When it comes to the classic clear spirits debate, vodka or gin: I am Team Gin.
No disrespect to you vodka drinkers—but for nuance, breadth of botanical flavors and styles, it’s not even a competition. And especially during these warm summer nights, when nothing keeps me cooler than one of the many creative iterations of a well-made and well-garnished G&T or an ice-cold Gibson in a properly chilled glass, garnished with a quality cocktail onion.
So while I was looking to replenish my liquor cabinet with even more gin, I reached out to spirits educator and gin expert extraordinaire, Mark Stoddard. Having been the U.S. ambassador for Hendrick’s Gin for nearly a decade, Stoddard’s knowledge of gin is expansive. And thanks to his training as a certified sommelier, his palate is impeccable. Readers, this is the guy I message when I want to bemoan the disappearance of Gibsons in non-steakhouse establishments in New York City—because no one ever stocks cocktail onions anymore. (Stoddard reckons it’s got a lot to do with this generation’s unfortunate lack of interest—or awareness—of the sublime concoction.)
Stoddard, who started his career in spirits as an eighteen-year-old barback in a Colorado based restaurant group, dove deep into gin early on in his career. “The owner, Dave Query, and the beverage director, James Lee, took me under their wings and invested in my spirits education while I attended University of Colorado in Boulder,” he says. “As I rose through the bartending ranks, and had an opportunity to help open the first proper cocktail bar in the state—the Bitter Bar—and my understanding and appreciation of gin truly blossomed. My undergraduate education was in international relations. And gin’s vast history (mirroring the rise and fall of empires, global trade, and imperialism) became an obsession. After I competed and won the Cocktail World Cup in New Zealand, I sought to travel the world and expand my passion for spirits, beverage history—and began working for Hendrick’s. As ambassador, I spent a great deal of time in Scotland each year, and I was fortunate to visit and learn from dozens of incredible distilleries and wineries around the world.”
So when Stoddard generously agreed to curate a list of gins, I was beyond thrilled to see what offbeat and hard-to-find gins he’d recommend—and what his overarching criteria would be. “While not a stickler for the rules, a worthy gin in my mind needs to have a minimum alcohol strength of at least 37.5% ABV and an indicative presence of juniper. I care not whether a gin is produced as a London Dry style or a New Western style,” Stoddard says. “I simply look for how well the distiller has extracted and blended the botanicals together in the finished liquid. I certainly appreciate a distiller’s proficiency in creating harmony and balance versus a one or two-dimensional flavor-bomb. With few notable exceptions, I normally eschew barrel-aged gins. In my opinion, putting a bright, lustrous gin into a wooden barrel can muddy or mute a gin’s botanical brilliance. Unlike aged spirits like whisky, gin does not require additional wood exposure for flavor, since it is already infused with aromatic botanicals and essences.”
Here, Stoddard list some of his top bottlings of choice—some of which are solid staples in most home bars (such as Plymouth and Hendrick’s); while the others are probably unrecognizable to the non-enthusiast (such as Reisetbauer Blue Gin and Kanomori Craft Gin).
“It’s important to note that the gin category has exploded since I first stepped behind the bar in the early 2000s. Back then, depending on what city you lived in, there were less than a dozen gins available at most. Fast forward to today in the United States, the category has exploded exponentially to over five hundred gins just in America, and even more if you live in Spain,” Stoddard explains. “As an inductee and member of the Gin Guild in City of London, I am a huge supporter of innovation in the category. However, in recent years, some new flavored ‘gins’ entering the market are actually more akin to flavored vodka or a botanical liqueur, than a legally defined gin.”
Best Gins from Around the World: 16 Tasty Gins to Try Now
“Reisetbauer Blue Gin is a laser-precise example of what superb-quality, classic dry gin should taste like,” Stoddard says. “At his distillery and farm in Upper Austria, Hans Reisetbauer is known for producing some of the world’s finest eau-de-vie. But with Blue Gin, Hans’ attention to detail in fermentation and distillation has achieved near juniper perfection. Hans triple-distills his estate-grown Mulan wheat with a proprietary blend of 27 botanicals, then proofs the gin down to 43% using local Austrian spring water. Blue gin is spicy, vegetal and one of the cleanest distillates on the market today. It absolutely sings in a classic martini. Wunderbar!”
