As temperatures begin to heat up across the country, that can only mean one thing for cocktail fans: gin season. Fortunately, with the proliferation of so many craft distilleries throughout the U.S., liquor stores are now awash with small-batch gins. This particular breed of spirit is relatively easy to make and generally requires little-to-no aging. They can hit the shelves long before, say, a whiskey could.
Because of the huge number of producers, there's no simple way to file a definitive "best of" list. Instead, a handy snapshot of a few exemplary all-American examples.
The West: St. George Spirits ($31), Distillery No. 209 ($30 to $47), Spirit Works ($39)
The Bay Area has long been a hotspot for distilling, and that's particularly the case with gin. Alameda's St. George Spirits boasts three special bottles in its portfolio, of which the Dry Rye and Terroir are standouts. The Dry Rye has a toasted-banana quality that plays beautifully off its caraway, black pepper and rye notes. The Terroir—which is vapor-infused with botanicals from Marin County's Mt. Tamalpais—brims with foresty earth, Douglas fir and bay-laurel essence.
Distillery No. 209's five-times-distilled standard gin is a classic citrusy mixer, with upfront notes of juniper, bergamot and lemon peel, followed by a hint of cinnamon. The distillery also has two French oak–aged Barrel Reserve gins: a fruity Sauvignon Blanc–finished expression and another Cabernet Sauvignon–barreled bottle that smells gently of whiskey but finishes with a touch of spice and red wine.
A bit farther north in Sebastopol, Spirit Works distills its gins from red winter wheat, creating a gently sweet offering that's classic-tasting in its standard bottling (lots of bright juniper and coriander) and round with toasted spice in its barrel-aged expression.
The Midwest: Koval Distillery ($35), Few Spirits ($37), Far North Spirits ($41)
Given Chicago's fondness for booze, it’s sort of crazy that not a single new distillery opened in the Midwestern city since before Prohibition—until Koval cracked the seal in 2008. Along with making a handful of whiskeys, brandies and liqueurs, Koval also crafts a crisp, fruity and floral dry gin. On their own, those base elements aren't earth-shattering, but this one's grassy wildflower component provides a nice complexity. Its weighty 94-proof also helps carry the flavors forward in cocktails.
It's not just Chicago that's had its challenges with alcohol over the years. Koval's neighbors Few Spirits were the first distillery to set up shop in nearby Evanston, which was a dry city for nearly a century. Thankfully Few did, because the distillery’s gins are great. Few's American Gin isn't hugely juniper-forward; instead it comes on with a light, creamy, vanilla-ish quality that's lovely across the palate. The barrel-aged expression is a great sipper on its own. Reminiscent of a young whiskey, it's sweet and pretty with a hint of pepper.
Hallock, Minnesota's Far North Spirits offers up one of the most unique gins around—though we're going to stop short of recommending it for everyone. Solveig is not for the timid, as its funky, mushroomy, ripe-melon notes might scare off first-timers: It's for adventurous drinkers only. That said, Hallock’s navy-strength offering, Gustaf, is much more approachable—despite its high proof—with a more familiar spiciness and milder all-around flavor.
The South: Genius Liquids ($30)
While the South is, obviously, best known for its whiskey, there’s plenty of gin drunk in the region. And Austin's Genius Liquids makes a pair of fine mixing partners. The Standard Strength is a pretty complex one, moving from the usual-suspect botanicals into lavender, lime and an agave-like hint of sweetness. Need a little more muscle in that Martini? Genius' Navy Strength punches those flavors forward with a no-fooling-around 114-proof. Both of these spirits make great companions in citrus drinks.
The Pacific Northwest: Ransom Spirits ($28 to $33)
Sheridan, Oregon's Ransom Dry Gin takes a cue from Dutch genever. It's got a slightly hoppy, slightly musty vibe that turns pleasantly malty with strong notes of orange and spice, and it's infused with local marionberry and hops.
The Small's American Dry bottling starts off similarly but goes in inventive new directions with an uncommonly perfumy florality.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
Bartender's Choice: Raff Distillerie ($36) and Stilltheone ($35)
There have been a slew of gin-inspired joints popping up around the country in the last year or so. One such spot, San Francisco's Cockscomb, is technically a restaurant, but its bar has a decidedly gin-centric focus. Of the American gins he features there, chef Chris Cosentino recommends Raff Distillerie's Bummer & Lazarus, made from California wine grapes. "I like the addition of angelica root and orange, as it's reminiscent of sipping my grandparents' drinks when I was a kid," he says. "It has a classic feel and flavor to it that makes it comfortable."
Martin Cate may be best known for his shrine to rum, San Francisco’s Smuggler's Cove, but gin is at the forefront of his soon-to-open San Francisco bar, Whitechapel. Beverage director Alex Smith loves Port Chester, New York distillery Stilltheone's honey-based Comb 9 Gin. "It has a very pleasant lavender, floral quality and also has a nice smooth mouthfeel," he explains. Rose, galangal and citrus peel help to flesh out this one's gorgeously round character.
The East: Caledonia Spirits ($43) and New Columbia Distillers ($34)
Comb 9 isn't the only bee-friendly gin. Caledonia Spirits' Barr Hill is a similarly unique and pleasing gin made in Vermont. Raw honey is added just before bottling, and it imbues the spirit with a gently off-white hue. With just the right amount of juniper and floral balance, a Barr Hill Ramos Gin Fizz brings you to the land of milk and honey.
Elsewhere on the East Coast, Washington D.C.'s New Columbia Distillers make special spring/summer and fall/winter expressions of their Green Hat Gin each year. The current season's offering has a big juniper and floral component that is exactly what you'd want in a refreshing spring concoction.
The Mountains: Spring44 Distilling ($27 to$30)
You could do a lot worse than to source your botanicals and water from the verdant Colorado mountains, so suffice it to say that Spring44's Mountain Gin is a real product of its environment. Big dry pine, citrus and earth notes come through at the beginning, followed by a refreshing herbal, minty finish—a solid companion to a splash of tonic. The classic bottling is full of juniper, coriander and nutmeg, and the Old Tom style is lightly malty but gently balanced with lemongrass, vanilla and baking spice. Perfect for a classic Tom Collins.