Unlike bourbon, gin doesn't have a federally-regulated mash bill. And, unlike Scotch, it doesn't have to be distilled within prescribed national borders. So long as a spirit's made with juniper berries and bottled at the right proof, its manufacturer can call it gin.
That freedom - and the relatively low cost of producing an unaged spirit - has led to a tremendous diversity of gins in the U.S., says Seattle Gin Society's executive director Gene Shook, who's organizing the society's first-ever "Ginvitational" this weekend. Shook is skeptical of efforts to formalize an "American dry gin" style, since he believes the category's strength lies in its range.
"I think it's a good thing we don't have a standard," Shook says. "The local small batch distilleries are all able to experiment and create so much variety."
Domestic gins fall generally into two categories: Dry and Botanical. The latter, which cocktail writer David Wondrich has termed the "international style," is especially well-suited for complex cocktails. "I like them both," Shook says. "I like whatever's in my glass."
But consumers are just as likely to group the new crop of craft gins into another set of categories: Good and unpalatable. The Pacific Northwest - where boutique distilleries first gained a foothold - is awash in undrinkable gins produced in thankfully small quantities. Still, Shook says the overall quality of first-timers' gins is high, although many of them are mishandled by well-meaning bartenders.
"The standard tonic does not work in these gins," he warns. "We've taken a gin that people have not liked and it's won a blind tasting."
A panel of bar owners and distillers this afternoon will judge 15 craft gins, 11 of which were made in the Pacific Northwest. Shook hopes the Ginvitational's results will help persuade locavore-leaning restaurant owners to stock more Washington and Oregon gins.
"You look at their bars, and it's all European products," he says. "We don't want to replace that, but these gins are different."