Spirits trends, like everything in the modern world, are dominated by extremes. Low-proof vermouths and other aromatized wines rule one end of the spectrum, while bottled-in-bond and other ultra-high-proof spirits punch through the other. And so it seems fitting that navy strength gin, a style that dates back to the 1700s, is becoming increasingly common behind the bar.
To qualify as “navy strength,” gin has to be at least 114 proof (or 57 percent alcohol). But there’s more to it than that, as is becoming abundantly obvious by the growing number of navy strength gins appearing on the market.
“There is a relationship between alcohol and flavor in most spirits, but it is particularly true in gin. A stronger gin will hold more of the essential oils from the botanicals and this changes the dynamic of the gin,” says Simon Ford, founder of Fords Gin, which is set to release its very first navy strength gin, the Officers’ Reserve, in February 2019.
Officers’ Reserve began as a company-only indulgence. “Marko Karakasevic, who is a friend of mine and the master distiller at Charbay, where we bottle Fords Gin, has secretly been enjoying an over-proof version of Fords for a few years now,” Ford says. “We bottled a sneaky few cases for ourselves as we found it to be so delicious. Marko felt it was selfish of me not to release it.”
Portobello Road also recently launched its own navy strength gin (though it is currently unavailable in the U.S.). Four Pillars, New York Distilling Co., and Colorado’s Leopold Brothers also debuted navy strength gins.
For some, the category’s appeal lies in its history. In the 18th century, British Royal Navy ships were allotted gin as a general cure-all. As the story goes, most crews stored their gin below deck near the gunpowder. Since spills were common, highly alcoholic spirits were paramount — if your gin were 109 to 114 proof, and some of it got into your gunpowder, the explosive would still light. This also happened to be a good way to determine if a gin supplier was diluting the product and pulling one over on the ships’ officers.
Modern trends are also driving the resurgence of navy strength gin. With that extra kick of alcohol comes additional flavor, making navy strength gin perfect for mixing into cocktails.
“Navy strength gin fits in with a contemporary attitude to use higher proof spirits in cocktails for fuller flavor, knowing that the finished strength of the cocktail will be moderated by ice and other ingredients,” Allen Katz, founder of New York Distilling Co., says.
It’s history meets modern cocktail culture, all in one seriously boozy bottle.
5 Navy Strength Gin Cocktails To Try
According to Ford, the Gimlet is the most authentic navy strength gin cocktail. “The origins of the Gimlet come from the merchant navy,” which rationed limes on board to prevent scurvy, he says. “As voyages went on, the limes would go bad and deter people from taking their rations. A well-known doctor, Dr. [Thomas Desmond] Gimlette found a cunning way to get everyone to take their lime ration: Mix the lime with gin. And so the Gimlet cocktail was born.”
For his Gimlets, Ford likes to shake 2 ounces of navy strength gin with 1 ounce of fresh-squeezed lime juice and three-quarters of an ounce of simple syrup.
Katz updates the recipe with 1.5 ounces of navy strength gin, three-quarters of an ounce of fresh lime juice, a half-ounce of simple syrup, a quarter-ounce of cinnamon syrup, and a few drops of Bittermens Hellfire Shrub. He calls it the 700 Songs Gimlet.
Gin & Tonic
Another naval classic, the Gin & Tonic is a perfect candidate for a boldly flavored navy strength gin, which cuts through the bittersweet tonic with ease. Opt for a good-quality tonic water or cater the tonic flavor to your liking with tonic syrup and soda water. Throw in some nice ice cubes and a squeeze of lime, give everything a quick stir, and you’re good to go.
Like the Gimlet, this cocktail combines gin and lime juice. “Citrus-based drinks [are] where navy strength really seems to shine,” Cameron MacKenzie, head distiller at the Australian distillery Four Pillars, which makes a navy strength gin with Southeast Asian botanicals, says. The Southside’s mint garnish adds an aromatic touch that mingles deliciously with the nose of a good navy strength.
This under-appreciated tiki drink requires a gin powerful enough to stand up to its strong flavors. Classically made with gin, lemon juice, orgeat, passion fruit puree or syrup, Velvet Falernum, and crushed ice, Ford suggests using navy strength spirit and swapping in a dash of blue curacao for the Falernum.
It may seem dangerous, but Katz recommends stirring navy strength gin into a 3:1 Martini. He stirs New York Distilling’s Perry’s Tot with Noilly Prat or Dolin Extra Dry vermouth, and garnishes it with a lemon twist. It’s a bracingly strong, gin lover’s Martini.
5 Navy Strength Gins To Try
Fords Gin Officers’ Reserve
This silky, full-bodied spirit is distilled with the same botanicals as the standard Fords Gin; then, rests for three weeks in amontillado sherry casks and is bottled at 54.4 percent ABV. It’s warming and slightly spiced, with an orange creamsicle quality. Average price: $35.
Four Pillars Navy Strength
Originally created for the Gin Palace in Melbourne, this 58.8 percent ABV gin is made with Australian finger limes, ginger, and turmeric. “We make our navy strength in very small batches with a long, slow distillation to maximize flavors and aromas,” MacKenzie says. For its heat, it’s surprisingly smooth, thanks to its custom blend of botanicals. Average price: $50.
New York Distilling Perry’s Tot
This 114-proof gin is crafted in Brooklyn and named for Matthew Calbraith Perry, the commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the mid-1800s. It’s strong, smooth, and piney with just a hint of sweetness and spice. Average price: $22.
Jos A. Magnus Vigilant District Navy Strength Gin
Distilled with a unique blend of botanicals, including figs, mint, harissa, and hibiscus, this 114-proof Washington, D.C., gin is spicy, smoky, and completely its own beast. Average price: $43.
Plymouth Navy Strength
This is the O.G. navy strength gin. It’s exceedingly drinkable with lots of juniper, coriander, and citrus peels. According to Plymouth, the British Royal Navy was one of the distillery’s original customers. Average price: $38.