Catoctin Creek Distillery is Virginia-based all-organic distillery… absolutely everything is organic. And we’ve visited the distillery ourselves and can vouch for founders Scott and Becky Harris’s dedication to this principle to organic ingredients and processes. The name of Catoctin Creek—the local waterway that runs near the distillery—comes from Native American kittoctin translating as “place of many deer,” which is a nice nod to the region’s history. The name for Watershed Gin comes from the actual watershed of the Chesapeake Bay area of which Catoctin Creek is a part of. All this to say, if you’re into regional spirits and craft production, it doesn’t get more regional or craft than this unless you’re buying illegal moonshine right out of the still that’s set up on the river. And the gin will taste a lot better, we promise you.
We received a bottle of their Watershed gin to try and Scott Harris himself promised us we’d be impressed as he’d adjusted the formula. The base distillate is a blend of wheat and rye grain, which would delight whiskey lovers (of which we will proudly acknowledge ourselves a part of). It also comes in at a relatively high 100 proof, where most gins are in the 80s or 90s. They suggest looking for notes of cinnamon and citrus along with the signature juniper and their rye-grain base.
Buying Watershed Gin (a bit of a commitment at near $40) means you really, really like gin so we elected to compare it against some classics in the industry both traditional and modern. We used Beefeater—a well-regarded London Dry gin—and Hendrick’s Gin—the benchmark modern gin that has often featured in our top-20 gins in the world. This is heady company but this is the company that a $40 organic gin needs to be able to keep in order to take its proper place on the top shelf.
We like to take a progression through various cocktails to really showcase and identify where spirits can shine.
Neat: The first round is always the spirit itself unvarnished by anything else. Where the Beefeeater is juniper with a black pepper bite and the Hendrick’s is all citrus and floral, the Watershed has a great deal more grain character. It’s almost more like a white whiskey and we think it would appeal greatly to beer lovers. The juniper is subdued but present but with the dash of promised spice, perhaps pepper and cinnamon. But all very subtle. For a 100 proof spirit, it’s shockingly smooth and a credit to the distillation itself. These are incredibly different gins each with a different audience. Traditional gin lovers of heavy juniper will be disappointed with Watershed but from a crafting standpoint, this is an incredible easy-going and drinkable product—easily surpassing the craftsmanship of the Beefeater and neck-and-neck with the celebrated Hendrick’s. [Special note: we’ve often been intensely disappointed with white whiskey and even refused to publish a review on some… this note to drive home the point that the execution of this gin as a spirit is especially impressive to us.]
Gin-and-Tonic: We carefully prepared 4:1 ratios of Fever Tree tonic (may as well use a designer tonic water if you’re going to drink designer gin) and gin… two ice cubes. No twist, no additives, just that much. First off, tonic water buries Hendrick’s, at least at these ratios. If you’re really, really trying you can detect citrus notes but the way people drink the G&T, it’s probably a waste of money. Adding tonic to the Beefeater tends to highlight the pepper and the grain and hide the juniper. Again, people who adore the citrus and the pine in G&T might prefer the more classic Beefeater or perhaps Tanqueray. Watershed, on the other hand, behaves very interestingly in tonic. The grain quality comes through in spades on the finish and reminds, again, very much of beer. It’s too much to say that Watershed turns the G&T into a light beer but the whiskey/beer like finish is quite pleasurable. People drinking one would take a sip and say, “that’s interesting” or “that’s different”.
Martini: One cannot test a gin without trying a classic Martini. We use more traditional ratios rather than the current drier standards by using 4:1 gin to vermouth ratios. We used a previously unopened bottle of Gallo Dry Vermouth (not exactly designer but at least it hadn’t been sitting in a shelf getting fatigued), and no garnish of any kind. The Beefeater offers a very classic martini and demands to be chilled—it provides every bit the experience and aroma of ice and juniper. Hendrick’s is the adventure in floral characters but, in its case, is worsened without the garnish (it needs a cucumber, as the marketing literature claims). The Watershed smells very herbaceous with just a hint of the grain character we’ve learned to associate it with. It makes an excellent Martini… the craftsmanship shines through avoiding the gasoline taste and odor so notorious in drier, more burning versions offered by careless bartenders. There’s just a hint of sweetness on the front end and the warmth all comes on the finish. In fact, we felt the Martini was slightly better when not chilled making it a kind of winter-weather martini that could easily substitute for brandy or similar winter-time drinks. We might recommend having a bottle of Hendrick’s for the summer and a bottle of Watershed for the winter and cover the seasons delightfully in that fashion.
