Food & Drink

Colleen Hughes is ready to get your gin on

Colleen Hughes, the bartending wunderkind at NoDa’s Haberdish, can’t wait for gin season, when we’ll flock out to the restaurant’s new patio for that brief season when it’s warm enough to sit outside and not too hot to suffer.

Then again, for Hughes, gin season is already here.

“People who truly love gin will drink it all year long,” she says. The juniper notes in gin, with their hint of pine, can make gin just as comfortable in winter, in a martini or gimlet, as it is in summer in a gin & tonic or a collins.

Whiskey has dominated the cocktail world in the last few years, especially bourbons. If Hughes has her way, this will be the year when gin floats to the top of your attention.

“Come spring, summer, we’re going to be gin to the forefront,” Hughes says. She already has six styles and plans to add more. She even has Genever on order, “the whiskey drinker’s gin.”

Since the small craft distilleries that springing up all over the country often start with clear liquors, including vodka and gin, while they wait for their whiskeys to age, there are a lot of new creations out there, including Doc Porter’s in Charlotte and Southern Artisan Spirits, makers of Cardinal gins.

You’ll find everything from a return to Navy Strength, an old British tradition, a lot of variations on the botanical American style, also called New West, and an interest in barrel-rested gins that have the reddish-brown hues and caramel/oaky notes you expect in whiskeys.

I started talking to Hughes about gin when I discovered she’s stocking one old style that’s making a comeback: Old Tom gin, a lightly sweetened variety, had a big following in the 19th century but it vanished after Prohibition. Two distilleries have brought it back.

Hughes already has Hayman’s, which has been re-created by a British gin distiller based on an 1870s family recipe. She’s also waiting for a special order of Ransom, made in Oregon in colloboration with cocktail historian David Wondrich, using descriptions in old books to figure out what it was supposed to taste like.

Since there are no rules on Old Tom, including what it’s sweetened with and how sweet it is, the two brands are remarkably different. Hayman’s is clear and very sweet, while Ransom, aged in wine barrels, is reddish-brown and only lightly sweet.

“When you taste Ransom and Hayman’s sides by side, you get that richer flavor and a little more body,” Hughes says.

That variety of styles makes gin so much more interesting than just a delivery system for olives and dry vermouth. The only rule on gin is that it has to be flavored with juniper. How much juniper and how many other botanicals – from orange peels and lavender to Szechuan peppercorns – is up to the maker. Gins like Hendrick’s, with its delicate hint of cucumber and roses, have woken up a lot of mixologists to the potential.

Hughes thinks the juniper, so heavy in the familiar London dry style, is why some people got turned off by gin.

“A lot of people thought they didn’t like gin, myself included. I hate Tanqueray and Bombay, but I just didn’t like that style. Once I tried Hendrick’s, I understood, ‘Hey, not all gin is like pine trees on fire.’ 

With so many bars around town loading their shelves with high-dollar and rare bourbons, Hughes is looking to make gin her signature. While she’s also in charge of the bar programs at Haberdish’s sibling restaurants, including Crepe Cellar and Sea Level, at Haberdish, she’s focusing on soda fountain tricks like herbal syrups and shrubs. Those are naturals for gin.

“We really are pushing gin here hard, and we’ll continue to do so. I’m not going to compete with the big whiskey bars in town,” she says.

“I’m going to crush gin.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

Old Tom Cat Gimlet

While you wait for the weather to warm up, Colleen Hughes of Haberdish suggests trying Old Tom in a gimlet, “the quintessential, easy, go-to gin cocktail.” While Hayman’s Old Tom isn’t available at Mecklenburg ABC stores, you can find it at Frugal MacDoogal and Southern Spirits in Fort Mill.


2 ounces Hayman’s Old Tom gin

3/4 ounce fresh lime juice

3/4 ounce simple syrup

2 dashes Reagan’s orange bitters

Pour a little absinthe in a chilled cocktail glass, roll it around to coat the sides and then pour out any excess.

Combine the gin, lime juice, simple syrup and orange bitters in a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into the cocktail glass.

Yield: 1 serving.