Gin is the best white spirit, and its reward for this distinction is an unfounded but excellent reputation for spookiness and danger. Long before Reddit’s baddest boyz started taking pictures of “shower beer” balanced precariously atop their guts, the true freedom fighters of the 1920s battled Prohibition with bathtub-bred liquors modeled on gin, the most popular drink of the day. It was widely known at the time that this homemade stuff might kill you, or at least your eyesight, but what good is a life without risk or liquor?
Gin’s popularity waned for several decades after the repeal of Prohibition, as it paired poorly with mid-century cultural mainstays like cowboy fantasies and concentrated fruit juice. But we’ve seen a comeback lately for a number of reasons, including the righteous and unlikely rise of the negroni; a new breed of bartenders who like to make things difficult on themselves (even the simplest variety has a lot going on, making it tricky to blend with other, lesser liquids); drinkers who fancy themselves too sophisticated for vodka; and the simple fact that gin rules.
Gin is distilled ethanol dosed with juniper berries and whatever other “aromatics” and “botanicals” its creator fancies. (This is why it’s often referred to as the original flavored vodka.) And while the gin aisle hasn’t been debased with all of the Pop Tart-y bullshit that’s wrecked vodka’s good name, gin producers do use a wide range of natural flavors—herbs, spices, roots, rinds—which makes the following list definitive and infallible, and also even more dubious than usual.
I tasted these blind to avoid being influenced by preconceived notions, so that part of the game was legit, but there’s always going to be a ton of personal preference in one’s gin list, even more so than when dealing with other categories of booze: It’s an honest body’s moral obligation, but also a bit scattershot.
Prices given are for a 750-milliliter bottle at BevMo; this ranking doesn’t take cost or perceived mixability into account. Let’s hit it.
11. Tanqueray London Dry (Scotland, these days; 94.6 proof; $25)
Well I’ll be damned, and I bet most of the rest of you will be, too. I didn’t go into this tasting with a specific bias toward Tanqueray, but I can’t guarantee I’d have had the confidence to rank it last had I seen the labels before I assigned the scores, because it seems so deliberately contrarian.
Tanqueray London Dry’s been around since 1830, making it the oldest gin in the lineup, and it’s also one of the least complicated, with just four botanicals: juniper, coriander, angelica root, and licorice root. This gives it a very light nose of mostly alcohol, augmented by mild notes of pine and mint. It tastes acceptable, but cheap. Updated versions, such as the high-end Ten or Rangpur (which is tricked out with lime and ginger), are probably better, but they’ll have to wait for the next taste test.
10. Hendrick’s (Scotland; 88 proof; $40)
And the accidental trolling continues, as although I vastly preferred this to Tanqueray, I still probably didn’t like it as much as I was supposed to. I feared that the famous additions of cucumber and rose would give this one away, but they weren’t as pronounced as the pine, black pepper, and earth that provide an unassuming, rustic character. Hendrick’s is pleasant and mellow, with a slight medicinal edge and a lack of secondary complexity that keep it out of the top tier, but firmly within the bounds of drinkability. Pretty expensive, though.
9. Bombay Dry (England; 86 proof; $23)
This tastes like lemon and juniper. Hey, cool, everyone likes lemon and juniper! There’s a little bit of cinnamon in there at the end, too, but this gin is still very basic (or “classic,” I suppose, if you’re writing for Bombay’s marketing department). It’s good-enough stuff, and will suit the more grizzled gin-soaks who don’t go in for all the fancy roots and spices the kids are throwing in their booze these days. This is a good selection for people who think they like Tanqueray.
8. Seagram’s Extra Dry (USA; 80 proof; $13.49)
Not bad for the price. The aroma and flavor are both fairly light, which is usually for the best in this weight class. The juniper’s joined by bits and pieces of orange and cinnamon, plus maybe a little coriander; there’s also some mild heat that probably comes from a cheap grain-alcohol base, but I’m feeling generous (and it’s slightly vegetable-feeling), so let’s call it, I dunno, poblano.
7. New Amsterdam (USA; 80 proof; $13)
Another very credible budget gin. I had low hopes for this Californian number, as the marketing seems a bit too slick—I didn’t think there’d be much dough left for juniper-shopping once all the billboards had been paid for, but I was pleasantly surprised by the pine, floral, and orange-cream flavor. It’s got a bit more burn than an 80-proofer ought, but it’s also the most ambitiously flavored gin in its price range.
6. Gordon’s (Canada; 80 proof; $11 [estimate based on $22 for 1.75L bottle]) The traditional juniper and citrus aromas are joined by an earthy, woody undercurrent that turns the whole affair a bit rustic; I’d believe Master Gordon if he told me this was even barrel-aged for a few minutes, based on the aroma. It tastes cleaner and more straightforward than it smells, settling nicely into a proud-if-basic resin and lemon profile.
5. Bulldog (England; 80 proof; $27) This relatively new model was released in 2007, and its recipe is quite the departure from British gin tradition. It employs a dozen botanicals, several of which lean to the weird side—dragon eye, white poppy, lotus leaves—but all of the usual suspects are there, too. So you’ve got juniper and lemon and cassia, etc., combining with the funky stuff to produce a very pleasant gin that tastes a bit more like a peppermint candy cane than the manufacturer may have intended. I like Bulldog a lot, but it doesn’t blow my tongue’s mind the way it’s maybe supposed to. But that said, I like candy canes.
4. Bombay Sapphire (England; 94 proof; $26)
Introduced in 1987 to inject a little life into the staid gin market, this iconic blue-bottled beaut bridges the gap between the old and new styles of dry gin. It smells like strong, straight-ahead juniper, very clean and classic and familiar, with some warm spice and citrus notes as well. During the blind tasting, I guessed this was either Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray, because it makes a very strong impression of GOOD GIN without tasting like too big a departure from traditional techniques and ingredients.
3. Farmer’s Botanical (USA; 93 proof; $34)
This delightful Minnesotan oddity tastes very distinct, for although the requisite juniper jumps out front, there’s all sorts of soft floral notes, along with a spicy black pepper quality that serves as a great counterpoint to the sweet elderflower. This is a complex, multifaceted gin that makes good on its ambitious promise.
2. Beefeater (England; 94 proof; $19)
This surprised me as much as the Tanqueray debacle. Beefeater’s not a complicated gin, but juniper, lemon, orange, licorice, and coriander come together cleanly and in perfect balance to produce a smooth yet assertive drink that doesn’t taste anywhere near as harsh as its 94 proof would suggest.
1. St. George Botanivore (USA; 90 proof; $35)
If Beefeater is the best of the old guard, then this leads the new. It’s stuffed full of 19 botanicals, most of them fairly traditional—coriander, angelica, caraway, cinnamon—but also goddamn cilantro and Citra hops! (Cilantro and coriander come from the same plant, but they don’t taste anything alike.) The result is a spectacular gin that manages to come across as both traditional and utterly unique. If I were every elevated to the sort of character who drinks straight gin, this’d be the one.
So there it is. There are tons of other brands out there: St. George makes two other bottlings (Dry Rye and Terroir), and there are all the variations of Tanqueray, plus dozens of other common-enough brands all across the price spectrum. But the cheater’s dozen ranked above represent a fairly broad cross-section of what you’re most likely to find in your nearest barroom, liquor store, or thoughtfully appointed bathtub. Share your favorites below.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.