Bottom Line at the Top: Darjeeling is a modern gin that succeeds exactly in the way that the old-guard traditionalists defending the sanctity of London Dry gin hate. Not only are the flavors modern, floral, and different (and oh how traditionalists loathe different)... but the spirit itself is excellently crafted. More importantly, it is better than the best of classic London Dry in certain cocktails. For those who claim to hate gin because it "smells like a tree..." this gin is your answer.
Darjeeling Gin is made in Auburn, California in a vapor infused style of distillation. This means that the botanicals are placed in the still where the alcohol vapors pass through them, are infused with the oils, and then come out in the distillate. This as opposed to a "maceration" or soaking botanicals in the distillate after it comes off the still. As the name suggests, it uses Darjeeling tea as part of its botanical package (slightly ironic to the distilling geek, since tea is meant to be immersed in liquid) along with citrus and the classic juniper that signals gin.
No question about it: any gin mentioning itself as a dry gin must first answer to the Lord of the Realm in London Dry and that is Tanqueray. We sought to compare the two in classical settings, which naturally has to include the Martini, but also in other settings that can showcase it's versatility. At $35, one needs to stretch to purchase and so we assess: is it worth the stretch?
Darjeeling vs Tanqueray Neat
Tanqueray is, as everyone who loves gin recognizes, full of juniper aromatics and crisp flavor. It's a stiff 94.6 proof but for all that carries little heat. The finish is warm and redolent of pine needles. A fine gin and the definition of a classic. This is one of the hard parts about competing in the gin world: the classic Big Market brands (Tanqueray is owned by the biggest of them in Diageo) are actually pretty tough to beat.
Darjeeling is bottled at a slightly lighter 88 proof and smells of orange and clove. Indeed, it reminds of tea far more than juniper. It is also far more subtle than the Tanqueray... smelling side-by-side, the juniper is much sharper and stronger in Tanqueray and a vanishing subtlety in the Darjeeling. The taste is very light and delicate with a very pronounced lavender note... it almost feels more like a flavored vodka than a gin. The spiced lavender lingers impressively on the palate long after the swallow of gin, making it a potentially inviting companion to certain cocktails. Ignoring any complaints about tradition vs modern styles of gin, the craftsmanship of the Darjeeling is excellent, meaning we can find no trace of any methyl or aldehyde flavors or anything else but the heart of the cut off the pot still.
We inquired directly with the distiller about our notes of clove and lavender after we tasted. It turns out that there is neither lavender or clove in the botanicals used to flavor the spirit. He did say that many often get floral notes of rose and lavender but these are a result of the spice combinations of the darjeeling tea. This article will speak at length about the lavender flavors and it's important to note that there isn't any actual lavender in the spirit and is a result of how we interpreted the flavor profile.
Assessment: it might be a stretch to declare it a gin but as a spirit (and acknowledging a more modern style), Darjeeling may make for certain exciting uses. People seeking classic flavors of juniper should seek Tanqueray; those looking for something decidedly different should seek the Darjeeling.
Darjeeling vs Tanqueray in a Martini
We make our Martinis just a touch wet, going 3 parts gin to 1 part vermouth. The Tanqueray makes one of the defining Martinis where the juniper sets off the spiced wine flavors of the vermouth. In this drink, the more juniper the better (which is why the Tanqueray 10 is so prized for Martinis) so we're a bit suspicious of the Darjeeling going in.
Sure enough, the nose is all lavender instead of juniper and once again we would be hard-pressed to recognize this as a Martini if it were offered to us blind. It's not at all unpleasant—in fact, the lavender works rather well with the vermouth— but it would probably set a purist's teeth on edge. The taste taken on its own without all the traditional baggage attached to it, is simply marvelous: light and clear the craftsmanship of the spirit shines through in the simple setting of a Martini. While the taste is marvelous the flavors are not quite in synch. The long, lingering lavender clashes with the aftertaste of vermouth in a kind of briny fashion (maybe this signals the need for a Dirty Martini?). Tasting in 4 beats one feels inside, "this is great..." "this is great..." "this is great..." "oh damn, this didn't quite work."
