Bottom Line at the Top: Halcyon Gin ends up being a perfectly named gin. It is a soft, peaceful, and quiet gin filled with romantic citrus... it begs for contemplation in interludes. Halcyon times indeed! It's craftsmanship is beyond question and we find it holds up brilliantly in a variety of cocktails. This is a gin that can be purchased with all confidence for virtually any purpose.
Halcyon Gin is made by Bluewater Distilling out of Everett, Washington. They're proud of their commitment to organic production, which can be relevant when dealing with botanical infusions for gin. The name "halcyon" is traditionally defined as a prior time of peace, bliss, and contentment but for Bluewater they want to emphasize the calm between violent storms (for which that particular part of the Pacific Northwest is justifiably famous). Their botanical mix strikes us as classic/traditional with perhaps a blast of citrus. At a healthy 92 proof, we're expecting a gin that can be drunk on its own but can also stand on its own in cocktails.
We compared the Halcyon to one of the true benchmark's in the business with Tanqueray London Dry gin. Really, if you want to do anything in the gin world you have to prove you can stand toe-to-toe with green icon.
Halcyon vs Tanqueray Straight
Tanqueray comes in a bit hotter at 94.6 proof compared to Halcyon's 92 proof. But the nose is all, classic juniper. It should send shivers of anticipation down any Martini-enthusiast. It's well-executed with almost no heat, a warm juniper flavor, and perhaps a masking gloss of citrus. But for the juniper, it feels designed to showcase cocktail ingredients... be they vermouth in a Martini, orange in a Maiden's Prayer, or whatever the case may be. A little chill and water doesn't adjust the aroma a smidge but brings out a touch of sweetness and pepper to the flavor. One might call it boring but one can't find a lot to criticize.
The Halcyon hits the nose with a softened juniper and a blast of citrus compared to the Tanqueray, which is exactly what the marketing led us to expect. We feel there's a decided orange note to the nose and indeed orange and lemon are named as the citrus. Occasionally a critic will call something a "feminine gin" and while that's a baffling statement we feel it applies to this softer, more finesse-styled spirit. The craftsmanship is excellent: no needle, no burn, only a delicate blush of warmth on the finish. One would guess this was closer to 70 proof than 90. The finish is juniper followed by citrus. A little ice and water brings out more sweetness and more of that signature citrus. This is easily a gin that could be sipped on its own for dry Martini lovers.
Assessment: it's not in your face. It doesn't happen on the first sip. But at the third or fourth swallow, you find yourself exclaiming, "Damn! That's a good gin!" We've seen other critics call it "sensuous" and we have to agree because it sneaks up on a person. We imagine it may struggle in competitive settings because it's not as theatrical or dramatic as some gins; it may get lost in a crowd. As the "girl-next-door" gin it's an amazing success. Price is an issue (Tanqueray comes in at $20-$25 while the Halcyon is $30) but judging on taste and taste alone, Halcyon is the better executed, the more subtle, and the more sophisticated in a straight match-up.
Halcyon vs Tanqueray in an Aviation Cocktail
The Aviation is a classic, old-fashioned cocktail that is famously blue. Differences in recipes abound but the name comes from the blue sky color that is derived from a dose of creme de violette liqueur (something that can be rather hard to find). We used 2oz of gin; 1/2oz of lemon juice; 1/4 ounce of creme de violette (in this case, Creme Yvette); and a dash of maraschino liqueur; shake on ice and serve. This is a drier style of Aviation that is meant to showcase the herbal flavors of the gin.
The classics are great drinks and in this case with the classic Tanqueray... well, it's well worth the effort and the exotic ingredients. The lemon balances the sweet out of the two liqueurs (careful not to use too much!) leaving a fruit nose and an herbal finish. It's delicious. And it tastes adult in a world of corn syrup drinks. These are heavy flavors and it could be a masculine gin is called upon to stand up to those other spirits... can the sensuous Halcyon hold up in comparison?
