Gerry Rowland isn’t your typical Napa winemaker. Yes, he studied Methode Champagnois for ten years, the standard how-to for putting the bubbles into the bottle. Yes, he trained hands-on in wineries in Napa after studying viticulture in his homeland of Australia. And yes, his bottles at Rowland Cellars are known for capturing the rich terroir and heritage of Northern California in each sip. But this Aussie maverick, with winemaking in his blood, started his own label in 1991 by combining two skills that come second nature: good taste and innovation.
Wine will indeed always be Rowland’s first love; yet he reveals, “I’ve always had a passion for gin. But there are not a lot of resources to learn about it [in the US].”
That led to a stint in London studying under top ginsmiths, where he learned the craft.
Ultimately, and with inspiration from 19th Century San Francisco heroine Lillie Coit, he created Coit Spirits. Firebelle Lillie was known as the patron of the firefighters; bucking convention, she dressed in men’s clothing to sneak into bars, drink, and play cards.
Rowland enthuses, “Lillie became our banner and our brand.”
Gin, of course, requires the incorporation of botanicals, traditionally juniper. Rowland was drawn to the unusual flavor profiles only found in tea blends such as Rooibos red tea, Earl Grey and Lapsang Souchong. And thus were born three very distinctive gins.
While Coit’s Earl Grey is the most well known, the Caravan Tea gin is a lesser known gem. With cardamom and orange blossom for citrus, according to Rowland, “They dry the leaves on burning pine needles and it gets smokey, much like using peat in whiskey. It’s great for negronis.”
The Cape Tea gin, made with Rooibos, is unique in that, “there is a bit of fermentation in the leaf before it’s blended, similar to wine. It makes for a subtle yet delicate balance. Especially with notes of bergamot and citrus.”
What other drinks has he been experimenting with during quarantine? “I’ve been balancing between cocktails good for summer, and ones good for cooler nights, since we’re still in spring. Gin sours, ginnaritas…with the Caravan, the slightly smokey gin, we do a Malbec cocktail. Since the it has hints of cardamom and Indonesian long pepper, there’s a little orange blossom note, and the pepper rounds out the smokey flavors.”
Of course, nothing beats the classics; and gin plays spectacularly well at home. But Rowland’s most surprising discovery was actually a buzzy local ingredient. “Honey is really strong, and it can dominate in a Bee’s Knees. We call ours the Smokey Bee.”
For the record, Coit Spirits also makes a classic high rye bourbon using four grains, including corn, wheat and barley. According to Rowland, “The wheat, rye and corn are very spicy, and the barley rounds out those flavors.”
So what’s next for Coit?
“To make a truly indigenous gin from North American botanicals. We use a bit of seaweed and some fun flowers for citrus notes; but no citrus is native to America.”
But for now, for those sheltering-in happy hours, Rowland was kind enough to share some of his fave gin cocktail recipes with BlackBook.
San Francisco Days
2 Parts Coit Earl Grey Tea Gin
1 Part Lemon Honey (Equal parts fish lemon and honey)
1 Part Condensed Hibiscus Tea (2 Tea Bags per 4oz of water ratio)
Topped of with Sparkling wine
Garnished with Edible flower (prefer orange or yellow in color) and rosemary sprig
The Telegraph Game
1.5 Part Coit Earl Grey Tea Gin
Twisted Alchemy Fresh Pressed Organic Grapefruit Juice
2 Fresh Basil Leaves
1 Sugar Cube
Squeeze of Lime from 1 Sliced Wedge
Garnish with Fresh Basil Leaf on top
2 Parts Coit Earl Grey Tea Gin
.25 Part Mandarine Napoléon Orange Liqueur
1 Part Fresh Lemonade
1 Part Regatta Ginger Beer
Garnish with Fresh Mint and Tajin Rim
1 oz Coit Caravan Gin
0.75 oz Campari
0.5 oz Carpano Antica
0.5 oz Amaro (Lo-Fi Amaro preferred)
Serve over a large ice cube
Garnish with Orange peel and smoldering rosemary sprig