As a college student, Aaron Knoll first became acquainted with gin at 3:45 in the morning in a bar in Buffalo, N.Y., when a bartender made him his first gin and tonic. Soon, a taste for gin developed into a passion. For six years, Knoll has blogged about the spirit at The Gin Is In, and his second book on the subject, Gin: The Art and Craft of the Artisan Revival in 300 Distilleries, will be published in September of this year. An expert on gin and gin cocktails, Knoll shared with Lodging the most exciting aspects of the current gin revival, and how hotel bars can capitalize on this spirit’s growing profile.
How did your interest in gin become a passion? A lot of it was timing, I think. I was introduced to the spirit right at the start of the craft gin explosion, where small local brands were starting to appear on the shelf in liquor stores and gin was expanding beyond just Beefeater and Bombay tucked on a shelf below the flavored vodka. There was a lot of intrigue and creativity and range—so there was a lot to talk about. That really was the launching point of my blog, and soon I started talking with distillers and learning how they approach their craft. And the best part is that the industry is still expanding. I don’t think a week goes by without hearing about a new gin being produced in a new part of the world. If anything, the pace at which new gins are being developed is accelerating.
Gin fell out of favor for a while, so why do you think it’s experiencing a resurgence now? One factor is definitely the cyclical nature of trends, like, gin was uncool and now it’s coming back. But there are other factors that are helping gin have this heyday. One of them is that bartenders have more knowledge and awareness of this spirit, and they’re making it an integral part of cocktail culture. Another is that the very definition of what spirits “count” as gin is changing. For a long time, the only type of gin out there was a fine liquor with a very juniper-forward profile, and it didn’t fit into cocktail culture and didn’t really sell. Then, in the early 2000s, new gins with cucumber-forward and rose-forward profiles started to hit the market. The idea that gin could be a flavored spirit with a wide range of possibilities made drinkers more open to it, and not liking one particular type of gin didn’t necessarily mean that someone wouldn’t like other types. I don’t think there has ever been a time in history where there has been such a diverse range of gins as there are today.
How can bars and restaurants capitalize on this diversity without getting completely overwhelmed? When incorporating gin into your bar program, you have to acknowledge and understand that gin is not a monolithic category. There are deviations similar to what you see in whiskey, and the biggest differentiator between individual brands is really the taste. It can become a challenge in the sense that you really can’t divide gins into categories based on the label, as those won’t tell you if a gin is juniper-, rose-, or citrus-forward.
Also, even though there are more people drinking gin today than there were 10 years ago, it is still really a cocktail-based spirit, so if you’re talking about adding gin to your bar program, you have to think in terms of a cocktail program. That way, your bartender can really take advantage of getting to know each gin and the sort of cocktails it fits best with. You can pair a floral gin with more floral components, or you can pair it with something less complementary and get two very different cocktails with different sensibilities. My biggest piece of advice would be to embrace the range of gin and think about cocktails that can play on the gin’s main note, and use those flavors to create something that will circumvent your guests’ expectations.
What do you recommend for a bar looking to bring a local gin into its establishment? If possible, visiting the distillery and tasting the gin for yourself is imperative. I’ve never encountered a distillery that didn’t want to talk, at length, about their product. Additionally, there are a lot of people out there interested in gin and writing about gin. It’s not hard to find experts who can explain the tasting notes and how gin functions in a cocktail. We can give you the basics, but I should note that there really is no comparison for going out and tasting the product yourself. It’s a subjective, personal experience, and we can help explain what you’re tasting, but we can’t taste it for you.
Having a local gin behind your bar can also be a great way to get guests to try new things. “Local” is a powerful word. Someone might say she doesn’t like gin that tastes like roses, but if you’re at a bar in Arizona and the bartender tells this customer that the gin is local, she’ll be more likely to try it because it directly relates to her current experience.
Beyond local spirits, what other gin trends should bars and restaurants be aware of? Aged gin, which is rested in bourbon barrels or wine casks, is finding a strong footing these days. There’s not really a ton out there cocktail-wise when it comes to aged gin, but I’m starting to see a lot of whiskey drinkers drinking aged gin. Bartenders are also using aged gin in drinks like a Manhattan or an old-fashioned, treating it like a bourbon and integrating it into their bar program that way. If you want to quickly bring a new liquor into your bar that will have overlap appeal, aged gin is really a great way to do it. A lot of distillers do aged gin now, so there are a lot of local variations, so it’s a way to increase your establishment’s gin range and expose people who might not otherwise drink gin into this world.