Christophe Bakunas texts me shortly before we meet to say he'll be wearing a Hawaiian shirt, adding, "Hard to miss." That message -- and the shirt -- epitomizes the chutzpah of a generation of young American distillers determined to invigorate the staid old spirits categories.
Bakunas, who began his career as a furniture designer in San Francisco, has made it his mission to add a fifth category of gin, American Dry, to the established canon, which includes London Dry, Plymouth, Old Tom, and Genever.
"I compare it to appellations for cognac or Scotch whisky," he says, adding that American Dry is defined by regional American grains and the use of pot stills to help retain flavor. It's also less beholden to the pungent juniper berry than its English counterpart and is less direct as a consequence. Small's Gin by Chicago-based Local Wine and Spirits, which Bakunas started in 2002 with his collaborator, Tad Seestedt, has a pop of cardamom and star anise on the tongue that makes for an awesome G&T. It's gin, but not as we know it.
American Dry may be a nascent category, but Small's has plenty of company. I also tried the peppery Ethereal Gin, made in the Berkshires; Bluecoat American Dry, from Philadelphia; and the citrusy American Dry by Brooklyn-based Greenhook Ginsmiths (one of at least five competing Brooklyn gins). All were less crisp on the finish than a typical London Dry, but bursting with character and range.
"What's happening in America is that people are playing with flavor profiles," says mixologist John McCarthy, who oversees the bar at New York's veritable gin palace, Whitehall. McCarthy runs through a list of new American gins with a variety of top notes, from citrus peel in Brooklyn Gin to coriander in Spring 44, which comes from Colorado.
"We're trying to revitalize that American heritage of making small regional products," says Bakunas, who's now planning a California gin with regional juniper and grains. "Why truck your grains in from out of the country when you have a rich source on your doorstep?"