"Well," says one woman, "I can clearly taste the mugwort!"
She sits with a group gathered in a corner booth at Bittersweet. They all break into laughter. I follow suit, but only because I want to blend. There are six members at tonight's gin club meeting in downtown Raleigh. They wear matching T-shirts—"Gin: Because Everyone Needs a Hobby"—and pass around small dishes of dried juniper berries and microplaned nutmeg.
The year-old club now staggers its meetings at Bittersweet—different groups convene on different dates—since dozens of people started showing up for each one. While the club used to be organized via email thread, it's matured into a partnership with Taste Carolina, which allows new members to sign up online at www.tastecarolina.net. This particular crew, a mix of couples and friends, has been together since the start. And it shows.
"We're at a bar and we ask, 'What kind of tonic do you have?' And then, we think, 'Oh my god! We're those people!"
The group loses it—again. I finally realize that there are jokes, and then there are gin club jokes. Before you can appreciate the latter you've got to drink a lot of gin. Or know a lot about gin. Let's just say I'm working on both.
Take gin's botanicals, the endless ingredients that distillers pick to distinguish their products. The Monkey 47 brand, for instance, includes as many as its namesake quantity, ranging from coriander to lavender to sage.
The club members excitedly give me the lowdown: Cassia, they explain, is just a fancy word for cinnamon. Angelica would make for a great pork dry rub, don't you think? (Totally, I nod.) And mugwort? Well, mugwort just sounds silly.
Lewis Norton sits at the far end of the bar, nursing a half-full cup of coffee. "When Bittersweet opened, we knew we wanted to focus on gin," he says. He has been with Bittersweet since the very beginning, when Kim Hammer opened the pastry-meets-cocktail concept in 2014. As manager of the business's drink program, Norton has a hand in everything from the bar design to the cocktail menu. Also, the gin club.
"It's a very versatile spirit," he says, "because it has a very loose definition."
- Photo by Ben Mckeown
- Lewis Norton, left, leads gin club at Bittersweet in downtown Raleigh.
Indeed, the only prerequisite for gin is juniper. Compare this to other liquors, like bourbon—a whisky produced in the States, made from at least fifty-one percent corn, aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years—and you start to understand what Norton means by loose. This is why he's so fascinated: fewer rules, more innovation.
"You basically can do anything you want. Barrel-age it, smoke it, make it really sweet, make it really dry, have fifty botanicals, or one." He smiles. "It's crazy."
Unlike other spirits, which are rooted in a particular grain or fruit, gin can start with just about anything, from barley to sugarcane. Not to mention the production turnaround. Whereas a bourbon distillery might take a decade to develop a sellable product, gin can be created in a matter of weeks.
It's this combination of creativity and convenience that has distillers—and drinkers—inspired. In this area alone, no less than four gin-distinguished distilleries have opened within the last six years: Southern Artisan Spirits, Mother Earth, Sutler's, and Durham Distillery.
"We're seeing a gin renaissance," Norton says.
Gin, it turns out, wasn't always so trendy. Since it originated in the 1600s, it's been called "bathtub gin," "lady's delight," and "mother's ruin," to name a few. "Bathtub" because gin prospered during Prohibition, when novice distillers made the spirit at home and tried to mask poor quality with loads of sugar and botanicals. The debut of London dry, the most popular style to this day, came later.
- Photo by Ben McKeown
- Glasses and spirits behind the bar at Bittersweet.
Bittersweet has almost thirty varieties of gin on its shelf, and, according to Norton, the stock is only growing. Of course, such was the allure of starting a gin club: an excuse to buy more gin, to explore the blossoming market. If nothing else, Norton is thirsty, both to share his knowledge and to gain more.
Norton distributes two glasses to each club member. One has a shot of Citadelle, a gin from France with nineteen botanicals, the other, a shot of Botanist, a gin from Scotland with thirty-one. Such is the start of every meeting: an informational handout, two shots, and a guessing game.
The members sip and stare and nod, eyes stuck on the glasses and one another. Finally, they all decide: This one is Citadelle. That one is Botanist. A consensus emerges, so I go the other way, with more confidence than I should have. They were right. ("Everybody got it!" Norton hoots.)
For each meeting, Norton selects two gins. While he presents, we drink, and then we drink some more. We delve into maps of Scotland and France, lists of botanicals, actual botanicals, distiller gossip, production techniques. Customarily, Norton tracks down gins that relate in some way so he can then unpack what distinguishes them.
To conclude each meeting, he offers an original cocktail. Members get to pick which gin they think complements the recipe best. This week, the concoction features apple juice and sherry, served up. When Norton starts taking orders, everyone swiftly picks Botanist—"I could definitely see Botanist in a martini!" So I agree. It comes in a chilled glass, amber liquid with an apple curl. I sip and stare and nod. Yes, I think, Botanist is just right with the sherry. I can really taste the mugwort.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tonic Notes"