∴ A Gin-off: Locals and One From Far, Far Away

2016 05 08 17 13 41

This was perhaps the most difficult head-to-head taste-off I’ve enjoyed. Left to right: Strange Monkey Gin, Silverback Distillery, Afton, Virginia; The Botanist Islay Dry Gin, Bruichladdich Distillery, Islay, Scotland; Watershed Gin, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company, Purcellville, Virginia.
The Botanist has been a go-to gin for the Vesper, a favorite warm-weather cocktail, for a while. Moderately floral with a juniper-forward flavor, it blends well with just about anything. Add a dash of bitters and it melds with anything else. The Botanist’s bright, clean flavor, devoid of aftertaste, sets it apart as a prime ingredient in any gin cocktail. Top of the top shelf.
Watershed Gin was the surprise local upstart a year or two back, earning a prime spot in my line-up with its clean flavor. More floral with slightly sweeter aftertaste than The Botanist, I’m hard-pressed to favor either. Watershed compares favorably with Bombay Sapphire. Tie-breaker goes to local origin – Watershed. Priced similarly to The Botanist, you won’t find better ingredients for your cocktails.
Enter our latest discovery, found on a mead-buying, cider-sampling run to Afton, Virginia last weekend. On a lark Neal and I stopped in at Silverback Distillery for a tasting, after hearing a positive mention from Kristin at Blue Toad cidery.

Silverback offered two liquors for sampling. Their Blackback White liquor was, as expected, a novelty not appealing for purchase by the bottle (same goes for Mosby’s Spirit from Catoctin Creek). White liquor is what you get right out of the still before re-distilling for vodka or dispensing into barrels for maturation into whiskey. It’s an interesting bit of distilling education, and maybe one could concoct a cocktail of it, but I wouldn’t. Too raw.
Blackback is for sale now, but a portion of the output goes into barrels, eventually becoming Silverback’s bourbon. There’ll be a multi-year wait for maturation, hence the sale of Blackback today. Whiskeys are an investment; white liquors are cash flow. Made of corn, winter wheat and barley, Blackback will produce a wheated bourbon. “Wheaters,” as they’re known, are softer and rounder in flavor than regular bourbons.

Silverback’s gin, though, was intriguing. Again made with winter wheat, Strange Monkey provided a juniper flavor that finished uniquely sweet. Not your usual gin experience. Seeing my interest piqued, Neal kindly gifted me with a bottle for experimentation, which led to this work. After an afternoon of yard work in Virginia’s warm, delayed spring wind, the sky full of sun for the first full day in nearly two weeks, and after a recovery loaf on the floor with my girls it was time for a taste-off.
Strange Monkey is also floral, though not as much as Watershed, and its juniper is less forward than that of The Botanist. On those counts you could call this a flavorful, pleasant gin similar to the other two.
After sipping among the three, comparing and contrasting, the only negative I found in Strange Monkey was its unique sweetness. Strange Monkey won two competition awards in 2015, so I’m compelled to add that this is obviously a matter of personal taste. Others find its sweetness endearing. It’s a minor quibble that left me puzzled – every sip began with enjoyment of the floral, juniper flavor and ended with a question mark over the aftertaste.
Watershed possesses a very minor degree of this sweetness, too, though The Botanist, clean as the wind-swept Hebrides from which it emerges, is devoid of it. The hint of Watershed’s sweetness is what makes it a treat for use in cocktails. So it comes down to how much of this sweetness you’ll enjoy before finding it off-putting.
I needed a more complex sampling to understand how Strange Money played with other flavors, so I incorporated it into both a Vesper, at 3-1-¼ with Tito’s vodka and Cocchi Americano, and a Martini at about 7:1 with dry vermouth. I’d normally use a potato vodka in the Vesper for its earthy flavor, but I wanted no interference with the gin flavor for this tasting. Both cocktails were stirred over ice in a mixing glass to simultaneously reach optimal temperature and dilution. A few sips of each and a conclusion was reached.
The Botanist stands alone in its stark sharpness. Go here for fine gin flavor, full stop.
Watershed Gin remains my sentimental and flavorful favorite by a hair, though. As with a favored warm bourbon, this gin will grace my Vespers and Martinis for a long while. (I should sneak it into my pals’ cocktails just to see their unknowing enjoyment.) Not as crisp as The Botanist, Watershed more than succeeds with its floral scent and flavor. A head-to-head against Bombay Sapphire would be fun with this one.
Either way you win with these two. Experiment. Maybe you’ll take one over the other. Write about it if you do – I’d like to learn why.
Strange Monkey remains an experimental ingredient. Though initially bright and flavorful, I’m undecided on its use due to the underlying and lasting sweetness. I wouldn’t use this gin in a Vesper any more than I would Hendrick’s, though I like the latter very much. And though I’ll always relish a Hendrick’s Martini, I don’t think I care for Strange Monkey in a Martini, either. I’d say this one will mix well into a sour such as a Gimlet, its sweetness offsetting some of the grapefruit sourness and making for a yummy cocktail. Another day’s entertainment.
So: Watershed, The Botanist, Strange Monkey, in that order. Add Bombay Safire between the first two just for the hell of it.
Yeah, I love Virginia. We have a surprising number of breweries, distilleries, meaderies and cideries, with more on the way. Another few open every month, it seems. And I like a good gin. Somewhere, an old friend is smiling. “Think of a pine forest.”