River Rose Gin: Awesome but Sort of Not Gin

River Rose Gin: Awesome but Sort of Not Gin
The Mississippi River Distilling Company-casually known as MRDC among those in the know-produces a gin that they call River Rose. Their story should please anyone who’s invested into the craft distilling movement.

  • They source their grain all from within 25 miles of their distillery in Iowa
  • They use a traditional copper pot still-named Rose, so the gin’s name is quite appropriate-and produced in small batches
  • They’re a “grain-to-glass” distillery in that they grind the grain, ferment, distill, and bottle all in their own shop
  • They’re cool enough to include batch notes on every one of their bottles, which vary slightly from time to time… this is the true gin nerd’s dream

Our particular bottle was from Batch 5 from the year 2013. This means the base grain distillate was 80% corn and 20% wheat (with the local farmers’ names carefully noted… 80% of our thanks goes to Dan and Ryan Clark of LeClaire, IA and 20% of our thanks to Tracy Doonan of Reynolds, IL). There were 1,173 bottles in that run and we have bottle 994. Oddly, there are no notes on the source and style of the botanicals.

So the story of the gin is romantic and sure to please. What about the taste? We classify this gin as a "modern" styled gin because of the promise of citrus (orange, grapefruit, and lemon) plus helpings of cucumber and lavender. To us, the citrus and floral elements signal the modern style. Incidentally, their one award came from the Beverage Testing Institute just this year in March of 2014, where they found flavor notes of licorice gum, white balsamic marinated pears, pepper muffins, mint-herb lozenge, grass, and white pepper. Apparently the pros didn’t appreciate the citrus, lavender, and cucumber… we don’t know what a pepper muffin is and have never marinated pears in white balsamic vinegar so we’re not sure what to look for there.

We wanted to compare the River Rose to two different gin products on the market. First, we compared it to the most classic of all London Dry gins, Tanqueray. Where River Rose is handmade, Tanqueray is mass-produced; where River Rose is modern with floral citrus, Tanqueray is straight-up juniper. Can the MRDC product separate itself from Big Liquor?

Second, we wanted to compare it to the preeminent and best seller of modern-styled gin, Hendrick’s. This is the self-proclaimed oddity of the gin world replete with a cucumber bite. The MRDC gin comes in at $28 compared to the Tanqueray at $20 and the Hendrick’s at $35 so the River Rose is priced right between the two. This is actually pretty sterling company to keep where Tanqueray was once awarded Best Gin in the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the Beverage Testing Institute called Hendrick’s a “sensationally flavorful and seamless gin.” If River Rose can hold its own here, then it’s certainly worthwhile seeking out among those gin idolaters who may find themselves within purchasing distance.

River Rose Against the Competition Tasted Neat

Gin is seldom drunk straight but it is often drunk very minutely garnished.

Tanqueray comes in at the highest proof, 94.6, and is all perfumed juniper. Very smooth and nice for such a high proof… not much else going on but juniper but still a perfumed juniper. Maybe rose petal juniper… but no pepper, no lemon, no cucumber, or anything else total classicists might deem nonsense. A little ice concentrates the juniper and gives the finish a little bit of polish. The Hendrick’s, in contrast, smells of citrus and other stuff… it’s also very, very smooth for its 88 proof. The barley grain base is present on the finish plus a flourish of lavender. This is definitely a serious departure from traditional gin. (The Hendrick’s guys say Bulgarian Rose rather than merely rose.) Ice really, really helps the Hendrick’s. It evens out the oddity and pulls out a cucumber aspect.

So where does the River Rose compare? At 80 proof, it’s much, much lighter than the competition. The aroma’s barely resembles gin. Instead, it’s flower… all flower and a dash of honey. Smelling River Rose is like walking into one of those scented candle shops at Christmas time. If there’s juniper here, it’s gone missing. But the aroma is still quite intense (intensely floral). Tasting, still no juniper. It’s a fine lavender and rose flavored vodka; it's not really a gin. The distillation, by the way, is excellent. The cut on the batch is very well-executed. We thought ice would pull out some citrus (maybe even the grapefruit?) but we didn’t find that to be the case. This is a curious marketing event: what will happen when someone expects juniper and gets flowers?

River Rose Against the Competition in a Martini

One cannot drink gin without considering the Martini, the king of all cocktails. We used a particular dry style with 3 parts gin and 1 part dry vermouth (Martini & Rossi). No garnish since the flavor profiles were so different.

The Tanqueray Martini should be the epitome if press and tradition are to be believes... and it is good. In fact, we were complaining about too much vermouth in our gin. It does need a garnish… any kind of garnish: twist, olive, something. The Hendrick’s is special… it’s hard to describe the flavor except that it’s more. More flavor; more excitement; more enticement. These are two excellent examples of the martini and will be tough to beat.

