Gin cocktails make a splashy comeback

RETRO: The gin cocktail Aviation will be served at the new Father’s Office.
RETRO: The gin cocktail Aviation will be served at the new Father’s Office.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

GIN cocktails are having a moment. Now that gin, no longer shouldered aside by vodka, has reclaimed its rightful place in classic cocktails -- not just in the martini but in the Greyhound, the Bronx, even (according to some) the Red Snapper, a.k.a. the Bloody Mary -- L.A.'s latest bartenders are stepping up with their own imaginative gin creations.

It’s gin with cucumber, dry sherry, lemon juice and a little simple syrup in the Cucumber, Gin and Sherry Twist served at just-opened West Hollywood steakhouse BLT Steak. Organic gin and lime juice are flecked with Thai basil in the Emerald City cocktail at the new vegan- and vegetarian-friendly restaurant and bar Akasha in Culver City. At Foxtail supper club in West Hollywood, a cocktail called the Uva Bella features gin with muddled grapes, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, lemon juice and orange bitters.

And at the new Father’s Office in Culver City (currently slated to open at the end of the month), owner Sang Yoon’s cocktail menu lists only five cocktails -- three of which are made with gin. They’re classics, but each with his own twist.


Maybe more of these delicious gin opportunities rolled into town with the latest wave of steakhouses, or they started showing up when big platters of shellfish and oysters were suddenly in vogue again (after all, it doesn’t get much better than a model martini and a bone-in rib-eye or plateau de fruits de mer). Some made their way here along with an influx of East Coast bar tending sensibilities, perpetuated by “I-wouldn’t-be-caught-dead-with-a-soda-gun” drink slingers.

Bartenders’ bartender Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club in New York has certainly helped bring back the gin cocktail. The mecca of handcrafted drinks (with more than 30 gins at the bar) is named after the Pegu Club cocktail, the signature quaff of the late-1800s Rangoon hangout for Brit colonialists. It’s gin, lime juice, orange Curaçao, Angostura bitters and orange bitters. The drink -- refreshing and snappy with its bitter and citrus components -- had slipped into obscurity, though now it might as well be the poster drink of the cocktail culture. It’s a purist’s drink, but it also comes across as modern.

Saunders’ signature drinks are often gin-based: the French Pearl martini, with a little Pernod; the Gin-Gin Mule, in which gin replaces the vodka of a Moscow Mule (made with ginger beer and lime); and the Earl Grey Marteani, with tea-infused gin, in which the notes of bergamot meet the botanicals of gin.

Gin lends itself to the appealing cocktails that bartenders have lately been inclined to mix -- dry-herbal-fresh or aromatic-bitter rather than sweet and too fruity or sweet-creamy. And gin fits right in with a current infatuation with herbs, botanicals and green flavors.

Its brisk, piney character with the aromas and flavors of such botanicals as juniper berries, coriander, citrus peel, orrisroot, aniseed and angelica attracted 19th-century mixologists despite its then somewhat medicinal qualities. Now, as the boutique gin market expands and small distilleries come out with unique combinations of botanicals -- cucumbers, almonds, rose petals, fennel, cardamom, lavender, cubeb pepper, grains of paradise, Indian sarsaparilla -- gin has shed its “Christmas-tree-in-a-bottle” reputation.

A garden in a glass

“GIN is like looking at the rainbow -- a whole combination of flavors transformed on your palate,” says Francesco Lafranconi, national director of mixology and spirits educator for distributor Southern Wine & Spirits. “When you smell the gin, all these aromas and fragrances have these invisible associations -- like the way notes of rose and citrus bring you back to pleasing moments. Other white spirits in general don’t do that right away.”

Gin fanciers, beware: Exuberant experimentation doesn’t always result in a balanced spirit, which is, of course, the goal in a great cocktail.

Because of the range of flavors and aromas in gin, cocktails are designed to highlight the botanical particularities of certain gins. A few bartender favorites indicate the possibilities. Plymouth, a smooth gin with no single botanical dominating, is great for a lot of cocktails. Saffron-infused Old Raj has a floral nose, with citrus, pepper and tobacco notes. A gin called Junípero is heady and powerful, with a big juniper nose and a citrus note on the palate. And distillers are exploring more gin styles. San Francisco-based Anchor Distilling (the maker of Junípero) recently came out with Genevieve, a Genever- or Dutch-style gin -- it’s fuller-bodied, a little sweeter than the more common London dry style.

