As fall approaches, the best time of year to enjoy gin ebbs away, so take advantage while you can. There’s no more refreshing flavor than gin’s herbal essence supporting a sweet, sour, fruity or bubbly drink sipped in a lawn chair, hammock or yacht.
With the boom in craft distilleries lately, a staggering variety of gins are hitting the market: They’re a good way for a new brand to make some revenue, since they don’t have to age. But three old-school bottlings still dominate the sales charts: Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray.
These are all London dry gins, which means they’re made from neutral-flavored alcohol, infused heavily with juniper and supporting notes of other botanicals. (They’re also the reason many hate gin for its “Christmas tree” flavor—but you’re not supposed to drink gin straight!) To know which of the “Big 3” gins will work in a particular cocktail, it helps to understand their differences.
On the market for well over a century, Beefeater is perhaps the archetypal London dry gin. Juniper is of course a major presence, but it smells most strongly of lemon, and on the palate there’s a nice spicy flavor of black pepper and coriander, along with a little bit of green herbs like basil. To pair with this gin, go with another classic, which also happens to share those citrus and spice notes: tonic.
Bombay Sapphire, $26.99 Much subtler than its brethren, this gin has some nice floral essence on the nose. It tastes remarkably sweet, with notes of pine and hints of tropical fruit. In a cocktail, you should avoid overpowering the gin with strongly flavored mixers: Try a shot of Bombay with club soda and a squeeze of lime on the rocks. It’s a no frills beverage that’s perfect for porch sitting.
Tanqueray, $19.99 Subtlety not your thing? Choose Tanqueray. Just opening the bottle unleashes juniper aromas that scream gin. The flavor is almost perfumey, with lots of lavender and a little rosemary as well. To match Tanqeray’s power, mix up a Negroni: equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, served over ice. The Campari’s assertive bitterness and the vermouth’s sweetness hold up beautifully.
Jason Horn is Playboy.com’s spirits columnist. He lives in Los Angeles and you can follow him on Twitter @messyepicure.