Negroni: on the recommendation of the website, this is a classic, European cocktail featuring the bright red and intensely bitter Camapri liqueur. In this version, it calls for 2oz of Watershed gin, 0.75oz of Campari, and 1.5oz of sweet vermouth. It’s a scary drink because a) it uses Campari and b) there’s so much going on in there we think going in it would bury any gin… you may as well use a bathtub bin. Just as predicted, the Beefeater vanishes completely inside the vermouth. It’s just gone. Wouldn’t have even guessed there was gin in there. The Watershed version is very drinkable. The grain fits with the Campari. The Hendrick’s, though, really shines in this particular drink. While the grain highlights the vermouth with the Watershed, we feel like the floral notes of the Hendrick’s really augment the Campari in very interesting ways. Once again, we feel like the contrast between the Hendrick’s and the Watershed is one of preference rather than quality… the grain of Watershed highlights the bitterness of the Campari while the floral notes of the Hendrick’s synchronize with it. Both are good and both easily outshine the Beefeater in this particular cocktail.
Catoctin Gin Front Porch Slippers: Another recommendation from their website, this cocktail is truly an adventure. It calls for muddling 2 lime wedges, 4 chunks of cucumber, and a teaspoon of sugar, to which we’ll add 1.5oz of Watershed gin, 1oz of lime juice, 1oz of simple syrup. There is also a watermelon version that switches out the cucumber for watermelon. Well, we didn’t have cucumbers or watermelon so we used strawberries. And we used agave syrup instead of simple syrup. After all, things have to be a little versatile. The first thing we learned is that you can make a spectacular mess with this drink if you’re not careful (it turns out we weren’t that careful). The second thing is a well-proven axiom: good things happen when you muddle fresh fruit and add sugar. As a cocktail, this is very successful, though we’ll say that the Beefeater was the weakest version. Once again, the Hendrick’s and the Watershed provided very interesting contrasts. The floral notes of Hendrick’s will, we feel, appeal to the majority of people. It makes a beautiful, smooth, easy-drinking cocktail. The Watershed lets its grain shine through once again and adds a note of bitterness to the sweet… and we think this will be particularly appealing to a minority of people: whiskey drinkers, those who like drier cocktails, and those who prefer warmer drinks. Both are quite stunning in this setting.
Free styling: We’ve mentioned again and again that the grain character of Watershed is its defining characteristic. This is a very interesting thing to say about a gin where the botanicals are usually the star. So we turned to a cocktail we invented specifically for white whiskey to be drunk at room temperature that calls for 2 parts whiskey (in this case, Watershed), 1 part Grand Marnier, and 1 part water. It is not to be shaken ice but served at room temperature and should have a brandy like setting in a snifter. It should improve with warmth. How did the gin fare here? Well, we don’t like to brag… but we will: we found the sweet spot. The drink is good with each but most un-interesting with the Beefeater. The Hendrick’s is okay but a lot of orange a lot of bite and needle… which is weird because it wasn’t there in any other setting. But start to finish, the drink was spectacular in Watershed—from the aroma, to the taste, to the finish—it complemented the orange beautifully, the grain polished the brandy in the Grand Marnier, and the water smoothed out the 100 proof spirit (which didn’t need much smoothing because it is so excellently made). This drink, by all accounts, is absolutely worth buying the bottle in the first place.
It’s got to feel good when a craft distilled gin can go toe-to-toe with some of the most famous gins in the business in classic settings and not get run off the court. It’s rather like Spain holding its own against Team USA in the 2012 Olympics basketball. We believe this gin will appeal to a hard-core whiskey population and work best in settings that play well to whiskey rather than gin. We particularly recommend the drink at room temperatures. At minimum, it is a beautiful spirit to challenge the worthy mixologist who can unlock the secrets of this expertly crafted spirits in way