“I feel like distilleries are at the stage breweries were in during the mid-1990s,” says Andrew Said Thomas, the co-owner and distiller at Brooklyn’s Halftone Spirits. “You’d go to a craft brewery back then and they’d say, ‘Here’s our pale ale, here’s our blonde ale, our stout, our seasonal.’ Most distilleries today are in that same mindset. ‘Here’s our vodka, here’s our gin, here’s our bourbon…’ But that didn’t make any sense to me.”
Located in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, this self-proclaimed “house of gin” literally only produces gins for the moment. In fact, since the mid-summer of 2020, when Halftone opened, they’ve already released five different gins.
There’s their flagship Halftone Gin featuring hawthorn berry, sumac, pink peppercorn, and almond. They have a London Dry Gin with spruce tip and citrus peels. Wavelength: magenta is a naturally-colored pink gin with rose hip and lemon verbena, while Overlay: cascade is a “hazy” gin with Cascade hops. Recently, Halftone released Modular: hnd, a Japanese-style gin with yuzu, genmaicha green tea, Szechuan peppercorns, and black sesame seed.
Thomas plans to continually produce at least 12 new gins per year, every single year. And several other gin distilleries seem to be following a similar model.
“There really isn’t a limit on the number of gins we could release,” says Thomas.
Transmutation of Life-Force
To take Thomas’s brewery analogy even further: As craft beer grew through the aughts, we slowly started seeing longtime styles of beer phased out. Amber and brown ales disappeared. Gone were porters and oatmeal stouts. See ya later, old ales and tripels. Eventually, it seemed breweries were producing the three styles with only the most extreme of flavors: punchy sour ales, boozy imperial stouts, beyond bitter IPAs.
And why not? They all sold well.
The emergence of the juicy, hazy New England-style IPA in the mid-2010s would lead to perhaps the final stage of the trend: breweries that literally only brewed IPAs, making countless new ones available every single weekend.
By 2018, you had breweries like Brooklyn’s Other Half, Los Angeles’s Monkish, and Boston’s Trillium, some of the most-hyped breweries in the country, producing two, three, sometimes 10 new IPAs per week, in many cases simply tweaking what de rigueur hops were being used — Citra, Galaxy, Mosaic, for instance — on similar base beers.
It didn’t matter that this was silly if you really thought about it. The breweries were still selling cases upon cases of “new” IPAs to lines of eager beer geeks, none of whom wanted to ever drink the same beer twice.
Likewise, a lot of upstart craft distilleries these days are no longer content to have a mere one or two flagship gins and are instead cranking out new gins on sometimes a weekly basis. Gin, for the most part, isn’t aged, and a new flavor profile can be generated by simply changing the botanicals on a neutral base.
“That’s the beauty of gin — it’s very easy to do variants on it,” says Steve Grasse of Tamworth Distillery. His New Hampshire distillery might produce the most gins of anyone on planet Earth. Besides their “everyday” White Mountain Gin, they have at least a dozen other gins in their portfolio, with everything from a red clover honey-influenced Apiary Gin and a genever-esque Dutchess Gin to a savory and spicy Thai Chili Gin. Tamworth even has a full-time biochemist and a lab with new-fangled equipment like rotovaps, all in an effort to capture botanicals in as fragrant a way as possible.
“Ingredient-wise,” says Grasse, “I think gin is one of the few spirits where you can really come close to what the origins of the word ‘spirits’ is from — alchemists transmuting the life-force of botanicals into a different form.”
A Tricky Nomenclature
Of course, gin isn’t just one flavor. For far too long, it’s strictly been seen as a clear spirit you add some juniper to. Even if that was strictly true, Thomas notes that even juniper can taste different depending where it comes from, like incredibly peppery juniper from Italy or softer, more floral domestic varieties. And, while additional botanicals like coriander, angelica, orris root, and citrus peels are common in most gins, a seemingly infinite amount of roots, herbs, plants, fruits, and peels could be added to make for a seemingly infinite amount of different gin flavor profiles.
“Looking at the marketplace, though, there’s really not a clear example of any one doing that,” says Thomas. Certainly not in America, though Thomas is fond of Four Pillars out of Australia, which makes a series of gins including Bloody Shiraz Gin steeped with grapes, a savory Olive Leaf Gin made with olive oil, and a Spiced Negroni Gin specifically designed for the cocktail.
In Ireland, the Glendalough Distillery not only produces a wild botanical gin, a rose gin, and a spicy gin, but a new gin each season featuring whatever is forageable during that time of year, like young greens and flowers in the spring and summer or more wild fruit, berries, and even woods in the fall and winter. They also offer an experimental Ginteresting Series, in which they’ve made gins with such unexpected ingredients as seaweed, beech leaf, and mountain heather.
And, while Hendricks hasn’t been considered the “little guy” in decades, lately they have been pumping out limited-edition variants like a craft distillery, including the “flirtatiously floral” Midsummer Solstice, the wormwood-packed Orbium, and the most recent Lunar Gin. But these are sold in big liquor stores and at airport duty-free shops, not out the back of the distillery like in the case of Halftone and Tamworth.
But when it comes to releasing so many gins into the world, “even the nomenclature is tricky,” adds Thomas. “Do we name every gin after a different phrase like they do in the beer world?”