Assessment: while the gin is well-made for a Martini, we have to suggest purchasing the Tanqueray. Perhaps in other settings, the difference of the Darjeeling will perform better.
Darjeeling vs Tanqueray in a Maiden's Blush
As soon as we nosed the Darjeeling and received orange and clove (even if our nose was in error), we had to try it out in one of our favorite drinks. There are lots of varieties: Red Lion, Maiden's Prayer, Maiden's Blush, Fancy Gin, Abbey, and more... the goal is to introduce a sweetened orange to the dry juniper. Usually this is done with orange juice or similar... we use 3 parts gin, 1 part orange liqueur (we used Grand Marnier), with orange bitters. Shake on ice and serve up (or top with tonic water or even soda water if you prefer). The Tanqueray smells like an orange-scented Christmas tree. Not at all unpleasant but a clash of seasons in an oddly workable way... like a very tall person dating a very short person where both are obviously happy. The taste is like that happy couple's union... which only stands to reason as this drink is one of our favorites. It's just a touch hot and perhaps a touch dry for some.
The Darjeeling has turned into orange-lavender instead of just lavender. It smells a bit like a refreshing cold tea... almost as if you took a nice herbal tea and tried to make iced tea out of it. The Grand Marnier gives it a candied flavor note that is very appealing. Tasting, this is a very nice drink but it needed a lemon twist garnish to finish it off. But the citrus oils released with the lemon twist made a trinity of flavors between the lavender, the orange, and the lemon that was very nice and very refreshing. It called of summer and, we like to think, the imperial palaces of various East Indian royals while they laughed at the British. Perhaps because of the lighter proof or the superior craftsmanship, there is no heat on the finish and may have a broader appeal.
Assessment: while gin purists will prefer the crisp nature of the Tanqueray, we have to judge that the Darjeeling will have the wider appeal in the citrus-and-sweet setting of this cocktail. This leads us to say it opens a universe of cocktails from the Aviation (using violet) all the way to the Yale Cocktail (using maraschino) that become plausible candidates for the Darjeeling. An oustandingly successful gin in these arenas.
Darjeeling vs Tanqueray in a French 75 (or a Gin-and-Tonic)
In a complimentary review from the Sacramento Bee (Chris Macais), he suggested drinking with a squeeze of lemon or in a French 75... which is a bit strange because the French 75 typically calls for cognac. But assuming that he meant substituting gin for cognac, we tried it out. The drink also calls for champagne and we used tonic water... we recognize that tonic water is a very poor substitute for champagne but given that gin drinkers tend to like tonic water and few gin drinkers are likely to have champagne on hand, we thought it appropriate. Call it a Gin-and-Tonic with Lemon if you like.
This much lemon juice tends to silence any nuances in the spirit (which is why we're often suspect of lemon juice but great fans of lemon peel). The lemon does make a very nice additive to the Gin-and-Tonic (or the corrupted French 75) in the Tanqueray; so good, in fact, we have to re-think our lime addition. The Darjeeling, however, is flat-out superior. The lavender has vanished or gone into the augmentation and support of the lemon and tonic. Somehow, this drink no longer tastes of tonic, no longer tastes of lavender, and no longer tastes of lemon. All of those flavors have merged Voltron style into some kind of monument of cocktail awesomitude. This really is terrific... a drink worth going out of your way for in finding the Darjeeling.
Assessment: clear winner to the Darjeeling. In a goofy version of the French 75 or what is really a lemon-influenced Gin-and-Tonic, the Darjeeling destroyed the Tanqueray (which itself was a half-decent drink). A summer drink all the way, this should melt the hearts of any G&T lovers out there.
[Disclaimer: we received a 750ml bottle of Darjeeling Gin for review purposes free of charge. All other products mentioned here were acquired on our own.