Eating & Drinking

Gin, Vodka, Rum — What makes a spirit achieve “top-shelf” status?

Gin, vodka, rum, and tequila may not commonly be enjoyed on their own, but with the consumption of premium spirits on the rise in Canada, that seems to be changing. But what makes a spirit achieve “top-shelf” status, anyway?

There are no strict standards or benchmarks, and the bartenders we talked to didn’t have identical answers, but their definitions did have a few things in common: premium spirits should be sippable, made from quality ingredients, and full of flavour. (Oh, and premium doesn’t have to mean unaffordable.) These spirits aren’t meant to be thrown down your throat; they’re silky and bold, and they stand alone.

Gin
Stephen Flood, Riviera

Stephen Flood had a vision — and 20 years of bartending experience — when he set up the bar at Riviera. “I wanted us to be a gin bar because this,” he waves to the high ceilings, long gold bar, and sleek light fixtures, “is such a period thing, and gin is the most elegant of all the spirits.”

Flood also posits that gin is the most interesting of all spirits. With few requirements, other than that juniper must be the predominant flavour, the ingredients list can vary widely from gin to gin. While the long drinks list at Riviera includes options for all tastes, it really is a gin bar: there are 25 European gins and 11 North American varieties to choose from.

A favourite of Flood’s is Sacred Gin by Sacred Microdistillery, which is based in a residential home in London, England. It’s distilled using a high-pressure/low-temperature vacuum method and includes 12 botanicals: juniper, Boswellia sacra (a.k.a. Hougary frankincense), cardamom, and citrus, among others. This unique mixture results in a very balanced, creamy gin.

In contrast, Flood suggests the Californian St. George Terroir, which is made with Douglas fir, California bay laurel, and coastal sage, invoking a real sense of place.

To enjoy gin neat, it should be chilled or served over ice and can be garnished with any number of things to complement the botanicals in the spirit.

Though he doesn’t get many orders for neat gin, Flood likes to engage folks at the bar to pick the perfect gin for one
of the “holy trinity” of gin cocktails — a martini, a negroni, or a gin and tonic.

Vodka
Alex Yugin, Avant Garde Bar

It should come as no surprise that this Soviet-themed bar — complete with propaganda art posters on the walls and borscht on the menu — boasts a fine vodka list with many Russian vodkas.

Since vodka can be made from just about any organic base material (potatoes, fruits, or grains), Yugin says that the best ones will use a quality base ingredient and the purest water available. Most sophisticated vodkas will be distilled more than once and filtered, often through charcoal, to remove any impurities.

When it comes to choosing a sipping vodka, Yugin, who is from St. Petersburg, singles out Zubrówka Bison Vodka from Poland.

Distilled from rye, ·Zubrówka is flavoured with a tincture of bison grass, which gives it a distinct herbaceous character along with a faint yellow hue. Each bottle contains one long blade of the grass, which is traditionally harvested in northeastern Poland. With notes of coconut, dill, and vanilla, this spirit totally dismantles the myth that vodka is flavourless.

Yugin serves Zubrówka in an icy glass and recommends enjoying sips of premium vodka in between nibbles of crunchy pickles.

Rum
Julia Hussien and Zach Smith, Salt

Though admittedly more of a craft cocktail bar, Salt’s rum selection is nothing to sneeze at. The Preston Street restaurant offers an assortment of white and brown rums (the latter are darkened by extra aging).

Salt’s bartenders advise that a good rum should be semi-sweet (it is a sugarcane spirit, after all) and will usually feature warming spices — think cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg. To enjoy neat, Hussien likes to serve it over ice with a little brown sugar; Smith suggests ice and a hint of lime juice to brighten the spirit.

Though mixing rum into a cocktail might transport you to the Caribbean, Smith calls autumn and winter “rum-sipping season.” For newcomers to rum-sipping, the bartenders suggest Flor de Caña Centenario 12, from Nicaragua, or Brugal 1888, from the Dominican Republic; the former is aged 12 years in American oak barrels (which previously held whisky or bourbon), while the latter is aged in American oak before being finished in Spanish oak sherry casks.

Both are smooth, buttery, and slightly toasty with notes of caramel and baked apple; the Flor de Caña offers notes of vanilla and spice, while the Brugal has a hint of smokiness.