We’re a couple decades into the Ginaissance, a term that should only be invoked, as Anthony Lane writes in The New Yorker, by individuals willing to be “banned from public bars in perpetuity.” Thankfully my exile will be softened by my home bar, fully stocked with a wide array of contemporary gins that expand the category beyond the classic, juniper-forward London Dry. Some are floral, some are citrusy, but my favorites are infused with a sense of place.
Gin starts out as a neutral spirit that can be distilled from just about anything with sugar content, the most common raw material being various grains like corn and wheat. From there, it goes through a secondary distillation process in which botanicals are introduced to impart flavor and character. Technically speaking, for gin to be gin, the dominant note must be juniper. But beyond that, anything else—from brussels sprouts to red wood ants—is fair game (and yes, both those gins exist).
For terroir-driven distillers around the world, this simple formula presents an opportunity to tap spices, herbs, and fruits that suffuse gins with geographical specificity and soul—and for an avid traveler who’s been mostly grounded the past two years, these spirits are sensory souvenirs of trips past. Amalga Distillery’s gin recalls summers spent crabbing in Southeast Alaska. Nikka’s offering evokes a meal of grilled unagi and sansho pepper in Tokyo washed down with very cold beer. And Isle of Harris’s namesake gin reminds me of the half dozen sheep I nearly hit on a winding one-lane road in Scotland. That drive certainly called for a stiff martini afterward—as do all of these transportive gins, which are equally good with a splash of tonic.
For this herbaceous, floral expression, Glendalough relies on plants like red clover, blackberry leaves, and elderflower, most of which are gathered by a single local forager from the area around the distillery in Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains.
Located in the temperate rainforest of Juneau, Alaska, Amalga Distillery makes a signature gin that tastes of wet moss and spring pine. It’s flavored with botanicals that Native Alaskans have been using medicinally and ceremonially for centuries, like Labrador tea, spruce tips, and devil’s club, a leafy shrub with wicked thorns.
Woody and gently spiced, this first-of-its-kind Vietnamese gin derives its character from a blend of 15 botanicals from the mountainous Northwest Highlands. Black cardamom, pomelo, and dia sieu wood are sourced largely from farmers and foragers belonging to local ethnic minority groups like the Red Dao and Hmong.
You’ll find more traditional gin ingredients like orris root, orange peel, and coriander in Isle of Harris’s gin, but the star of the show is locally harvested sugar kelp, which lends an understated brininess to the spirit. The rippled glass bottle (a keeper after you’ve worked your way through the gin) similarly conjures the maritime essence of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.
Nikka’s bright, zesty gin (named after the still used in its production, not because it tastes like coffee) incorporates four varieties of Japanese citrus, including amanatsu and yuzu. It gets an extra lively punch from Sansho peppers—which, like their close relatives from Sichuan, are the aromatic fruit of the Japanese prickly ash tree, a member of the citrus family.
Take a road trip up Highway 1 with this California gin (metaphorically speaking—don’t drink and drive, kids) that follows the migratory path of gray whales up the West Coast. Uncork the distinctive opaque cyan bottle and you’ll be met by the aroma of Temecula limes. On the palate, citrus gives way to the salinity of Pacific sea kelp and the Sonoma’s forest piney floor.