Gin has long been a stigmatized spirit. To many people, it is tantamount to swill, liquor tried once, associated with mistakes or "gincidents." The term "bathtub gin" refers to any poorly made spirit.
Recently the stain has faded, and gin has moved toward a more prominent place on bar shelves, due in large part to the efforts of craft distillers and bartenders who champion craft cocktails.
"What we saw as bartenders in the last five or six years or so was a real explosion, especially in American gins," says Mark Schettler, general manager at Bar Tonique (820 N. Rampart St., 504-324-6045; www.bartonique.com) and president of New Orleans' chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild. Prior to that, gin generally fell into one of three categories: genever (sweeter gin associated with the Netherlands), London dry gin and Old Tom, which sits in the middle in terms of sweetness. But distillation laws were relaxed within the U.S., allowing for more experimentation, more spice and new flavors. New American gin emerged, and consumers took note.
"I think what [American craft distilleries] are trying to do is offer something other than that traditional London 'dry,' really harsh gin people are used to," says Robby Farmer, bar manager at Bayona (430 Dauphine St., 504-525-4455; www.bayona.com). "These new gins are a little more elegant, have floral notes, are a little smoother — just more accessible to people who normally wouldn't like that really harsh, piney gin."
Tucked under the South Broad Street overpass, Atelier Vie is one such distillery. Founder Jedd Haas opens its doors to the public for tastings from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. He agrees that traditional gins can be off-putting, overpowering or both — and he admits he disliked gin the first time he tried it. "There's a huge blast of juniper, and maybe not so much else, flavorwise," he says of typical British-style gins. The result is an oft-overlooked spirit, which drinkers now are revisiting.
"Guests are more comfortable ordering gin cocktails," Schettler says. "They trust the category a little bit more."
Farmer agrees, observing that more people are willing to experiment with gin, either featured in a cocktail or as a secondary spirit in a drink.
Locally, gin's growing acceptance has to do with the inventive ways bartenders are using the spirit. Previously gins were almost exclu- sively mixed with tonic. Now some local bars mix it with house-made tonics. Corpse Revivers (gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, Lillet and a dash of absinthe) are cropping up on cocktail menus around the city, and Aviations (gin, maraschino liqueur and lemon juice) are more common than five years ago. For New Orleans flair, Atelier Vie's Euphrosine Gin #9 Barrel-Finished Reserve is a smooth sipping gin aged in second-use whiskey barrels, which lends itself perfectly to a barrel-aged gin Sazerac.
Haas says there is ample creativity and room for exploration with gin, and he expects to see more styles of the spirit introduced. Schettler distills the gin renaissance to its practical core, saying "I have more tools at my disposal to make the drink that's perfect for you."