The Halcyon is better. It's subdued nature glides effortlessly with the flavors of violet and cherry and virtually sings with the lemon. It is softer. One could barely mistake it for a vodka drink before the finish (where it removes all doubt) while in comparison the juniper is heavy up front on the Tanqueray. Purists may prefer the Tanqueray; though we do not.
Assessment: if there were any chauvinistic concerns that a sensuous, feminine gin couldn't hold forth in the company of bold strangers, let the image of Athena, the original warrior-princess put those to rest. Halcyon ghosts in and out these complex flavors in delightful ways and one need not fear mixing it in any flavor.
Halcyon vs Tanqueray in a Gin and Tonic
There's really nothing like a Gin and Tonic in the hotter months. We used 3 parts tonic (we used the fashionable Fentimans) to 1 part gin with a little ice.
In the Tanqueray, the drink is ok. With the Fentimans, it's extraordinarily dry but the lemongrass out of the tonic water sets off the gin nicely. People may claim our palate is too American but we say the drink is too dry. But nice. Will the citrus notes of the Halcyon show better?
In the Halcyon the drink smells much better. The mutual citrus blends very nicely complement each other and it approaches a farmstead lemonade-stand quality. The drink itself still feels overly dry to our mind—and the finish has a decidedly diet-Squirt quality to it—but the flavors on the front-end of the palate taste as good as they smell. The "sensuality" we noted is coming through in this cocktail... repeated swallows declare stronger and stronger for the Halcyon.
Assessment: what we learned more than anything else is that we're going to avoid Fentimans tonic in the future. Sad to say that the corn syrup affair of a supermarket tonic works better than this stuff but it's true. Even so, there's no question that the citrus quality of the Halcyon works better in this setting where so often the Tanqueray requires a twist of lime or lemon spiral to set it off. If summers ever get warm enough in Everett, Washington to demand it, this is your gin for the Gin-and-Tonic.
Halcyon vs Tanqueray in a 20th Century Cocktail
The 20th Century is a drink recommended by Halcyon specifically. It calls for equal parts (!) gin, creme de cacao, sweet vermouth (we used the trendy and rich Vya Vermouth), and lemon juice. To our eye, this looks like a kind of chocolate-driven Perfect Martini with a lot of sour from the lemon. Different... decidedly different.
This is a very peculiar drink. In the Tanqueray, it smells immediately of cocoa and cherry... presumably the creme de cacao and vermouth acting together. It's not unpleasant but merely unexpected in what one is expecting in a gin drink. It's a surprisingly tasty drink! It's much sweeter than we would've expected but the acidity of the lemon balances it nicely. It's a dessert drink but a sophisticated one. But is there gin in it? We wonder if it may as well have been rum or vodka as Tanqueray gin in this drink. We'd order it... particularly in winter (can it be warmed instead of chilled?) but it may not require gin. Will we detect a difference with the Halcyon?
In the Halcyon we get more cocoa on the nose for whatever reason. And on the palate... no discernible difference. A very, very interesting cocktail. In fact, we made note of it to try again in our personal cocktail menu... but we think any well-crafted gin (or even a cachaca) may work here. This isn't to say the Halcyon was bad: a foul-tasting, poorly made gin would easily spoil this drink. Merely that in these ratios with other strong flavors it's hard to impossible to pick out the differences.
Update: we adjusted later to 2 parts gin and 1 part creme de cacao, lemon juice, and sweet vermouth... this lowers the intensity but raises the acidity of the lemon and somehow diminishes the drink. We'll stand by Bluewater Distilling's version.
Assessment: a tie. Enthralling drink; either gin will do. It is very sweet and might send Martini lovers screaming for a drier drink after a sip or two.
[Disclaimer: we received a 750ml bottle of Halcyon Gin for review purposes free of charge. All other products mentioned here were purchased on our own.]