Bartender Jeremy Olivier of Down House is passionate about gin. In fact, Olivier is so into the spirit that he recently presented an entire “Gin Craze” dinner at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Rienzi House, where each of the four courses was paired with one of Olivier's gin cocktails. But on a typical day, you can find him spreading the good word of gin at Down House.
"Gin is a lot more interesting than other white spirits," declares Olivier. "Rum is pretty one-note and vodka doesn’t bring a lot to the table."
How did this love affair get started? Actually, Olivier and I have that in common: we both received our initial gin education via Anvil Bar & Refuge’s first-ever gin class.
Many of us have had a bad gin experience. I remember my own quite clearly. The first time I tried gin, the heavy juniper flavor seemed akin to drinking diluted pine tree sap. The second time around, a coworker tried to "prove" that I liked gin by feeding me shots of Bombay Sapphire made palatable with sugar and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. While that didn't taste too bad, I was indisposed by the end of the evening.
Based on those experiences, the first time I walked into Anvil Bar & Refuge in 2009 (which, at the time, was one of the few places to get a quality classic cocktail in Houston) I declared to bartender Sebastian Nahapetian that I didn’t like gin. He asked me to just try something, and made a Pegu Club for me. At this point I had to sheepishly admit that, well, maybe I didn't hate all gins. Anvil’s first “100 list” of must-try classic cocktails and that subsequent class on gin exposed me to a range of styles, thus confirming my change of heart. (By the way, you can now find Nahapetian as well as former Anvil alumni Aaron Lara behind the bar at the newly-opened Lillo & Ella.)
Over the last several years, new styles of gin have emerging that aren’t just dry, boozy, juniper bombs. In Tanqueray 10, for example, juniper is balanced with grapefruit, lime, orange, coriander, and chamomile flower. Additionally, there are old-fashioned, gentler styles available on the market, such as Old Tom and genever. These styles tend to be sweeter than the London dry style that most people are first exposed to. Gin has become an extremely broad spirit category, and as a result there’s something out there likely to please just about anyone.
“There’s so much variety now that there’s probably a gin out there for you,” says Olivier. “It’s undergoing a modern resurgence. There are so many new gins, gin distillers and flavor profiles that there are now new ways of thinking about it, too.”
Does this mean that more people are open to trying gin these days? "They’re becoming more receptive," says Oliver. "My favorite thing is when I people who normally get a vodka martini try the house version [with gin, dry vermouth and orange bitters] and like it. It may still not be their favorite, but they were open to it. We like exposing people to new experiences that they enjoy."
In a tribute to the summer season and Olivier's passion for the spirit, about half of Down House’s specialty cocktails include gin right now. And if you're also a vodka martini drinker, Down House may just be able to change your mind.
Some of America's best-known classic cocktails include gin: negronis, gimlets, martinis, and that staple—gin and tonic. There's a gin that best matches each of these. Sure, you could use London Dry for everything, but just like with clothing, the one-size-fits-all approach is rarely the most flattering.
Oliver has a variety of favorites depending on what he’s making. Broker’s Gin, a London dry style from Birmingham, England; Bluecoat, an American dry gin from Philadelphia and St. George Dry Rye Gin, which is made in Alameda, California. For Down House's gin and tonics, Olivier uses Q Tonic, a brand that he says is not too sweet. If you’re feeling more ambitious, you might check out Kimberly Paul’s homemade tonic recipe that was created for Osteria Mazzatini’s gin and tonic, featured in this month's issue of Houstonia.
Why talk about gin now? Most people find that their drinking preferences change with the seasons. And, as Olivier says, "Dark spirits, like whiskeys and cognacs, are associated with winter. Gin is associated with summer."
So, go forth and try a new gin cocktail while the weather is right. You might be surprised at how much you like it.