“Situated on the northwest coast of France, the Normandy region prides itself on apple cultivation, and is home to the famed apple brandy, Calvados. For their take on gin, third-generation distiller Guillaume Drouin creates a fruity base distillate of apple eau-de-vie,” Stoddard says. “What I love though, is that Guillaume thoughtfully selected this gin’s botanical recipe specifically to complement the marriage of apples and juniper. In contrast to most gins, Guillaume chose to fractionally distill (that means to distill each botanical separately, one-at-a-time, and then blend these distillates back together). The result is a master French brandy blender building the liquid back together ensuring each of the eight botanicals harmoniously fall into place amidst the aromatic backdrop of apple eau-de-vie. With apples, juniper, almond, vanilla, ginger, cardamom, lemon, rose, and cinnamon, this gin is an absolutely sublime composition.”
“As more gins appear from the island chain, Japanese gin has carved out its own signature style, derived from uniquely Japanese botanicals and thoughtful attention to detail,” Stoddard says. “Roku is produced by the massive Japanese conglomerate Suntory—however it is perhaps the most balanced of any gin I’ve encountered. Roku means ‘six’ in Japanese referring to the six harmonious Japanese botanicals consisting of cherry blossom flower, yuzu citrus peel, sencha green tea, sancho pepper, cherry blossom leaf, and gyokuro tea. This is an exceptionally refined gin and sure to please even the most discerning imbiber.”
“Fords Gin has been adored by bartenders the world over since its launch about five years ago—and rightly so: Fords shines in nearly every style of cocktail you can imagine and the bottle features a clever, bartender-friendly design,” Stoddard says. “However, with this limited-edition Officer’s Reserve bottling, not only is the ABV promoted to ‘navy strength,’ the liquid is briefly rested in 64-liter amontillado sherry casks. While I typically prefer unaged gins due to oak’s ability to muddy a gin’s bright, clean flavors, Fords executed this bottling flawlessly—and carefully blended back in unaged gin to achieve a perfect flavor balance. If you are lucky enough to find a bottle, Fords Officer’s Reserve is a must-add to your collection.”
“The creator and master distiller of Hendrick’s Gin is none other than the wonderful Miss Lesley Gracie. With Orbium, her brilliant mind sought to incorporate into a gin, key components of two iconic gin cocktails, the martini and the gin and tonic,” Stoddard says. “The vital ingredient in tonic water, quinine, has been a fasciation of Lesley’s from when she began perfecting its flavor extraction over a decade ago. Wormwood, the principal agent in vermouth and thus a classic martini, was another brilliant addition to Orbium. However, what cleverly marries these two disparate ingredients together and gives Orbium a magnificent (if not alluring) aroma is lotus blossom. Orbium tastes unlike any other spirit out there—let alone another gin. The liquid captivates with a lustrous floral bouquet, a complex palate, and culminates with a bitter, dry finish.”
“It’s not often that a once-in-a-generation distiller like Todd Leopold comes around. I first met the bearded, overall-wearing distiller at he and his brother’s humble distillery in the outskirts of Denver back in 2006,” Stoddard recalls. “Todd is everything you want in a distiller: dedicated, meticulous, jolly, and humble. It’s clear he strives to do things the right way, regardless of how much time, effort, or experimentation it requires. Leopold Bros. Summer Gin exemplifies that beautifully and tastes about as close to sunshine in a glass as a gin can get. Todd fractionally distills juniper, French immortal flower, lemon myrtle, and blood orange separately—and then carefully blends his distillates back together yielding this citrusy, bright gin. Leopold’s Summer Gin is seasonal and rare, so if you ever come across it in your local bottle shop, it would be wise to pick one up.”
“Based in Kyoto, Kinobi is Japan’s first dedicated gin distillery. Kinobi’s immaculate production process begins with a clean, neutral rice distillate base. This blank canvas is flavored by fractionally distilling a marvelous blend of Japanese cypress, green sancho peppercorn, bamboo leaf, gyokuro tea, yuzu citrus, and kinome leaf to name a few,” Stoddard says. “Taking advantage of the historic location, the gin is then diluted down to 45.7% ABV using pure ground water from the famed sake brewing district of Fushimi. Kinobi is a favorite Japanese gin because of its relentless pursuit to perfect every single element of gin’s production process. Kanpai!”
“While you may recognize the signature green Tanqueray bottle, the No. Ten gin is something quite special. Distilled at Diageo’s state-of-the-art Cameronbridge distillery in Scotland, this gin bursts onto your palate with buttery orange, vanilla, and grapefruit zest,” Stoddard says. “In addition to the classic four Tanqueray botanicals, whole limes, oranges, and white grapefruit plus chamomile yield a distinctive nose of juniper, jasmine, and fresh grapefruit. Possessing an oily rich texture, there’s very good reason why this gin has won so many prestigious awards since its launch in 2000.”
