Ryan Magarian is an industry stalwart and one of the partners in the creation of one of my favourite American Gins, Aviation Gin.
Ryan was in Melbourne last week on a flying visit and I was thrilled to be able to interview him and get some insights into New Western Gins.
Talk me through the creation of Aviation Gin
I like to describe the early 2000s as the 4th evolution of gin. (The 1st evolution was Genever, the 2nd was Old Tom and the 3rd evolution was London Dry), although it has taken time for people to articulate it. In around 2000 two brands started doing something different: Hendricks and Tanqueray. Both of them were amplifying the alternative gin botanicals in a way that gins hadn’t been in the past. They were relying on the other botanicals to sell and define their gin rather than the juniper.
I think people began to question whether more could be done with gin other than simply make a tight juniper spirit. Clearly, it has to contain juniper, there should be in my opinion a “responsible amount of juniper” for it to be called gin, but was there room for more creativity?
What they didn’t do, but what we chose to do, and what I consider to be the lynch pin of Aviation was create something that reflected the sensibility and the climate and the creativity that you see in the Pacific North West.
We were determined to make it ours, there was no reason why some gin makers from Oregon should make something that tastes exactly like Tanqueray, it just didn’t make sense to me. Using alternative, and often unusual botanicals offers the distiller the chance to make a gin that is truly theirs.
Why use Sarsaparilla?
I credit my partner with the inclusion of both lavender and sarsaparilla, our two most unusual botanicals.We like to think we went ‘off-roading’ to create a damp, forest floor flavour profile (rather than a pine tree walk flavour profile).
Aviation Gin is earthy, savoury, rich, unctuous, – to me it’s the Pacific Northwest in a bottle. It’s doesn’t smell like the English country side, it doesn’t taste like Sydney it smells like Portland, Oregon if you ask me!
We’ve even done blind tasting and asked people to guess which gin is from the Pacific North-West and they always pick Aviation, so what ever we’ve done we’ve done it right. I don’t think there is another gin that is as terroir-orientated as Aviation.
How did the term New Western Gin come about?
I’m very much a believer in being a part of the intellectual conversation about gin and not just someone who’s bringing a product to market. Aviation was so different to what was available at that time that it made no sense to just hand it over to a bartender and say “here you are, have some new gin”, so when I started we coined the term New Western dry gin. For better or worse it stuck all over the world, as a moniker to describe gins that are more heavy-handed with the alternative gin botanicals, in creating what I call a botanical democracy.
There was some resistance to the term by traditional gin distillers, but I believe that having a flavour designation term helps grow the category, helps the consumer and more importantly protects the existing dry gin category, but it gives a place for us to be more creative.
When I try a new gin, I always start from the simplest point:
Is it a ‘dictatorship of juniper’ or it is a ‘democracy of botanicals’?
Is it a juniper-centric London Dry or is it balance of botanicals in a New Western style gin?
Do you think being a bartender helped in the process? Aside from creating something that was so specific to the North West , were you looking for something that was versatile enough to work in lots of different cocktails?
I definitely thought about creating something a craft cocktail maker would want on his or her back bar. Essentially, they want to create a drink that is balanced between spirits and modifiers and accents. So as a bartender it made a lot of sense for me to create gin that was balanced and could be used in lots of different cocktails.
How did you choose the name? Was it after the Aviation Cocktail?
The name Aviation is taken from the cocktail. But, it wasn’t like I saw this random drink and thought it would be a good marketing idea to use the name. The Aviation was the first gin cocktail I tasted that made me realise that everyone could love gin, it was a life-changing gin experience!
I first noticed this drink in my friend Paul Harrington’s book, Cocktails of the 21st century,written in the late ’90s, before Dave Wondrich had dug up the original recipe by Recipes for Mixed Drinks by Hugo R. Ensslin. An Aviation up until 2006 was made without crème de violette. The simple harmony of gin, maraschino and lemon was a revelation. I thought “This is the Trojan horse for gin!”.
The idea of gin in a yummy citrus drink was a novelty. Remember this was way back at the beginning of what we now call the cocktail revolution. So I went back to the bar and started putting gin in everything, Gin Cosmos, Gin Mojitos, even Daiquiris!
Ryan’s thoughts on gin and gin cocktails
I don’t believe that people don’t like gin, it’s two different things…relevant vehicles to serve it and bartenders not having the knowledge (back then) of how to cook with it so to speak. There is a gin and a gin cocktail for every imbiber in the world and a lot of that comes down to the expertise of the barman or woman to figure out how to make that connection.
We wanted Aviation Gin to work well in citrus cocktails. It doesn’t have a huge amount of citrus so it’s a good foundation. Every gin has a unique application and Aviation is no different.
Highballs with Aviation Gin: – gin and soda, gin and lemonade, gin and grapefruit. The sweetness of the sarsaparilla works well with the bitterness of the grapefruit.
Punches – Aviation, Tom Collins, Gin Daiquiri, Last Word and French 75 all work well with Aviation
19th century cocktails: Negroni, martini
However, as New Western gins tend to be softer, we needed to play with the ratios a little so the gin doesn’t get lost in the drink. It’s forced me to get more intellectual with all gins and see how they work with different cocktails and recalibrate accordingly. For example, a Negroni made with Aviation would be 60ml gin, 30ml sweet vermouth and 30ml campari (instead of the usual 30/30/30).
An Aviation Martini would be 75ml gin, 15ml Dolin vermouth and then 1 dash of Regan’s bitters.
I like to say “A great martini should taste like magical freakin’ glacial water“.
A last word on New Western Gins
Imagine gin as a solar system. Tanqueray is the Sun, Beefeater is Mercury, Plymouth is Venus, Hendricks and Tanqueray 10 would be Saturn and Uranus. And Aviation? We’re Pluto with regard to juniper!
My grateful thanks to Ryan for spending so much time with me, it was a fascinating and great learning experience for me. Thanks to Dan Roche and the team at Vanguard for making it possible.
You can follow Ryan on twitter.