With this high bar to clear, we pour the River Rose; we’re really concerned out of the gate about an 80 proof gin holding up to shaking on ice (80 shakes!). In the event, the aroma is off: the vermouth is not mixing well with the floral. It smelled much better on its own. The taste is equally clashing. A lemon twist accents the aroma in very nice ways and improves it a bit. It’s an interesting drink… but ultimately unsatisfying. We are forced to declare that while the River Rose has potential it is not meant for a classic dry Martini.

River Rose Against the Competition in a Gin and Tonic

That second most popular drink of all gin cocktails is the simple mixture with tonic. We used garden-variety Canada Dry tonic water rather than designer stuff precisely to see if these designer gins could elevate pedestrian tonic water. We used 4 parts tonic to 2 parts gin with a squeeze of lime.

Very predictably, it’s elegant and clean with the Tanqueray. The juniper slides seamlessly with the tonic and lime and makes a drink one could throw back with abandon and regret in the morning. The hangovers caused by the Tanqueray Gin and Tonic probably set back gin sales over all quite measurably in recent decades. With the Hendrick’s, the smell is all barley and it smells like it should be good but something desperately wrong happened on the palate. Whatever is in Bulgarian Rose or the other botanicals Hendrick’s uses, it most certainly does not play nicely with tonic. Avoid at all costs. Polluted.

River Rose is set up for the victory: Tanqueray is good but slightly boring and the Hendrick’s is hideous. Can the MRDC make the slam dunk? In the event, the aroma is nice… it’s rose and tonic instead of gin and tonic but it smells very nice. For being non-traditional, it is still refreshing and tasty. A little lemon twist instead of lime is recommended here but as a change-up for the classic gin and tonic, this would definitely inspire some converts. We declare for River Rose, particularly for the modernist.

River Rose Against the Competition in a Blueberry Rose Cocktail

The Blueberry Rose is a recommended cocktail from the MRDC website. It calls for 1 ½ oz of gin, 1 tablespoon of blueberries (we had to use a frozen berry mix that included raspberry, blackberry, and blueberry, which we thawed out first), and one slice of lemon. The berry and lemon are muddled with the gin, shake on ice, and serve up in a martini glass topped with ginger beer. That’s a lot of flavor for gin to take on between ginger beer and blueberry. Could any gin stand out?

First, this drink’s kind of a pain in the ass to make. The berries and lemon clog up the shaker. It’s hard to find ginger beer (we used ¾ oz of Bundaberg, the good stuff). After the labor of mixing, the drink is gorgeous in both appearance and taste. It's not sweet, a little spicy, very red. While tasty, we couldn’t have told you there was gin in the drink. Of the two big market gins, the Hendrick’s was far better. We don’t know why… we still couldn’t have guessed gin was in the drink if we hadn't made it ourselves. But the flavors work together fabulously. Maybe it’s the barley; maybe it’s the Bulgarian Rose. Whatever, we would drink it again.

Now, if the River Rose was set up for success, it’s here. We’ve already established that gin is not essential in this drink. If their floral honey can mix nicely with berry and ginger beer, this could be the Sum of all Drinks. So what happened? It’s good… the floral is there. If you really like lavender rose, you’ll give it first prize. But we mildly prefer the Hendrick’s. Still, given this drink, we’d pay for it happily and order another. That’s high praise from the Proof66 staff. It’s sweet, invigorating, delicate, and makes one feel like stepping on a floating dance floor with super models.

River Rose Against the Competition in a Lavender Rose

Another recommendation from the MRDC website, it calls for 1 oz of gin, ½ oz of lemon juice, and ½ oz of lavender simple syrup (we used the broVo Lavender liqueur). Shake on ice, pour into a glass with ice and top with 3 oz of club soda. This sounds a bit diluted and overpowering with the lavender so we were eager to see if the gin could shine through.

Now, broVo is intense. Probably more intense than a lavender syrup. But who the hell has lavender syrup? In the Tanqueray, one can only smell lavender… nothing more. It tastes vile. In the Hendrick’s, we halved the amount of lavender liqueur… better but not good. Just less vile lavender perfume. Would not buy.

We moved on to the River Rose and reduced the lavender again plus putting in some agave syrup. It’s still not good. Really, the lavender of the River Rose Gin doesn’t really need any more lavender in it. Still, as we tinkered with the drink, this is the best version of a largely undrinkable cocktail.

In Summary

The world of gin is evolving. It's introducing a lot of floral elements and River Rose is at the far right of the bell curve with respect to venturing into the new frontiers of gin-dom. While it doesn't work in a Martini, it works quite well with tonic and exceedingly well with spiced fruits. Where it cannot replace a good London dry gin - something every bar should have - the River Rose should find adherents for any mixologists that like to use berries and bubbles in their drinks.

by Neal MacDonald, editor

[Disclosures: we were provided a 750ml bottle of River Rose gin by the distillers for review purposes; all other products mentioned here were acquired on our own for comparison purposes.]
2014-06-02
Published by Proof66.com