"WHAT'S the point?" one member of The Times tasting panel asked before the tasting. "Gin is gin." Nobody had that opinion when we'd finished sampling 16 boutique gins.
We tasted them as we would taste whiskeys, omitting the step of inspecting color: We poured, sniffed, tasted, added a splash of water to bring out more flavors; tasted again.
And we were surprised at the range of flavors -- good and bad. We'll never think gin is gin again. Joining me on the panel were food editor Leslie Brenner, deputy features editor Michalene Busico, editor at large Tom Curwen and restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila.
Hendrick's (Scotland, 88 proof). Tasters called this unique gin nuanced and harmonious. It's made in a 19th century still which steams the botanicals, rather than boiling them. The nose is perfumed with juniper, citrus, rose and cucumber elements. At Beverages & More (BevMo, www.bevmo.com); Beverage Warehouse in Mar Vista, (310) 306-2822; Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, (800) 331-3005; and Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys, (818) 996-1414; $23 to $29.
Old Raj (Scotland, 110 proof). This was considered the best sipping gin (though sippers should bear in mind its alcohol content). Panelists admired its floral nose, tobacco finish and notes of citrus, pepper and juniper. Exceptionally smooth; with the addition of a splash of water, one taster compared the effect to liquid chrome. At BevMo; Beverage Warehouse; Hi-Time Wine Cellars; Mission Liquors in South Pasadena, (626) 797-0500; and Wine & Liquor Depot; $49 to $65.
Kensington (England, 94.4 proof). The least traditional gin in the tasting, it's aged in oak barrels, making for a unique and highly flavored liquor. Tasters found fruit and juniper in the nose, and caramel, oak and nutmeg flavors in the mouth. Typical comment: "Is this a gin or is it a whiskey with a note of juniper? I don't care, it's wonderful." Pot distilled. At BevMo; Beverage Warehouse; Mission Liquors; $28.
Junipero (California, 98.6 proof). Powerful juniper nose, citrus twist on the palate, slightly sweet finish and a forceful all-over impression, which some characterized as chiseled. Made at Anchor Brewery in San Francisco using a pot still. At BevMo; Beverage Warehouse; Hi-Time Wine Cellars; and Mission Liquors; $26 to $29.
No. 209 (California, 80 proof). Tasters found this pot-distilled gin impressively classical: "good smooth juniper nose and palate," "strong anise flavor, clean." At Beverage Warehouse; BevMo; and Wally's Wines & Spirits, West Los Angeles, (310) 475-0606; $27 to $35.
Citadelle (France, 88 proof). Tasters remarked on this gin's smoothness, complexity, rich juniper aroma and intriguing note of pepper (it contains two exotic kinds of pepper, cubeb and grain of paradise). At Beverage Warehouse; BevMo; Hi-Time; Mission Liquors; and Wally's; $23 to $40.
Tanqueray No. 10 (England, 80 proof). Clean, soft juniper nose and gentle finish. At Beverage Warehouse; BevMo; Hi-Time Wine Cellars; and Wally's; $26 to $34.
Martin Miller's (England, 80 proof). Several tasters noted a clean, cucumber-like aroma but only one gave it high marks. At Beverage Warehouse; BevMo; Mission Liquors; and Wally's; $20 to $27.
Bafferts (England, 80 proof). This brand boasts that it uses the fewest botanicals on the market, making it halfway between a gin and a vodka. Several tasters noted an anise or licorice note in the nose, and a pleasant, viscous mouth-feel but none considered it above average. At Beverage Warehouse; BevMo; Mission Liquors; Wally's; and Wine & Liquor Depot; $20 to $25.
Hamptons (Minnesota, 94 proof). Aggressive palate, a good feature in a mixer. Less good news in the nose: One taster called it pleasantly piney but others compared it to after-shave lotion. At BevMo and Hi-Time Wine Cellars; $24 to $26.
Mercury (England, 94 proof). Everybody liked the cone-shaped blue bottle but nobody found this gin exciting. Pot distilled. At Mission Liquors, $35.
Desert Juniper (Oregon, 80 proof). This distiller uses local Oregon juniper, but Desert Juniper has remarkably little aroma; "muted" was the kindest comment. At Beverage Warehouse; BevMo; and Wally's; $23 to $40.
Cascade Mountain (Oregon, 95 proof). Like Desert Juniper, from the same distiller, this was faulted for lacking juniper aroma and being "raspy," "salty" and "flat" on the palate. At Beverage Warehouse; BevMo; Hi-Time Wine Cellars; and Wally's; $23 to $28.
Graffiti (Scotland, 80 proof). It sounded good: distilled five times in a 140-year-old copper still. But tasters found an unappealing lemon or lime nose. At Beverage Warehouse; BevMo; and Hi-Time Wine Cellars; $25 to $27.
Magellan (France, 80 proof). The gin has a pretty blue color but nobody liked its flavor: "wimpy on the nose, blunt in the mouth," "starts with a burn, ends with chemicals." At Beverage Warehouse; BevMo; Hi-Time Wine Cellars; and Mission Liquors; $24 to $31.
Sarticious (California, 80 proof). This Santa Cruz product was the least liked. The nose was compared to spoiled orange peel, the palate declared harsh and soapy. At Beverage Warehouse; BevMo; Hi-Time Wine Cellars, $26 to $30.
-- Charles Perry