By Neal MacDonald, Proof66 Editor
We love reviewing gin. We like it because gin is a highly individualized spirit with any number of botanical nuances offered by the distiller. It’s a blend of technical skill in the distillation and the art of painting flavors on the palate. A distiller’s gin is like his personal signature on his craft.
Sante Fe Spirits sent us a bottle of their new Wheeler’s Gin, which they tell us was 2 years in the making. They describe it as a traditional dry gin, meaning it has a signature juniper note, but uses some southwestern flair featuring hop flowers, osha root, magenta flowers from local cacti, and sage.
Since this is billed as a traditional yet different gin, we opted to test it against Tanqueray, itself a gold standard in London Dry gin to this day. We have one goal in mind: is the different twist offered by the southwest different in a better way? Does it give someone a reason to go outside of their regular purchasing habits? To find out: we test the gin out in as many ways as we can think of.
Tasting neat. We ended up using marble glasses in honor of the rocky southwest (no, there’s not a lot of granite or marble out there but it felt right using glasses made of rock even if it’s not indigenous). The If entirely predictable, Tanqueray is also every bit the classic, pine-tree intense spirit that has been the marvel of martinis for decades. It’s a hot 94.6 proof but well-executed and ready to be iced down. The Wheeler’s, in contrast, has a far more subtle juniper note with a heavy presence of something desert-like, we shall guess sage is dominant, and whatever other indigenous southwest botanicals persist. It’s a dry, dusty flavor that reminds of barbeque spice and what we imagine tumbleweeds would taste like. At a comparatively lower 80 proof, it slides back much, much easier. (Too easy? Can it stand up to the heavy dilution of martinis?) The first test of any new gin is can you tell it apart from other gins? 10 times out of 10, you can pick the Wheeler’s out of a crowd; we’ve never tasted anything quite like the (what we take to be) sage note.
Martinis. All gin cocktails must first answer to this cocktail: the Martini. In honor of the sage, we elected to go with a dirty martini (a little salty olive juice) to honor what we feel is the southwest barbecue flair of the Wheeler’s. We used Stirrings Dirty Martini mix and ratios of gin to vermouth in 3:1… fret not, dry-lovers! We need to know if the gin can stand up to healthy doses of vermouth. As one would expect from this most traditional of gins, the Tanqueray serves up a very elegant martini, for those who like gin martinis dirty. Alas, something was a bit off in the Wheeler’s version. The “dirt” in the Wheeler martini was, surprisingly, too dirty. The olive juice overwhelmed the gin and made the result a bit unclean. Not bad; just a bit off. Was it the olive juice? Going back, we re-made the martini with just the vermouth, again in 3:1 proportions. It turns out, the problem we had was not the dirt in the dirty martini but rather the way the sage (or whatever) mixes with the dry vermouth. Something about the sage with the spices in the vermouth mixed unpleasantly in our minds. Separately, nice. Together, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. The classic martini is not a drink for Wheeler’s gin.
Gin and Tonic. Another classic gin drink that you have to try any gin with before moving to anything else. The tonic water knocks back the strength of both into very drinkable portions (we used Fever Tree tonic water in ratios of 3:1 to the gin with a touch of ice). Tanqueray, as expected, is a summer-time treat with essence of summer and the perfect antidote to hot weather. In tonic, Wheeler’s began to hit its stride. The sage (or whatever) in the Wheeler sings right through the tonic—no mistaking it on the nose. On the palate, it’s much more subtle. The lower proof provides for much easier drinking—dangerously easy and almost sweet—and was the preferred choice in our tasting (though both are good). The traditionalist approaching the drink might be a little puzzled about the loss of juniper but it’s a fine personal signature for a southwest gin; a great liquid souvenir to wet the memories of a visit. In fact, we will offer that the Wheeler’s version will have a much broader audience appeal than the more juniper-heavy Tanqueray.
Negroni (Campari). We wanted to try a classic cocktail that had tons of flavor going on and what better than the 1919 Italian drink (named for Count Camillo Negroni) featuring the astringent bitter qualities of Campari (the recipe calls for equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth topped with club soda). More so than any other cocktail, there was a sharp distinction between the two gins, which is impressive by itself considering the riot that’s going on flavorwise. The Tanqueray ends up giving a flute-like counterpoint to the Campari, where the Campari is the featured ingredient—perfect for those who like bitter drinks and hoppy beers. The Wheeler’s southwest botanicals ended up offering a kind of soothing counter-melody to the Campari bitterness, which ended up in a kind of melodious unfolding of flavors. Where it worked poorly with dry vermouth, it shone superbly with Campari. This is an excellent drink to take an adventurous run with the Wheeler gin, (though it is fair to note some traditionalists offered complaints about the lack of juniper).
Sixth Heaven (Orange). We wanted to try out the sage in a fruit-forward drink and we looked up at random something called the Seventh Heaven cocktail, which calls for 3 parts gin and 1 part each of maraschino liqueur and grapefruit juice. Unfortunately, we had no grapefruit juice and substituted in orange juice (hence: Sixth Heaven). This was an interesting twist… the drink with the Tanqueray has a very nice aroma but the cherry and orange don’t mix well at all. Maybe the grapefruit would do better. But in this bastardized version with orange, it’s like mixing rap with opera. The Wheeler’s actually made this previously undrinkable drink good. The sage (or whatever) in the Wheeler mixes excellently with orange… it’s Lucille Ball to Desi Arnaz. This is a great quality in a liquor where it can literally save an otherwise bad drink.
Maiden’s Prayer (more orange). Does Wheeler really work with orange? We went ahead with one of our favorite cocktails of all time, the Maiden’s Prayer. This is an orange forward cocktail calling for 2 parts gin and Cointreau with one part orange and lemon juice each. Verdict: yes, it’s as if God himself designed the orange for Wheeler’s gin. The sage and southwestern botanicals give an herbal richness to the sweet orange that is absolutely delicious. This is a glorious drink with the Wheeler while it’s simply a very mediocre drink with the Tanqueray.
Final Verdict. It’s a credit to the gin that we didn’t once discuss its craftsmanship, which is excellent. No quibbles about heat; no issues with the distillation. For the flavor, do not be fooled by the traditional label: this is a pioneering sort of gin that we feel does justice to the terroir of the American Southwest. While we can’t in good conscience recommend in a classic martini, it performed excellently with orange (and we suspect other citrus) as well as bitters, sweet vermouth, and tonic water. Once you have a standard gin you like, venture out and try this one and see if your old favorite holds up.