With gin as the base, you can go in several cocktail directions -- fruit-based, such as with citrus and berries, or nutty-savory with sherry, or herbaceous.

In general, savory herbs -- thyme, sage, cilantro -- go well with gin, Lafranconi says. He suggests an easy twist on a gin and tonic: Add a sprig of thyme and “it becomes more ethereal.” Akasha restaurant’s Emerald City cocktail is chock-full of fragrant, sweet-peppery Thai basil.

Fresh fruit enhances the flavor of the gin. “I like to use citrus (grapefruit, lime, kalamansi, yuzu) as a base,” Lafranconi says. “The acidity of citrus brings out the character of the gin and all of its botanical elements. And raspberries and gin -- I just think it’s a great marriage.

But if there’s too much sugar in the cocktail -- very sweet juices, purées or syrups -- it will flatten the gin out.”

One of his own just-developed drinks is the Winkle (muddle three sage leaves and three raspberries with three-fourths ounce of organic agave nectar and 1 ounce lime juice in a shaker, add ice and 2 ounces of Plymouth gin, shake for 12 seconds, then strain into a cocktail glass).

Gin’s delicious with champagne too. At a recent party at the Doheny, the downtown members-only cocktail lounge, bartender Eric Alperin was serving his Purple Heart cocktail -- gin with lemon juice, a little simple syrup, topped with Champagne and a float of cherry brandy liqueur (his take on a French 75).

Sherry and sweet vermouth are fantastic with gin. For an easy cocktail, add a float of sweet vermouth to gin and tonic. But “if it’s not good-quality vermouth, don’t bother,” Lafranconi says.

BLT Steak wine and beverage director Colin Campbell has put his Cucumber, Gin and Sherry Twist on the cocktail menu at Laurent Tourondel’s newest BLT Steak on Sunset Boulevard.

“The vegetal, sweet aroma in cucumber melds well with the anise aspect of the gin,” Campbell says. (He uses Hendrick’s gin, which has a floral character.) “And the sherry -- it’s a dry sherry that creates an underlying flavor with not too much sweetness, a third dimension that goes well with the cucumber and gin. And the finish -- that nutty, delicate, crisp finish -- it’s perfect with gin.”

‘I tasted a lot of gins’

TO make great gin cocktails, Lafranconi and Yoon say, it’s important to consider not only the wide array of flavor profiles but also the range of alcohol strength. Plymouth is 82.4 proof, for example; Old Raj is 110. “I don’t think bartenders nowadays are paying enough attention to this,” Lafranconi says. It changes the way “all the elements [in a cocktail] fix together.”

At the new Father’s Office, Yoon’s gin selection is Junípero, Genevieve, Plymouth and Old Raj. “I tasted a lot of gins, and I picked the ones I liked best for each cocktail,” he says.

His Negroni is made with Plymouth gin, Luxardo bitters (instead of Campari) and Punt e Mes Italian dry vermouth (instead of sweet vermouth). It’s deliciously bitter (less harshly so than a traditional Negroni made with Campari) and smooth, and aromatic from the Punt e Mes.

According to the menu: “No substitutions, modifications, alterations or deletions. Yes, really.” But you get a little leeway with the martini: The Office Martini is Lillet Blanc and Regan’s orange bitters with your choice of gin.

“Some of our heaviest-selling drinks are the gin drinks,” says consultant Ryan Magarian of Liquid Relations, who creates the cocktail menus for SBE-owned venues such as Katsuya and Foxtail. “And I’d say that 90% of vodka cocktails are better with gin -- the Cosmopolitan, for instance.”

Magarian says he “didn’t know what to do” with gin in his early days tending bar, but then he tried a drink called the Aviation. The Aviation, which combines gin with lemon juice and maraschino liqueur, was, for him, “a life-changing gin cocktail.” Magarian is now so taken with gin that he has been making his own, called Aviation. He’s carved a new niche for himself: “distillologist.”