It’s easy to forget that Brooklyn is bound by the Atlantic Ocean. But here was a reminder: visiting Halftone Spirits, located in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood and finding owner and head distiller Andrew Thomas measuring two types of seaweed to add a subtle umami flavor to his SVQ Gin, named for the airport code for Seville, Spain—a country on the other side of the Atlantic.
Wild Icelandic kelp adds peppery, briny notes—“it smells to me like pure ocean,” Thomas says—while frilled purple leaves of Drillisk dulse seaweed, sourced from Ireland, are pungent, earthy, with an almost fishy exhale as I nibble a dried leaf that escapes the gin basket.
Gin’s Nautical Roots
If that sounds very different from the usual pine- or citrus-forward gins, that’s exactly what these distillers have in mind.
In recent years, gin producers have really leaned into unusual botanicals beyond the boundaries of classic London dry. But many sea-inspired gins push harder than ever, from a myriad of gins featuring kelp, sea lettuces and other seaweeds to piscatory varieties made with oysters, squid ink (England’s Dr. Squid, a colorchanging novelty gin), lobster (Homard and Lobstar Gins, both from Belgium) and pinches of sea salt (Jin Môr Sea Salt Gin, from Wales). Unfortunately, not all are available in the U.S. With all that splashing about, they’re each still considered gin.
“Gin has no rules, aside from the juniper,” observes Manya Rubinstein of The Industrious Spirit Company (ISCO), which is developing a gin infused with oysters and kelp. “There’s so much you can do with it.”
That’s right: While juniper must be included to label a spirit as “gin,” there are no restrictions on any other ingredients used to lend fragrance and flavor. “Botanical”—a word typically relating to plants—is the catch-all term used, but there’s no specification in either the E.U., U.K. or U.S. regulations that says they must be plant-based. So, bivalves and other sea creatures are fair game to flavor gin.
Some say there’s ample historical precedent for ocean-inspired gins.
“When you go back to the origins of gin, it does indeed have a nautical and maritime component to it,” notes distiller Marsh Mokhtari of Gray Whale Gin, which features foraged Mendocino kombu, among other California-based botanicals (including Big Sur juniper plus mint, fir, lime and almonds) in its citrusy, faintly saline spirit.
“When the Dutch introduced genever (the precursor to modern-day gin) to the U.K., it became so popular that British naval sailors would receive one pint of gin as their daily rations. So, it does make sense that gin producers would be inspired by the ocean.”
A big part of the draw: These oceanic ingredients evoke a sense of place.
That place may be as vast as the entire ocean. Consider the newly released ’66 by Norwegian: The cruise-line gin includes the soft vegetal notes of Salicornia seaweed (also known as sea beans or samphire) to give a coastal vibe. Others, like Halftone, use ocean botanicals to evoke faraway places; their SVQ gin, part of a series of limited-edition gins that nod to locales around the world, draws inspiration from the “savory salinity” of food and drink from Spain’s Galician coast, folding that in with Seville orange peel, woody olive leaf and white peppercorn.
But the vast majority strives to draw in local flavor—instead of earthbound terroir, a sense of “merroir,” derived from the French word mer, meaning “sea.” Typically, the portmanteau is used to describe the flavor of bivalves, but ginmakers are starting to co-opt the term, too.
“We’re leaning into celebrating our little oceanic merroir and playing up those coastal briny aspects,” says ISCO’s Rubinstein. Located in Providence, Rhode Island (the Ocean State), ISCO made a splash in 2021 with its Ostreida Oyster Vodka, made with oysters sourced from small producers in New England, New York State and beyond, and plans to follow that with an oyster gin in late 2023.
Elsewhere, Scotland’s Isle of Bute Distillery uses oysters sourced from Loch Fyne in its briny Oyster Gin, along with coriander, seaweed and cucumber. The distillery lays claim to creating the world’s first commercial oyster gin, debuting in 2018; it remains the distillery’s first and most popular offering.
“It feeds in with the provenance of being a seaside, island-based, more rural area,” says cofounder Jack Madigan-Wheatley.
The shells and seawater (aka oyster liquor), but not the oyster meat, are used; after an initial test batch that included the full bivalve. “We realized putting raw fish into the still was a really bad idea,” Madigan-Wheatley says. “The place absolutely stank; for weeks the distillery was absolutely unbearable.”
Cocktails & Creativity
One of the key drivers behind the spate of sea-centric gins: savory cocktails, like the Dirty Martini. While bartenders have long created infusions with kitchen-sourced ingredients, these commercial bottlings are a recent development, helping to speed such cocktails, as well as food-friendly drink pairings.
“I think people are really excited about more savory cocktails and more briny cocktails,” says ISCO’s Rubinstein. “It’s a fun flavor to play with.” The broad nature of the category means a wide variety of flavors, from briny and bright to smoky and savory.
Another impetus: Developments in aquaculture—including an uptick in seaweed and oyster farms—mean greater availability of these underwater ingredients, which in turn speaks to the spirits industry’s growing focus on sustainability.
“From a global perspective, 98% of farmed seaweed is from Asia,” notes Bailey Moritz, aquaculture program officer with World Wildlife Fund. But over the past few years, seaweed farming has picked up significantly in Europe and the U.S., notably Alaska and along the West Coast of the U.S. Mild sugar kelp, bull kelp and red seaweeds, like savory dulse (“bacon of the sea,” Moritz jokes), are among the popular farmed varieties in the U.S.
Similarly, oyster farming is on the rise. “It’s another way that people can make money on the water if things like fishing are not working out,” Moritz explains. Plus oysters have been proven to help filter out particulates and clean the water where they reside. It also doesn’t hurt that oysters are considered a high-value product: “They’re sought after for their merroir…oysters, they all have their story to tell,” says Moritz.
With so many ocean species, “people are recognizing that there’s untapped potential,” Moritz observes. Amid worries about climate change and the sustainability of farming on land, “people are more actively seeking food they can feel good about. We’re facing challenges, and kelp and seafood can be a solution for that.” What could be next? Moritz sees a rise in farming of scallops, clams, mussels and lobster. Will these lead the next wave of sea-inspired gins?
Truly, anything could be possible. After all, “gin is not just a singular category,” Thomas muses later, in Halftone’s graffiti-adorned tasting room, as I sample the earthy SVQ gin, accented with hints of licorice and mint.
Indeed, many of the distillers working with underwater sea life seem to recognize the same offbeat holy grail: the specter of pechuga, Mexico’s tradition of distilling mezcal with raw chicken breast or other meats to celebrate a bountiful harvest season. “Eventually,” Thomas says, “someone’s going to do a pechuga of gin with a whole fish.”
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
More Gin-Spiration: Oceanic Gins to Try
94 Points Wine Enthusiast
Crisp and slightly vegetal, this nuanced gin opens with bright fennel and citrus then rounds into mouthwatering white pepper, anise and coriander. It’s made with seaweed harvested on the beaches of Île de Ré, off the coast of France’s Cognac region. —K.N.
90 Points Wine Enthusiast
Sun-dried dulse, a type of seaweed, is a key botanical in this Nova Scotia gin. Citrusy aromas combine lemongrass, lime peel and a whiff of fresh fennel. The palate opens gently with hints of violet and fennel seed, and finishes brisk and astringent, with anise, pine, burnt rosemary and peppery sting.—K.N.