Gin – Mind the Definitions

As I write this post, I have just returned from a short road trip from Kelowna to Vancouver where I was in search of new and unique Gins from craft distillers.

I was particularly disturbed during a pit stop at a new craft distillery in Oliver, BC called Dubh Glas. This recent start-up is making a Gin called Noteworthy Gin which they class as a New Western Dry style of Gin. When I flat out asked the distiller what this category of Gin really was, the stuttering, stammering and foot shifting began in earnest.

The reason I nailed him with this question is because – there is no such legal definition in Canada of a New Western Dry Gin. These legal definitions are but one of the things we explore in depth at our Distillery Workshopsin Kelowna BC.

In Canada, spirits definitions are tightly controlled by the Canadian Food and drug Regulations. In particular, section crc 870 of these Regs will tell you all you need to know. I encourage you to check these Regs out sometime to learn more about what you are really drinking.

In the case of Gin, crc 870 section B.02.041 is where you want to be. It says:


(a) shall be a potable alcoholic beverage obtained

(i) by the re-distillation of alcohol from food sources with or over juniper berries, or by a mixture of the products of more than one such re-distillation, or

(ii) by the blending of alcohol from food sources, redistilled with or over juniper berries, with alcohol from food sources or by a mixture of the products of more than one such blending;

(b) may contain

(i) other aromatic botanical substances, added during the re-distillation process,

(ii) a sweetening agent, and

(iii) a flavouring preparation for the purpose of maintaining a uniform flavour profile; and

(c) may be labelled or advertised as Dry Gin or London Dry Gin if sweetening agents have not been added.

In plain English, what this definition really says is:

A distiller takes alcohol that has been made by fermenting and distilling cereal grain or surplus wine. This alcohol is placed into a still to be re-distilled. The distiller can either place juniper berries in the still with the alcohol or he can configure matters so that the alcoholic vapors rising up through the still come into contact with the juniper berries. The distiller can if he wishes add other botanicals to the alcohol in the still or to the still apparatus so the vapors contact them. These other botanicals can include the likes of coriander, cinnamon, lemon peel, orange peel, apple, lavender etc…. Some of the Gins that consumers are accustomed to drinking have up to 12 or 14 different botanicals added. At the end of the whole process, the distiller can even add a tiny touch of sweetener. If no sweetener is added, the distiller can call his Gin a Dry Gin or a London Dry Gin.

The expression London Dry Gin is not a new one. Consumers have seen it before. Take a wander through the aisles of your liquor store and look at Beefeater, Gordon’s, Tanqueray and Bombay – they are all labelled as London Dry Gins.

In the U.K., a London Dry Gin is properly defined as:

a Gin in which the botanicals are added during the distilling process rather than being added later as flavourings. Likewise, adding sugar or colourings is not permitted.

That’s it – pretty simple isn’t it?

So, to bring this post full circle – I think you can now see where the problem is. Manufacturer’s of Gin cannot just take it upon themselves to create a new name like New Western Dry Gin. The consumer has no idea what this product even is.

Yes, I will be the first to admit that craft distillers are all about putting some craftsmanship into the making of spirits. But, let’s face reality – this craft distilling movement is in its early stages yet. If craft distillers start going off half-cocked and creating new category names they will for sure raise the hackles of Government. The last thing this craft movement needs right now is the bad publicity that will come when the Government starts enforcing the legal definitions. And believe you me, the Government can be very strict if it wants to be.

As I sit here in Kelowna crafting this article, I have just returned from a run to the local liquor store to get some cold refreshments to help combat the 38 C heat. While at the store, I did some quick double-checking. It appears to me the whole notion of a London Dry Gin is falling out of fashion. Here is what I found:

Old Order Distilling is calling their Legacy Gin simply a Gin. Urban Distilleries has its Spirit Bear Gin. Fermentorium Distilling has a product called Coastal Forest Gin. Legend Distilling has their Doctors Orders Gin, Yaletown Spirits has their Yaletown Gin. Odd Society has their Wallflower Gin. Dillons has its Method 95 Gin (which by the way is perhaps the only in Canada made from surplus grape juice) On the larger commercial front, the very famous brand Martin Miller’s simply has a Gin. French distiller Citadelle also has a Gin. And even the famous Hendricks calls its product nothing more than just a Gin.

The only London Dry Gins were Tanqueray, Gordon’s, Bombay and Beefeater.

So, you see there are a host of craft distilling companies (small are not so small) out there that are respecting the definition. And so they should.

The next time you happen to see a Gin in Canada that is flaunting itself as a New Western Dry Gin (I have seen two of late and they are Dubh Glas from Oliver BC and Lucky Bastard Distilling from Saskatoon) – get on social media and openly quiz them. Ask them why they would flaunt the legal definitions. If they are side-stepping the name definitions, ask yourself what else they are side-stepping.

Do you really want to drink a product made by someone who openly dis-respects the law? I surely do not….

Vodka – The Proper Way

Vodka (or as it was known in 1850s Russia – Wodka) was first commercialized by Pyotr Smirnov. He and his son Vladimir enjoyed great success up until 1917 when the Bolshevik Revolution ushered in the era of Communist dictators.

Vladimir fled Russia and sought refuge in France post 1917. However, the French were not ready to embrace his colorless spirit called Vodka.

The worldwide rights to Smirnov Vodka were eventually sold in 1934 to US businessman Rudolph Kunnets. Kunnets soon discovered that Americans too were unwilling to embrace the clear spirit.

But, WW 2 ushered in a sea-change of attitude across America. Bartenders began to embrace the concept of the mixed drink. They soon figured out that Vodka with its lack of color and lack of aroma did not corrupt mixed drinks such as Bloody Mary’s, Harvey Wallbangers and Moscow Mules.

I recently came across a book by Russian author William Pokhlebkin. In his book he argues that “cocktails are merely a means of getting drunk”. He says that “the correct role for Vodka is as a table drink to accompany Russian food dishes”. He goes on to say that in 1850s Russia, Vodka was sipped during a meal. Over the time spent eating a meal, a person might go through 1-2 ounces of Vodka. So, not enough to get drunk. Just enough to cleanse the palate between bites and to make the meal more enjoyable.

I think there is a screaming opportunity here for the craft distiller. The opportunity is one of educating the consumer to start sipping Vodka straight up with food. For the restaurant industry, people should be encouraged to pair a good craft distilled Vodka with their meals. About 7 years ago while on a trip to New York, I had this Vodka pairing experience at the Russian Tea Room, located next to Carnegie Hall. To this day, I have fond memories of that dinner in New York. The consumer should be further reminded that every serious liquor cabinet needs a few good craft distilled Vodkas in it. I now regularly sip Vodka with my meals and I can attest it adds a whole new dimension to dining.

At this point the expression “good” needs to be clarified. There are craft distillers out there (ie Lucky Bastard in Saskatoon, Canada, Long Table Distillers, Vancouver) who are taking Neutral Grain Spirits and running this material through a small still. This is NOT a good Vodka. In fact, I would never touch such a poor excuse for Vodka. On the other hand, any craft distiller who takes the time to mash his own grain and conduct a stripping run followed by a rectification run in a multi-plate column still is making a “good” Vodka.

If you are reading this blog, please…take the time to find a “good” Vodka. If you are unable to find a good craft vodka in your area, then may I suggest a bottle of Ketel One. Sip the Vodka with meals. I then invite you to contact me to share your thoughts on this old world Russian way of drinking Vodka.