<em>Variety Weekend</em> sat down with 11 gins, both new school and old; four stood out as favorites

Gin’s got time on its side; it’s been popular since the late 1600s. But now, to put it kindly, “it’s at a low ebb,” says Norman’s sommelier Peter Birmingham. “It’s been going steadily downhill for 40 years.”

Even with a slew of new gin brands on the market, vodka trumps it by a healthy margin in the U.S. Martinis are the quintessential gin cocktail, but at Norman’s, they skew toward vodka by four to one. At Hungry Cat, it’s two to one — and bar manager Tim Staehling says they push gin hard.

Why the dire predicament? Many blame the spirit’s aggressive, if complex, flavor profile, one that can seem particularly jarring next to neutral vodka. “You don’t forget that juniper nose,” says Staehling. “It can really trigger bad memories for some people.”

Juniper berries are the most prominent of the dozens of botanicals that make gin gin. Before adding flavorings, it’s a neutral spirit not unlike vodka.

Of course, some gins are stronger than others. “Most people have only been exposed to a type of gin called London Dry,” Birmingham says. These gins tend to be dominated by high-octane juniper.

More relaxed is Plymouth Gin, famed as Winston Churchill’s drink of choice. Birmingham calls it “sublime and balanced” and thinks the softness gives it crossover potential for vodka drinkers.

Jamie Walker, global brand ambassador for Bombay Sapphire, agrees that kinder, gentler gin is the way to go. “The majority of the very juniper-flavored gins have gone downhill,” he says. New-school gins “are more crafted and they are coming back into fashion.”

But can gin climb its way back up the liquor ladder? Staehling has hope: “It’s my job to convince people that they can try it again.”

Also tried: Bombay, Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, Tanqueray 10, Plymouth, Hendrick’s and No. 209. Tasters included Birmingham, Simon Shink and Lodge Steakhouse sommelier Caitlin Stansbury.

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Cadenhead’s Old Raj

This is gin? With its toasty, nutty aroma and pale yellow hue, it’s like an impossibly clean and refreshing Scotch. Tips the scales at 110 proof and a $60-plus pricetag, but utterly original and delicious.

Martin Miller’s

A "reformed" London Dry that gets its zesty palate from Icelandic glacial water and a "secret ingredient"–to our palates, dill. Would be a dream with gravalax.

Beefeater

The old standby is lemony, piney and powerful. Not nuanced by any measure, but geniune and great for mixing.

Junipero

Made by San Francisco’s Anchor Distilling, this does the London Dry style better than anything from the U.K. Power, spice, perfume and balance: It might be the most perfect gin around.

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