During the pandemic, bartender Carmen Lopez Torres moved from New York City to Oaxaca City, Mexico, to open a short-lived bar. In developing the menu, Lopez sought out local whiskeys, rums, and gins, and in the last of those categories, she found bottles distilled with distinct Oaxacan herbs and spices, including avocado leaf and native juniper.
“The local juniper gives Oaxacan gin its peculiarity, and it was great mixing it. The thing is, the juniper isn’t as strong as in a London Dry gin, so I came up with the idea of using both gins in a cocktail,” says Lopez, whose flamingo-pink Las Beeches included Beefeater and Antolo gins, fermented plum cordial, lime juice, and egg white.
Bartenders, especially of the tropical sort, have long combined multiple rums in a drink (see classics such as the Mai Tai, Navy Grog, and Zombie). While working at The Polynesian in NYC, Cameron Winkelman learned from rum aficionado Brian Miller, “What one rum can’t do, three can,” according to Winkelman, who’s now the head bartender at Manhatta. “I find you can apply that principle to gins. If you find one flat or static, you can add another to change the flavor while still holding true to what each brings to the table.”
Winkelman remembers drinking a two-gin Martini from Patrick Smith’s program at The Modern in 2017 or 2018, around the same time Miller taught him the specs for The Polynesian’s four-gin blend Zombie variation. Matt Chavez, now the head bartender at Ci Siamo, picked up gin blending while working at The NoMad. “I’ve never seen it in old books or recipes. It’s definitely more modern,” says Chavez. “The cocktail renaissance, it’s still happening.”
Bartenders have been blending gins since at least the mid-aughts, but the technique only recently bubbled up to cocktail menus. “Many of us tinkered with it in earlier years but didn’t find it necessary to employ the practice,” says Audrey Saunders, NYC bartending legend, gin lover, and owner of the dearly departed Pegu Club. “While the idea of splitting the base is not new, some of the reasons for doing so [with gin] more recently probably are.”
Saunders points to “dramatic” and “fairly insidious” formula changes in spirits over the last 15 years. “When the formula changes, it’s obviously going to extend into a cocktail spec,” she says. “A diligent bartender will become aware of the formula change and try to find a workaround by supplementing with another gin in the hopes that doing so might help bring it closer to its original profile.”
There’s also been an explosion of new-school gins that aren’t even pretending to follow the London Dry formulas. Natasha Bahrami opened the Gin Room in St. Louis, Missouri, in 2014. At the time, Bombay, Beefeater, and Tanqueray were among the only gin bottles in town, but the American craft distilling movement was also gaining momentum, she says, and greatly expanded the number of producers she had access to.
Bahrami now carries around 300 gin labels at her bar and has another 1,500 at home. More than the sheer number of bottles, the Gin Room’s selection represents the diversity of the category. “In the last few years, we went from distilleries making gin to distilleries intentionally giving their gins character,” says Bahrami, who’s a 2018 inductee into the Gin Hall of Fame. “There’s a lot more to play with.”
Among the gins on her back bar is Moletto, an Italian gin distilled with four tomato varieties that, according to Bahrami, “smells like tomato sauce and tastes salty yummy, like you’re on the coast of Italy. In her Tomato of My Eye, she combines the Moletto with Edinburgh Seaside, a gin flavored with scurvy grass and seaweed from the Scottish coast, along with manzanilla sherry, a splash of Dolin dry vermouth, and a pinch of Maldon sea salt. “Together, the gins taste like you’re eating nero pasta with black squid ink,” she says.
Melding Character and Cohesiveness
While the category’s growth has been dubbed a “ginaissance,” Saunders says many modern gins lack cohesiveness, structure, and even proper distilling technique. “They tend to behave more like flavored vodka,” she says. To hold up in drinks, some bottles may need hand-holding from an OG gin.
