With the opening of three new distilleries in the past few months, Charleston is witnessing the curious phenomenon of locally made spirits merging with a thriving culinary scene. The same ingredient-centric philosophy that has so shaped Charleston's food is now starting to influence the cocktails that one might sample before a meal — and perhaps even alongside it.
Take Hat Trick Botanical Gin, for example, which King Street's High Wire Distillery launched back in November. It's just one entry in a broad line of spirits from husband and wife team Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall — a line that includes rum, whiskey, and vodka. In approach, it's miles away from the old brown water that has typically characterized Southern spirits.
With bourbon (and aged rum, for that matter), the main flavor profile comes from time spent in charred oak barrels, which mellows the raw spirits and infuses them with oak and vanilla notes from the wood. The process is quite different with gin, which gets its distinctive flavor not from wood or age but from being infused with fragrant botanicals.
"Gin was basically the first flavored vodka," Blackwell says, and he notes that High Wire is taking a different route than the large-scale gin producers. "A lot of the big guys use extracts because they want consistency and ease of use. We start with fresh ingredients."
Unlike their rum and whiskey, which they ferment themselves from corn and molasses, the gin uses 190-proof neutral grain spirits that they purchase from a supplier. The trick is what they do to flavor those spirits.
First, Blackwell and team dilute them and macerate them with a total of 14 botanicals. They enclose those ingredients, which include crushed juniper berries and fresh oranges and lemons, into what are essentially giant teabags, which they steep in the spirits overnight. The next day, they crank up the still and run the flavor-infused spirits through it, collecting the vapor at the end and proofing it down with water to a final 80 proof.
"We actually do three separate distillations for the different botanicals," Blackwell explains. "We kind of like to think of it like a tree. You have your roots, your berries, and then your flowers."
The roots distillation, which includes licorice and ginger, imparts rich, earthy flavors, while the juniper berries give the crisp evergreen notes that so characterize gin. Finally, the floral flavors of lavender and citrus add bright, fragrant accents.
"It's extra work," Blackwell says, "but it's really what's produced a superior product."
The three runs leave them with a trio of flavored spirits, which they then mix to taste to produce the distinctive Hat Trick blend. "We use at least three tasters," Blackwell says, "and compare it to a previous batch to make sure we end up with a consistent flavor."
That flavor was the result of some diligent trial and error, and to help them figure it out, Blackwell and Marshall enlisted the help of local cocktail guru Joe Raya of the Gin Joint.
They started with more than a dozen versions of the spirit, some made with dry botanicals, others with fresh, then tasted and blended and finally narrowed the options down to four candidate varieties, which they labeled A through D.
They took these over to the Gin Joint, where Raya created three classic cocktails with each version: a gin and tonic, a martini, and a Fitzgerald, a gin sour variation that adds a few drops of Angostura bitters. To their surprise, the version that they thought would come out on top ended up dead last on the tasters' scoresheets once it was incorporated into a cocktail. And that's the whole reason they concocted the cocktail taste-off in the first place. "Nobody drinks gin straight," Blackwell says.
The result of all these efforts is a gin that you might use a little differently than your typical big-distiller variety. Because High Wire starts with fresh juniper berries instead of dry, there's more sweetness to the finished spirits and less of the strong pine aroma you get with many gins. (Less of the "air freshener in the mouth," as Blackwell puts it.)
Hat Trick's other botanicals — especially the strong licorice notes — register not on the nose but on the tongue. For me, these aren't the best match in every classic gin cocktail. In a Negroni, for instance — a blend of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth — they jar with the Campari's bitter, medicinal character.
But it's splendid in a gin and tonic, especially when you swap in a slice of lemon for the standard lime. My favorite application, though, is the Fitzgerald, whose generous dose of citrus and touch of Angostura offer pitch-perfect complements to Hat Trick's unique blend of flavors (see recipe).
Those flavors are already winning Hat Trick plenty of fans around town. One of them is Geoff Rhyne, the chef de cuisine at the Ordinary. "The beauty of their gin is that it's so floral," he says, which opens a lot of possibilities for pairing it with a particular dish. "There's both the complementary flavors that go along with it as well as the ones that contrast it."
Rhyne points to the Ordinary's Sicilian sauce, a sort of Italian sweet and sour made with tomatoes, capers, golden raisins, anchovy, and garlic. "You've got the sweet, salty thing going on with raisins and capers," he says, "and the tomato really balances it. Using the fresh botanicals [from the gin], you can really pull out some of those notes."
High Wire's botanical flavors and its alcohol bite work particularly well with smoked fish. "Our smoked fish and smoked oysters would be tremendous with a gin and tonic," Rhyne says. "The citrusy notes in the cocktail really lift out the smoke."
While the Ordinary will use wild salmon when it's in season, Rhyne says that cobia is his current favorite for smoking. "They're catching it right now in the Little River," he says. "Because of the fat content, it has that great creaminess. It absorbs the smoke but because of its fat content, it doesn't dry out."
So mix up a Hat Trick Fitzgerald and while you sip it perhaps munch on a little smoked cobia pâté. These aren't the flavors that people have traditionally associated with Charleston. But before too long they might be.
1½ oz. High Wire Hat Trick Botanical Gin
1 oz. simple syrup
¾ oz. fresh lemon juice
2 to 3 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake well and strain into a rocks glass. Garnish with a large lemon peel or lemon wedge.