To me, gin is the Shakespeare of spirits. It’s complex and herbal, yet light and crisp. A cast of merry, mysterious botanicals acts alongside the pure alcohol, the star of the play. A gin and tonic is sheer perfection; it evokes all the mid-summers that ever there were, and, incidentally, does a bang-up job at fending off malaria.
Long Island Spirits has just released its first gin, and this of course demanded immediate investigation. Would it be any good? There’s much ado about craft gins at the moment, but they can be hit-or-miss affairs. There’s the varying quality of the base spirit, endless aromatics options and the occasional attempts to engage inexperienced palates, resulting in spirits that are happy mingling with something fruity, but hardly resemble gin at all. Gin has to taste like gin, damn it!
At the 100-year-old former horse barn in Baiting Hollow, we walk upstairs past a security guard into a wide, light-filled tasting room /patio that overlooks a potato field stretching north to the Long Island Sound. Behind the long bar are arrayed the LIS family of products – vodka, Pine Barrens Whiskey, Rough Rider Bull Moose Rye, flavored spirits, brandy, rum – all small-batch and hand-crafted. The distillery is on the ground level, housing a mash tun, stills, blending tanks. A huge, gleaming, cylindrical copper still rises up through the second story, like a rocket. This speaks to some serious distilling; over the course of the year, about two million pounds of local potatoes pass through the place. Yes, this distillery makes clear spirits from the alcohol fermented and distilled from Long Island potatoes. It’s kind of awesome. An aside: Back in the day, some claimed, disparagingly, that they could taste potatoes in the first vintages of Long Island wines. Was it fanciful to imagine that some sort of “eau de pomme de terre” lingered on? Anyway, here at LIS, the lovely taste of the humble spud is celebrated, not scorned.
The 94-proof spirit is called Deepwells Botanical Dry Gin — I love the name; it’s also kind of Shakespearean. It’s named for the glacial Pine Barrens aquifer under this part of Long Island that provides the water, and the 28 botanicals that flavor the spirit, says Richard Stabile, owner of LIS. “We wanted a dry-style gin, with more citrus impact,” he says. “It’s got wonderful spring florals, and traditional juniper flavors. We just introduced it about two weeks ago, and we’ve had an incredible response.”
During distilling, Stabile says, pure alcohol vaporizes and condenses to create a high-proof product. Volatile oils also escape the heavy base, and these lend character to the spirit. For gin, a special chamber is filled with macerated botanicals, and the alcohol is allowed to pass through, picking up aromas and flavors. LIS was founded in 2007, and released its first vodka soon after, but it took about six years to develop Deepwells; Stabile tested different versions and got feedback from his circle of spirits enthusiasts. “This finally delivers the extraordinary characteristics and exceptional flavor that we long sought to achieve,” he says.
The 28 botanicals — and I’m listing them all because they’re fascinating — are almonds, apple, anise, basil, chamomile, cinnamon, coriander, cubeb berries (a kind of pepper), cucumber, elderflower, fennel, grains of paradise, grapefruit peel, honeysuckle, juniper berries, lavender, lemon peel, licorice root, lime peel, merlot leaf, nutmeg, orange peel, orris root, pansy flowers, pear, pineapple, spearmint and watermelon. Some of these seem a bit fanciful, like the merlot leaf, but that’s part of the magic.
So what does the Deepwells gin taste like? We swirl, sniff and sip. I have tasted the LIS vodka a number of times, so I’m familiar with the distinctive effect from the potatoes, compared to grain-based vodkas. There’s more body, a fuller mouth feel, and, yes, a subtle earthy note. It’s a multiple gold-medal winner, and rightly so, but it’s not for people who like their vodka tasteless. This gin has the same base notes as the vodka, and overlaying that is a delicate, clean citrus/floral effect. With a definite and reassuring note of juniper, it’s still clearly in the gin camp. It doesn’t taste like a traditional British gin, but nor is it like many of too-flowery, light craft gins on the market; it hits a sweet spot somewhere in between. They say everyone’s a critic, but in my humble opinion, this gin is going to enjoy a long run (pun intended).
Deepwells Botanical Dry Gin comes in hand-numbered batches of 600 bottles, priced around $35 for 750ml, and is available at the LIS tasting room, as well as Michael’s in Riverhead, Westhampton Beach Fine Wines and Spirits, The Wine Guy in Smithtown and Barrels & Stills in Melville. Winebow, the distributer, will start selling wholesale in January.