Along with his co-owners, Basil Lee and Kevin Stafford, Thomas spent a long time conceiving what he calls “different lanes of expression” for his gins that distinguish them from the few known categories of gin that everyone is familiar with like London Dry, Navy Strength, and Old Tom.
Eventually, Halftone had created three categories that would be able to house all their new gins as well as help inspire thinking on future creations. There would be a line of naturally colored gins called Wavelength. The already-released Magenta is colored pinkish rose thanks to hibiscus.
There would likewise be a category for hoppy gins called Overlay where not just the hops varietal would change, but the supporting botanicals as well. So far Thomas has done Overlay: cascade, featuring that most quintessential of American hops, known for its incredible citrus aroma.
And Modular would be for gins of a global expression, like with Modular: hnd, the code for a regional airport in Tokyo. It features Japanese botanicals like yuzu and green tea. An upcoming Spain-inspired gin will have more orange-y notes, and a South African influenced Modular would be more savory.
Thomas is showing that gin is truly the most versatile spirit and there’s no end to the places he can take it.
“When IPAs first came out, they were super bitter — but when people found them, they proselytized what they had the potential to be,” says Thomas. Eventually, you had IPAs that tasted floral like a forest, or resiny like marijuana, or sometimes like straight orange juice.
“Likewise, gin doesn’t have to be just that one expression that tastes like Pine-Sol,” he says.
From Life Force to #Linelife?
All this time, I’ve coyly neglected to mention that Halftone is owned by — and being distilled in the exact same facility as — one of Brooklyn’s more beloved breweries, Finback Brewery (Lee and Stafford are the brewers). Vision-wise and marketing-wise, that clearly gives them a step up on other gin makers entering this brave new world; Brooklyn has long been one of the epicenters of IPA #linelife, the jokey hashtag used by IPA-obsessed beer geeks willing to queue up every weekend to score new “juice.”
Still, I have to wonder, will we ever see that happening with craft gin? It seems absurd… but maybe?
During the pandemic summer of 2020, Tamworth began releasing a series of limited-edition gins they called the Backyard Series, featuring in-season and fresh botanicals picked straight from their own gardens. Each weekend, cars lined up at the distillery in the rural White Mountains to score these limited releases, like Blueberry Cucumber and Cantaloupe Basil. They fetched $50 a bottle, a premium for the category, and sold out quickly, all of which speaks to spirits fans’ apparent thirst for new and intriguing gins.
“It’s so easy to be boring in the gin category,” says Grasse. “But you don’t have to!”
In Santa Cruz, Calif., Venus Spirits not only has their flagships, Gin Blend No. 1 and Gin Blend No. 2, but also started releasing seasonal gins in 2018 under the Gin X ____ nomenclature (the X stands for experimental). The first was Gin X Spring, which included cubeb, grapefruit, jasmine, lemongrass, coriander, chamomile, and rosemary. That was followed by Gin X Summer, which was a “tiki”-inspired gin featuring botanicals like pineapple, lime, passionfruit, almond, and cinnamon. (All their bottles of gin offer handsome, letterpress labels that list every single botanical in each blend.)
So far, they’ve released over a dozen experimental gins, as well as gin-adjacent aquavits, with the most recent being Winter Gin and Winter Gin Oak-Aged, scrapping the “X” as, I suppose, this becomes a lot more common to drinkers. Members of their Venus Society get access to all the special botanical releases before anyone else, and the small releases of a few hundred bottles sell out quickly.
Not surprisingly, Thomas has also found great luck selling his gins to beer fans, who already understand the concept of buying more alcohol on a weekly basis than they can possibly ever consume (that’s a joke… sorta). Likewise, as compared to whiskey collectors, who sit their bottles on shelves like never-to-drink trophies, gin is a relatively affordable spirit meant to be drunk, whether neat, in easy mixed drinks, or in more baroque cocktails. Meaning, fans of Halftone pretty much need to come back every month for a new release, not because they want to continue expanding their libraries, but because they’re out of gin.
“I think what’s interesting about gin is it’s so versatile, and our hope is people aren’t necessarily sitting on gins just to buy them,” says Thomas. He believes the constant change-ups each month — from colored gins and hoppy gins to international gins — are more than enough to keep people engaged and excited about what’s next. (Though, even Thomas admits the bottles were designed with squared-off labels meant to resemble a book, meaning you could line up each release by its “spine” on your shelf as you build your collection.)
“You see breweries doing 100-plus different IPAs in a year. How is that possible?” Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Evil Twin Brewing had wondered three years ago as the IPA line scene was just moving into overdrive. “Are they actually new beers, or are they just small variants of beers they have done before, under new labels?”
To be clear, I don’t think distillers like Halftone, Tamworth, Venus, and others are as cynical as a lot of craft brewers came to be, simply releasing new product to bilk people into buying it. For one thing, it would be a lot more difficult to do.
“Making all these new gins is not without challenges,” says Thomas. He needs to not only conceive the new flavors, but source the unique botanicals, then find a way to balance all 20 or so together within each new release. Then do it again the next month.
“It’s not like just swapping in a couple new hops here and there,” he says. So maybe gin isn’t the new IPA after all.