“The Luxardo family is celebrating their 200th anniversary in Italy this year, and in that time you can be sure they have perfected their famous marasca cherry know-how,” says Stoddard. “Most flavored gins these days are closer to flavored vodka or a liqueur by definition. However, Luxardo’s Italian Sour Cherry Gin masterfully retains the proper juniper character, ABV strength, and flavor complexity that delivers a sophisticated gin. Twisting up a classic Martinez cocktail with this gin makes for an exceptional after-dinner quaff.”
“Plymouth may be an old mainstay. But that phenomenal liquid inside the bottle has stood the test of time,” Stoddard says. “With a perfectly balanced flavor of nutty spices, soft floral and earthly notes, Plymouth provides a perfectly round flavor. While maintaining a lighter profile at 41% ABV, this gin can still do it all. Whether you’re a budding gin connoisseur or you’re a pickled, old sea captain, Plymouth shan’t disappoint.”
“If you’ve ever wondered what frolicking in a blooming California meadow tasted like, Lance Winters and his team at St. George captured it exquisitely in their Botanivore Gin,” Stoddard says. “Produced in Northern California, St. George’s trio of gins capture the local essence of the area in unique ways. However, for the crowd-pleasing Botanivore, Lance and his team macerate 16 of their 19 botanicals in neutral spirit, getting a head start on flavor extraction. The next day, juniper, California bay laurel, and fresh cilantro are carefully layered up top in a steam basket to conclude the distillation run using a gentler vapor extraction. With enchanting floral, green, and citrus notes, this terroir-driven gin dazzles in market-fresh cocktails.”
“Hailing from the Bruichiladdich distillery in picturesque Islay, Scotland, the Botanist possesses no shortage of distilling prowess and impeccable water,” says Stoddard. “Scotland usurped England as United Kingdom’s gin-producing leader a while back, and now accounts for nearly seventy percent of the UK’s gin production. The Botanist Islay gin comprises twenty-two locally foraged botanicals, which yield an exceptionally versatile gin that excels in a wide variety of cocktails. However, I am a sucker for an ice-cold Botanist Gibson martini with a pinch of salt. Slainte!”
“When I first tried Kanomori Gin on a ski trip in the Japanese Alps a few years back, I was captivated by its remarkable woody, incense-like fragrance,” Stoddard recalls. “Kanomori means ‘forest of aromas’ in Japanese, and it is achieved from the inclusion of Kuromoji, a plant in the laurel family whose essential oil is used in everything from incense to ancient Japanese herbal medicine. This gin is distilled by the storied medicinal liqueur producer, Yomeishu, in the mountainous Nagano prefecture of Japan. Reminiscent of a freshly broken tree branch, this gin has a cool, peppery flavor and is certainly worth picking up a bottle if you can find it. Stir it into an après ski martini, close your eyes, take a contemplative sip, and it may just transport your senses to an ancient forest in the Japanese Alps.”
“Produced in southwestern Australia, West Winds succeeded in crafting both a sustainable and aromatic gin, utilizing local botanicals such as Australian bush tomato and cinnamon myrtle,” Stoddard says. “The Cutlass is a big, bright, and savory gin with a wonderful violet blossom and eucalyptus aroma. This gin is an absolute delight to enjoy in a G&T with a generous slice of bell pepper or olive as a savory garnish.”
“If there ever was an original gangster American craft gin, Junipero is it,” Stoddard says. “Launched in 1996 in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood, Junipero breathed new life into an otherwise flat gin category at the time. With an unabashedly bold presence in both ABV strength and flavor, Junipero still holds its own in a diverse range of cocktails, but I adore its robust character in a classic Negroni cocktail.”
“Launched in 1972 and produced at the storied Cadenhead distillery in the whisky-producing region of Campbeltown, Scotland, Old Raj is a crown jewel of classic, juniper-forward gin,” says Stoddard. “Old Raj is distilled using an efficient two-shot method where the botanicals—principally juniper, plus an array of fruits, seeds, and roots—are macerated in the neutral alcohol at room temperature for thirty-six hours. This extra ‘steeping’ helps create the beautiful, silky texture Old Raj has become known for. To complete the flavor extraction process, the liquid is distilled through a small pot still and then finally, it undergoes a distinct infusion of the rare and costly spice, saffron. This final step imparts a delicately spicy flavor and yellow hue to the liquid.”