By Josh Seaburg
Virginia spirits are experiencing a renaissance. Distilleries seem to spring up regularly, often to produce whiskey. But what are whiskey makers to do while waiting for their products to age? Usually the answer is to produce gin. We selected three Virginia-made gins of varying styles and compared them in classic cocktails: a Tom Collins, a martini, and a proper gin and tonic. Here are our findings.
(A. Smith Bowman Distillery, Fredericksburg)
A. Smith Bowman is a little distillery with big backing. As a member of the Sazerac Co., it maintains a commitment to producing quality whiskey. The Sunset Hills small-batch gin is lesser known but no less notable. The cleanest of the gins tasted, it was deemed by our panel to be classically styled both straight and under the scrutiny of cocktails. It was a universal favorite in an ungarnished Tom Collins; the citrus and sugar brought out the gin’s juniper notes, which were not as readily apparent neat. It fared equally well in a 2-to-1-ratio martini with a lemon twist. But it shone most brightly in a gin and tonic, although a slight flavor imbalance left a strong quinine bitterness on the finish. All the same, the beverage was refreshing and quaffable. “Beach day” was used liberally among imbibers.
(Catoctin Creek Distilling, Purcellville)
Certainly the most identifiable of the gins tasted, the Watershed’s rye base stands out considerably. The presence of grain on the nose and on the tongue gives way to a waxy finish that exposes the intense concentration of botanicals in the gin. Becky Harris, chief distiller and a chemical engineer, created the gin, which embodies a unique vision seen through to its fullest potential. In a Tom Collins, the funky rye flavor was still present but was tempered by the taste of overripe tropical fruit. One panelist described the drink as “extremely round on the finish.” The martini was the group favorite; the acidity of the vermouth transformed the full flavor of the gin, which was complemented by the citrus essence from a lemon twist. Against prediction, Watershed did not fare well in the gin and tonic, as some reaction between the spirit and the tonic water created an acrid result.
Fourth Handle Coastal American Gin
(Tarnished Truth Distilling, Virginia Beach)
Fourth Handle was the newest spirit in the lineup. The brainchild of distiller Justin Boyle, it was created to be a preeminent mixing gin. Among all the cocktails, the pink peppercorn included in the botanical bill was present throughout, lending a sense of floral and spice. It was underwhelming in a Tom Collins until the addition of an orange twist, which opened up the aroma into a bounty of citrus and fruit notes. The martini, if a little astringent, was well balanced. It’s possible a lighter vermouth, such as Dolin or Carpano Bianco, would allow more of the gin’s botanicals to shine through. The gin and tonic, while not as refreshing as Bowman’s Sunset Hills, felt more like a proper cocktail. The tonic bitterness played exceedingly well with the omnipresent pink peppercorn flavors and was met with just enough juniper backbone to establish a contemplative drink. This was a gin and tonic for an evening spent with a book rather than a day at the beach.
And now for a little something extra …
Fresh Hop Gin & Tonic
(Devils Backbone Distilling, Roseland)
Virginia’s first ready-to-drink gin and tonic is a revelation. Distilled and produced at Devils Backbone, the Fresh Hop Gin & Tonic is an 8 percent alcohol by volume delight. It comes in 12-ounce cans, with instructions to pour it over ice. Though good on the rocks with a slice of citrus, it’s equally delicious direct from a very cold can. It would fit perfectly among craft IPAs and a smattering of adjunct lagers in a cookout cooler.
Josh Seaburg has established several award-winning bar programs and a series of innovative pop-ups, highlighting elaborate cocktails and food from local chefs.