The resulting spirit is simple and straightforward, but not boring, as each element has space to show off. Salinity from the kombu perks up fresh garden mint and zested limes, while the evergreens offer sharp pepper and acidity, and the almond’s natural fattiness lends a satisfyingly creamy body.
Mokhtari suggests that some bartenders might want to play up a particular part of Gray Whale’s flavor profile, such as the salty kombu, which works well in a 50/50 Martini or Vesper, or sweetness from the limes, ideal in a Gimlet.
- Price: $45 (750 milliliters)
- ABV: 43%
Amass Dry Gin
Aiming to celebrate not just the flavors of Los Angeles, but also its cultural diversity, this gin boasts a whopping 29 botanicals (including 11 from California)—all tidily detailed on the front label. The botanicals range from the traditional, like coriander, angelica and orris root, to the more esoteric: cacao, cascara sagrada, sarsaparilla. All of Amass’ botanicals are organic and several, like ashwagandha and reishi and lion’s mane mushrooms, are considered adaptogens.
Trendy traits aside, the bottling offers a pleasing balance that makes it a good fit for simple Gin & Tonics. Its distinct profile, with savory and herbal notes, also stands up to more complex applications, like the Dirty Martini Highball or the Trinity. Cubeb (in the same family as black pepper), long pepper and grains of paradise add a tingling mouthfeel, making the gin also a good candidate for a Salt & Pepper Martini.
- Price: $55 (750 milliliters)
- ABV: 45%