But put another way: New-school gins can add character to traditional specs. At Wildhawk in San Francisco, Christian Suzuki-Orellana serves both a four-gin Gibson and a four-gin Martinez. The latter combines Cocchi Dopo Teatro vermouth amaro, three-quarters of an ounce of Barr Hill gin, and a quarter-ounce each of three more esoteric bottles. Ransom Old Tom gives the drink its “Martinez backbone,” he says, while Bimini Barrel-Aged contributes hoppy notes and riesling-infused Ferdinand’s Saar brings on the lavender. Of the blend, Suzuki-Orellana says, “It’s a great way to take aggressive flavors, mellow them out, and celebrate the prettier flavor and uniqueness of the individual gins.”
Though some brands might bristle at combining and altering flavor profiles, there are plenty of others who celebrate it. “I’ve always loved using Barr Hill in a split-base cocktail, even with other types of gin,” says Sam Nelis, the beverage director at Caledonia Spirits in Vermont. “It has such a rich, round, botanical note from the use of raw honey that it comes through in cocktails even if it’s in a smaller amount,” he says. “It’s a great gin to share the spotlight in cocktails because it still finds a way to shine.” He points to the Soft Focus cocktail created by Jeff Baumann at The Great Northern in Burlington, Vermont, which combines Barr Hill gin with Bols genever, Cocchi Americano, and pear eau de vie.
Cautions and Considerations
Building drinks with two or more gins isn’t bartending 101. “The same thing can go wrong regardless of what kind of drink you’re making or what you’re mixing, which is doing so without intention,” says Alex Jump, the head bartender at Death & Co. Denver, whose Ti’ Punch-inspired Pleasant Talk combines Ransom Old Tom, Bols barrel-aged genever, Clairin Vaval, amaretto, lemon oil, and popcorn. “They’re incredibly different gins, the richer and rounder Ransom being distilled from malted barley and using botanicals like orange and lemon peel and coriander, and the bold and dry Bols distilled from a blend of malted rye, wheat, and corn with botanicals that include liquorice, hops, cloves, and ginger. They compliment each other quite well.”
Chavez sampled around a dozen gins before deciding on the two that anchor Ci Siamo’s house Martini. His specs call for an ounce and a half of citrusy, alpine Bordiga Occitan and one ounce of soft, juniper-forward Boatyard, the latter of which adds texture and body. “Once you add texture,” says Chavez, “the flavors sing a little louder.”
For home bartenders, Chavez recommends first stocking your bar with tried-and-true gins like Beefeater, Ford’s, and Plymouth, and then adding on more esoteric bottles like Amass or St. George Terroir. “Start with a classic drink like a Negroni or Martini and add in a half-ounce of something weird,” he says.
To know gin is to taste it. Suzuki-Orellana cautions against buying bottles for their “frollicking through the woods” liner notes. If you’re interested in a new-to-you gin, ask a bartender for a neat sip; most are happy to oblige. Or order split-based dealer’s choice to observe how two gins interact in the wild. (However, our experts ask that guests refrain from requesting their own custom gin specs for drinks.)
After finding a few combinations that work, Winkelman says the next step in blending is to use gins to highlight other elements in a cocktail. His opening menu at Manhatta includes an advanced riff on the Astoria, classically an inverted Martini with two ounces of vermouth (he’s using a split of Dolin blanc and Carpano dry) and an ounce of gin. “That ounce of gin really matters,” says Winkelman, who’s using Miller’s Polynesian gin blend of one part Monkey 47, one part Miller’s Westbourne Strength London Dry, and a half-part each of Greenhook Ginsmiths Old Tom and Perry’s Tot navy strength.
He found that the blend, with its honeyed-floral-citrus notes and an alcohol boost from the Perry’s Tot, accents the drink’s modern additions of pickled honeydew, a chrysanthemum infusion, lemon bitters, palo santo tincture, and absinthe.
Even though blend works for his Astoria, Winkelman cautions against blending for the sake of it. “Certain gins may taste bad together,” he says. “You have to train your palate to find the differences and balance. I’m not even perfect at it.”
Bahrami recently tried a seven-gin drink, which she surmises could have employed two gins to the same effect. “There are reasons I would argue not to mix gins,” she says. “So many gins are so beautifully expressive. It’s often better to stick to one and accentuate its botanicals and character.”