Not your grandpa's gin: Southern distilleries create botanically unique, exciting spirits

In the distillery with Chemist Spirits in Asheville, North Carolina.
Brad Japhe
For Southern Kitchen

This story is part of Spirits of the South, a tour through some of the best bars and distilleries the South has to offer. We've also created some excellent craft cocktail recipes for you to try at home. See it all here.

Although gin doesn’t have an incredibly lengthy legacy in the South, the oft-overlooked spirit is now starting to rise in popularity. You can thank the modern craft movement for that.

Upstart distilleries have broadened the parameters of the category, pushing the botanical complexities well beyond the obligatory juniper berry. Regional bartenders, in turn, are taking these experimental elixirs and layering atop all sorts of exciting tones and textures.

“Most southern craft distilleries start out by creating unaged spirits like gin, vodka or moonshine while their whiskies age in oak barrels,” explained mixologist Miguel Buencamino, who runs a cocktail-focused creative agency, Holy City Handcraft, in Charleston, South Carolina. “So there has certainly been an uptick in gin created in the South. These (new producers) have changed the perception that this is the spirit that their parents would drink.”

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Gin is built on a base of neutral grain spirit — think vodka — in which a cornucopia of herbs, flowers, roots and botanicals are steeped. You can think of it as the tea of the liquor world. And when the kettle is under the care of creative master distillers, production can lend itself to a wide array of whimsy, as is the case with mother and daughter Debbie and Danielle Word at Chemist Spirits in Asheville, North Carolina.

“What we make is called an American-style gin because it’s not too heavy on the juniper,” said Debbie, the elder Word. “Our method of making gin gives us big aromatics and softer, more nuanced flavors, which gave us the opportunity to use all the more delicate botanicals that exist in our mountainous regions.”

It’s a sophisticated drink that leads with citrus tang before revealing more savory elements of lemon verbena, cardamom and mint. Chemist also makes a barrel-rested version that practically pours like a cocktail right out of the bottle. Though craft gin is a relatively recent phenomenon in Asheville, Word is quick to point out that it’s not exactly a foreign practice to these parts.

Barrel-rested gin at Chemist Spirits.

“The Appalachian Mountains were the initial area in the United States where moonshine became a thing again,” she said. “But traditional moonshine is not all that delicious to drink. So we decided to try making something that was actually palatable using another tradition rooted in the Appalachian Mountains: medicinal herbs.”

They’re not alone. All across the South these days, distillers are courting praise by working with whatever native ingredients are in abundance. Wonderbird Spirits in Taylor, Mississippi, launched a line of experimental gins with a liquid inspired by the “enchanting aroma of midsummer Mississippi magnolia.”

The distillers harvested as much of the local blossoms as they could find and ended up with a refreshing, floral sensation. It took home gold at last year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition. As Buencamino points out, this is just the start. “While the South has typically leaned toward aged spirits like bourbon and rum,” he said, “there is a special place in a Southerner’s heart for gin."

More about Chemist Spirits at www.chemistspirits.com. More about Wonderbird Spirits at www.wonderbirdspirits.com.

This take on a negroni from Chemist Spirits adds the flavors of chocolate to a classic favorite.

Chocolate-Orange Negroni

This take on a negroni uses Chemist's Chocolate Orange Gin Liqueur, based on Chemist Barrel-Rested Gin and finished with rich cacao from Asheville's French Broad Chocolates (a bean-to-bar chocolate maker) and sweet orange.

Ingredients

1 ounce Chemist Spirits Chocolate Orange Gin Liqueur

3/4 ounce Amaro Nonino

3/4 ounce Cocchi di Torino

2 dashes Regan's Orange Bitters

Orange peel for garnish

Instructions

Combine all ingredients into a cocktail stirrer with ice. Stir ingredients until chilled. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with an orange peel. 

Gibson Martini

Gibson Martini

"If you're a fan of classic or dirty martinis, I encourage you to try this rendition," Holy City's Buencamino said. "The Gibson substitutes salty-sour pearl onions for olives, providing a bright and vibrant flavor profile to complement most gins."

Ingredients

2 1/2 ounces gin

1/2 ounce dry vermouth

3 cocktail onions

Instructions

Combine gin and dry vermouth in a mixing glass with ice. Stir, strain and pour the cocktail into a chilled coupe and garnish with three (or more) cocktail onions. Serve and enjoy.

Chemist Spirit's Barrel-Rested Gimlet.

Barrel-Rested Gimlet

Essentially a Gin Sour made with lime juice, legend has it that the Gimlet was created in the mid-19th century to encourage Royal Navy sailors to consume their rations of scurvy-preventing lime juice.

Ingredients

2 ounces Chemist Barrel-Rested Gin

1 ounce lime juice

3/4 ounce simple syrup

Lime wheel for garnish

Instructions

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wheel.