Bold, flashy spirits such as bourbon and mezcal may get plenty of attention from the craft cocktail crowd, but when it comes to thinking up drinks for your home bar, make sure you don’t overlook gin.
“Gin is a fair portion of [our] back bar,” says Joe Arakawa, lead bartender of Honolulu’s acclaimed PAI restaurant, which makes a lot of sense considering the spirits’ exploding popularity. Demand for premium gin in the U.S. has grown by nearly 10 percent annually from 2011 to 2016.
Arakawa, 27, who is also a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves with three deployments under his belt, has definitely noticed an uptick in demand for gin-based cocktails at PAI. “Classics such as the Negroni and Martini are back on the rise,” he says.
Arakawa says the sheer array of styles not only on the market but on the shelf at PAI “requires me to not only enjoy the taste but know the back story of every bottle behind the bar,” in case he needs to do a taste test for his customers. His favorite bottles include New Amsterdam, Botanist, Nolet’s, and the St. George’s Terroir gin, among a host of others. “Educating guests and showing them the differences on the subtleties of the various gins is very eye-opening,” he says. “People tend to reach for what they know and what they’ve heard of. If you offer comparable options without getting too into the weeds, they tend to be more open.”
Arakawa almost always has a gin-based drink on the seasonally changing cocktail menu at PAI. Recent inventions include the Bee Sting (cardamom-star anise-Thai chili infused gin, sloe gin, lemon and honey) and the Birds of a Feather (Black Robin gin, orange shrub, lime, Lillet Blanc, egg white and Angostura bitters).
When he’s thinking about designing gin-based cocktails, he thinks about the overall composition of the drink before choosing a specific gin. “New American style gins tend to fit better with citrus or fruit forward cocktails due to their less aggressive juniper flavor profile,” he says. “I like to use dry gins for more spirit forward cocktails. Navy strength or high proof gins fit well with bigger flavor profiles in cocktails like Negronis.”
But when it comes to higher-end gins, Arakawa prefers to let the flavor profile shine through in simpler, more spirit-forward cocktails, such as martinis. “Gins like Hendricks and Nolet’s have a beautiful flavor profile on their own so I don’t want to muddle or hide those flavors,” he explains.
And that versatility is one of the features that Arakawa likes best about gin—its ability to slot in to a variety of cocktails. The spirit works in everything from aperitifs to digestifs, happy hours to the main meal. On one end of the spectrum there’s the bubbly French 75 or Gin and Tonic, which Arakawa recommends for gin neophytes. But it works equally well in boozier choices such as the Negroni or Martini. “It can open a whole new world and flavors you can’t experience from other spirits,” he says.
THE BAD APPLE
For an easy do-it-at-home bubbly aperitif, try Arkawa’s spin on a Gin Sour topped with sparkling hard cider. He prefers the 2towns brand of apple cider but noting the variety of quality ciders on the market now, he recommends experimenting to find a flavor and style you like.
1 oz. gin (preferably Opihr, The Botanist, or St. George Pepper)
1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
1/4 oz. simple syrup (1:1 sugar to water)
2 1/2 to 3 oz. sparkling hard apple cider
Combine all the ingredients and give a light shake (If you don’t have a shaker, transfer the ingredients from one cup to another to mix everything together). Pour over ice and garnish with mint to brighten up the drink.