Exposure is the key to properly understanding and appreciating the flavors in a spirit. Gin drinkers get the most variety taste-wise, as anyone who has thoughtfully tasted the nuances in a glass can attest. That’s why the casual gin drinker is more likely to have a better developed palate than someone who lives and dies by whiskey, rum or any other drink.
To which true gin believers respond: “obviously.” If only the non-gin drinking public could see that and show some appreciation—especially the people who think that their palates are superior. You know the type. They’re in bars holding their glass to candlelight as if the dim yellow glow can help them unlock some taste secret. They’re in liquor stores talking about that time they tried some super rare whiskey (“Pappy,” they say with the familiarity of an old friend) as they grab a bottle of Old Overholt from the bottom shelf. They’re just as breathlessly enamored online, writing long winded reviews on reddit and posting angry Facebook comments directed at anyone who disagrees with their drinking opinion.
They can all simmer down. Gin drinkers aren’t like that and they don’t have to be. Gin, to put it bluntly, is more interesting. The average gin lover is exposed to more flavors, and therefore is more likely to have a more advanced palate, than the average whiskey drinker (or any other type of casual imbiber for that matter). One disclaimer: This doesn’t apply to the highest levels in the industry. Those people really know flavors, not just tasting notes from their favorite blog. You know who you are.
The first and most obvious reason that gin drinkers have a leg up is simply all of the variety. There’s London Dry, Plymouth, Old Tom, Navy Strength, contemporary style gin and gins that are in who knows what category. By law, gin must “derive its main characteristic flavor from juniper berries.” And even if the law required 99 percent of flavor to come from juniper, gin would be diverse. English juniper is the taste that people most associate with gin, but there are softer ones like the Italian juniper used in Walter Collective Gin, or the local junipers used in gins by St. George and Bully Boy Distillers. A juniper bomb from England isn’t the same as one from America. And that’s just one botanical. Now tack on all the different types of citrus, cardamom, licorice and the countless other things that are used to create a balanced gin. There’s even a gin flavored with seaweed. Gin can be pretty much anything and everything at once.
That’s a lot of scents and flavors for gin drinkers to be exposed to, but they can handle it. Humans can detect a trillion smells. Experience is the only way to learn smells and tastes, and gin drinkers get more experience because they come across so many different combinations. If they’re confused and curious about what’s inside, no problem. What’s in the gin is easy to find online (even if it’s presented curiously like Hendrick’s does) making it easier to pick out the different notes and combinations.
Which brings us to the actual tasting.
“Whiskey comes at varying levels of ABV,” says Michelle Hunt, the co-founder of the Martini Club in Toronto. “Palate fatigue comes faster with whiskey. From that argument alone, gin drinkers are picking off and enjoying more of the subtleties within the liquid.”
Hunt admits the whiskey comparison is a little like comparing apples to oranges, but there are some truths here that can’t be ignored. Look at cocktails—a category that gin is an overwhelming favorite in. Stick to just one style (London Dry for gin and bourbon for whiskey, for example) and try swapping different brands in cocktails. Gins at the same price point have enough distinctive qualities that it can change a drink, while bourbon not so much.
“Gin’s success has come down to its usability,” says Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge, the brand ambassador for Plymouth Gin. “Light, dry and easy to mix, and yet complex and flavorful. It is why gin is the base for so many of the world’s classic cocktail recipes.”
Hamilton-Mudge adds that if you cut gin down to 20 percent alcohol, the botanicals really pop. It’s the way to professionally drink gin, but admittedly, that’s not something that many people do. A lot of people, however, drink gin and soda. That drink’s carbonation is pushing delightful botanicals straight into their face.
Don’t take this as a declaration that whiskey is bad and people who drink it are slow. I’m an equal opportunity drinker and I very much like whiskey—especially the new whiskey companies out there that are making the grain bill matter just as much as the barrel. But the barrel is far too often the only thing adding complexity to whiskey and other brown spirits, which is why tasting notes of “wood, vanilla, molasses” show up so often.
Knowing this is an unpopular opinion, I got in touch with Kristopher Hart, who runs a podcast called Whiskey Neat as well as the Instagram @whiskypete.
“I think you are missing the bigger picture,” Hart said over email. “Scotch. Japanese. The category for ‘whiskey’ is arguably the widest spectrum of all spirits,” adding that the variety of cask that can be used (tequila, rum, etc.) makes the number of tasting notes people can pick up nearly limitless.
Take Laphroaig, Hart says, “which literally tastes like an old rubber boot that was left on a fishing boat, campfire and iodine.” That’s far from the vanilla and honey in a bourbon. Even those simple base notes in American whiskey are important, Hart argues, because they’re more approachable. The sweeter notes when drinking bourbon straight are more pleasing to the American palate than the intense vegetal and floral notes of gin.
A bad first experience with gin is normal. I, too, was revolted when I first drank gin. It was at a country concert when I was in college at Auburn University. A friend pulled a warm plastic flask out of his boot and passed it over. Thinking it was our normal go-to—Evan Williams Green Label, because budget matters—I took a fat swig. It was Bombay Sapphire. All I could think about was that it tasted like a Christmas tree warmed by too many lights. I was hardly a good judge of taste in those days (why were Y-Bombs ever a thing?), but I left those tastes behind and gave gin another chance because that’s what responsible adults in their mid 20s do.
Spirits writers get to hear a lot of people talk about why they think something tastes better than something else. Some of those people spew nonsense; others can make you reevaluate the flavor sensations you’re having in the moment. Leaving behind all the professionals and people who hang around those professionals, though, your average gin drinker can just develop a more complete palate. Now pass the biggest juniper bomb you can find.