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From Behind The Bar: Thinking About Gin

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He'll be stopping by each week to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.

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[Photographs: Jessica Leibowitz]

What I'm Drinking:
DH Krahn Gin Gimlet (Rocks)

Had I not thought to dab a bit of Hendrick's gin behind my ears and on each wrist before our first date, things might have turned out quite differently for my wife and me. I was a bartender, she a cocktail waitress. The very strong implication in this statement is that "the rest is history." While it wasn't nearly that simple, I eventually managed to make her my own. In the ensuing years, we've discovered that, while common interest is the cement of a relationship, conflict adds essential seasoning. We share a love of children's literature, card games, smart-ass remarks, dive bars and fine restaurants, but gin is our line of demarcation.

She loves it. I hate it.

A bartender who dislikes gin is generally considered to either not understand its use, or to possess a palate more geared toward SoCo/Lime or Grey Goose/Redbull. While ignorance can be forgiven and palates educated, a mixologist who hates gin might be thought of even less kindly. It was gin that warmed the modern mixology revolution, after all. What would you prefer instead? Vodka?

Maybe. If you think about it, gin pretty much is flavored vodka. You're taking a neutral grain spirit, infusing it with certain botanicals, putting it in a bottle, and shipping it off to market. If those flavors are juniper, citrus peel, coriander, and angelica, you get to call it gin. If they are bison grass, green tea, bubble gum, grapefruit, cotton candy, or Tahitian vanilla, its called vodka.

There are as many ways to produce flavor as there are gins in the marketplace. If maceration is your game, you soak your juniper, citrus, and spices, then distill the whole mixture like a gigantic tea bag. Otherwise, vaporous alcohol is forced through a wad of botanicals before condensation. Some gins use both methods. Some use the original mash to macerate, then distill the spirit. Others start with a high-proof neutral-grain spirit then go from there.

Regardless of process, every formula is secret; every process proprietary. Gin is one of those spirits that marketing people tend to talk about with a healthy dose of hyperbole. Every formula is "utterly unique."

For bartenders, that's not just hyperbole. Gins are not interchangeable; the differences are why gin cocktails are fun to make. Try this at home: make a traditional Negroni (1-1-1 Gin-Sweet Vermouth-Campari) with Beefeater, Plymouth, Hendrick's, and something cheap, like Seagram's. Same cocktail, same proportions, wildly different drinks. Tweaking each recipe to compensate for its gin profile is a great way to practice achieving balance in a cocktail, and a beautifully drunken way to pass a rainy afternoon. Make sure to invite friends.

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So back to my gin handicap.

In terms of spirits, my favorite flavor is "oak." Just about anything I drink for the fun of it has touched wood at some point. Most likely new, charred wood, though used barrels make their appearance as well. But the more you taste, the more you appreciate, and the world grows wider.

Today, I took an ounce or so of DH Krahn gin, added two cubes of ice, and sipped it like I would a dram of good bourbon. The juniper is there, but it's not too heavy. There's a thread of coriander and ginger winding through. The citrus brings beautiful balance. It wasn't a stretch to add a couple squeezes of lime and a barspoon of sugar. There's my gimlet, and it is delicious.

I've made hundreds of cocktails with this gin, and I call the guy who makes it my friend. It has been a shamefully long time since I've tasted it the way it is meant to be tasted, which is a good lesson. Good spirits deserve their due, and it doesn't pay to let my own prejudice get between me and a fine sip.

The upside is that I have another bottle I can share with my wife. While I might not be ready to join her in her enthusiasm for gin as a category, a little more harmony at the cocktail hour might not hurt either of us.

She does love her Jagermeister, so the spice of conflict is guaranteed to continue.

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