Juniper Berries’ Infamous Liquor
Story by Dave Eckert
Emerging from our long winter’s nap, I thought it appropriate to focus on a spirit that embodies spring. For me, that spirit is gin. Nothing says spring, or summer for that matter, better than a fresh, lively gin and tonic. But, as I discovered in my exhaustive and exhausting research for this article, gin is so much more than that.
Before diving into some locally produced gin and gin-based cocktails, I thought it best to first give you a small primer on this spirit that dates from the Middle Ages. Deriving its predominant flavor from juniper berries, gin has evolved through the years from an herbal medicine to one of the world’s fastest-growing spirits categories.
You will find a variety of gins produced in Kansas City, including one from J. Rieger and Company. Rieger’s gin has impressive roots as it was crafted through a collaboration between Rieger and Tom Nichol who spent a lifetime making the famous British gin, Tanqueray. “We knew from the beginning that we wanted to make a gin. We started with whiskey, then vodka, and not too long after, we released the gin. The gin process took longer because we didn’t know how to make gin,” J. Rieger’s Ryan Maybee told me. Fortunately, Nichol did, and as it turns out, he was looking for a project after spending 42 years with Tanqueray. Rieger, small and family-owned, was the perfect fit. “There are really two styles of gin, London Dry and a New Western-style, which is more botanical and citrus forward. We knew that we wanted to make a London Dry style, which is what Tom knows. So, we just stayed classic and old school and he was down with that,” Maybee shared. The collaboration worked perfectly, and before long, J. Rieger had its London Dry gin.
Using Nichol’s connections, Reiger imported the best ingredients from Europe: juniper berries from Tuscany, orange peel from Sicily, and coriander from Poland among them. The result is not just a classic London Dry style of gin, but one of the best domestic versions of that style made by one of the best distillers in the world! I asked Maybee what he wants consumers to experience when they taste the J. Rieger & Company gin. “The first thing that I want people to know is that they are drinking gin. Ours screams gin because it’s juniper forward. But you also need balance. There are only five botanicals used and they all need to be in harmony,” Maybee said. Maybee calls the Rieger gin “a cocktail-friendly London Dry.” When asked what cocktails he prefers with the gin, Maybee rattled off too many to list, but he says because Rieger’s gin is a classic style, it’s great with all of the famous drinks from a Negroni to a Martini to my all-time favorite, a terrific gin and tonic.
For a Western-style gin, I next visited Restless Spirits Distilling in North Kansas City. There, distiller Benay Shannon created a gin by starting with the premise that she didn’t care for gin, but that she had tasted three or four that were “tolerable.” Using botanicals she preferred, 11 in all, and the definition of gin, which states that it has to have the flavor of juniper berries and has to be distilled from a neutral spirit, Shannon began experimenting in her kitchen. Before long, she had crafted a gin that wasn’t just “tolerable,” but one she liked. “It’s refreshing. It’s lighter. It’s springtime,” Shannon explained. “I wanted it to have lavender, because lavender, especially on the nose, is very appealing. It makes you want to try it and have more of it. I wanted to have citrus notes because I like that. And I wanted to have something in it that sounded Irish because that’s what we do here, so I picked meadowsweet, which turned out to be a pretty good addition.” Not only did Shannon like the aromas and flavors meadowsweet imparts, she loved the fact that it is an herbal remedy for a headache, so you can have your headache cause and cure in the same glass.
In all seriousness, Restless Spirits’ Builder’s Gin is a lovely lighter lavender and citrus leaning gin that, because of its deft touch, is terrific in cocktails. “It’s a very versatile gin that can be used in any style cocktail. You can emphasize the citrus notes if you like. A gin and tonic with extra lime, for example, really highlights the citrus elements. But you also have spice notes from the lavender and the coriander, and we’ve had people use Builder’s in spicy cocktails. The bottom line, though, is the fact that Builder’s is balanced and smooth. That’s the hallmark of my spirits. I don’t want any jagged edges,” Shannon said. There are none to be found by my palate. Stop by the Restless Spirits tasting room for a Builder’s-based cocktail sometime. I think you will agree.
Restless Spirits Recipes
This is our seasonal twist on the classic aperitif cocktail, the Negroni. We use the same classic recipe – equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari – with one small twist. We blend dried and crushed strawberries with sweet vermouth and then strain the final product, resulting in a bright and fruity base sweetener. Balanced with Campari’s bracing bitterness and Builders’ strong and bright citrus backbone, it makes for a delightful spirit-forward spring cocktail.
- 1 oz Builders Gin
- 1 oz Campari
- 1 oz strawberry-infused sweet vermouth*
Stir ingredients and strain into a rocks glass over ice. Garnish with an orange twist.
*Strawberry-infused sweet vermouth: In a food processor, pulse 1 cup of dried strawberries until it is a smooth powder. Blend with 1 750-ml of sweet vermouth, and allow to sit overnight. Strain out solids through a coffee filter, and refrigerate.
A Paloma traditionally consists of tequila, grapefruit soda, lime juice, and salt. We swap our Builders Botanical Gin in for tequila and make an in-house rose petal & grapefruit cordial. Rose petal is one of the botanicals used to make Builders Gin, so we always have plenty of it around, and it helps double down on that floral aroma in the final cocktail. We grind up dried orange peel (also a botanical featured in Builders) with flaky sea salt to use as a rim on the cocktail.
- 2 oz Builders Gin
- ½ oz lime juice
- ¾ oz rose-grapefruit cordial*
- 2 oz soda water
- ½ tsp orange salt**, for garnish
Wet ½ of the rim of a mason jar or Collins glass, and rim with orange salt. In glass, build gin, lime juice, and cordial, then topping with soda and lightly stirring with a spoon. Add ice and garnish with a lime wedge.
*Rose-grapefruit cordial: In a medium saucepan, combine 1 tablespoon of dried rose petals, 2 cups of fresh grapefruit juice, peels of 2 grapefruits, and 2 cups of sugar. Simmer for 30 minutes, ensuring all sugar is melted. Pour ingredients into an airtight container and allow to cold-infuse overnight. Strain off solids and refrigerate.
**Orange salt: Mix 1 tablespoon of dried and ground citrus peel with ½ cup of flaky sea salt.