IN THE NAME OF SCIENCE Ph.D.'s belly up to the PowerPoint charts to determine the best gin.

Posted: April 08, 2007

How many Ph.D's does it take to make a martini?

At least half a dozen, if the "gin-tacular" event I recently attended at a home in Queen Village was any measure. And the fine art of precision measuring seemed to be nearly as important as the imbibing when it came to the essential question at hand: Which of six gins were best suited to making a martini or a gin and tonic?

I've done many a formal tasting myself, and, frankly, with all that sniffing, sipping, and spitting, they can be a bit of a bore. When it comes to pressing cultural dilemmas of this magnitude, I sometimes prefer to tackle them through more traditional research, a professionally sanctioned night of revelry at the local tavern.

Then again, my friends Bill Regli, Susan Harkness Regli, and Mary McManus seem to really enjoy the more thorough approach. Bill's a computer-science professor at Drexel University. Susan's a researcher for a local defense contractor. Mary does pharmaceutical market research. And they all cherish their data as much as their drink - even at a casual weekend soiree with friends. The thesis was being investigated for no other reason than to satisfy this thirsty group's scientific curiosity.

"Isn't this fun?" said Harkness, as the pre-tasting Power Point handouts and "consent forms" were distributed. "You know, there are whole conventions out there of people like me!"

"Oh, yeah," agreed computer-science professor Matt Evett. "We've got a lot of geeks in this room!"

There were scientists to design the "protocol," the elaborate double-blind tasting scheme that ensured no one cheated to favor a particular brand. There were lab pros dispensing gin by the milliliter from anonymous beakers. Summits were held on the proper use of ice cubes and whether or not the limes should be squeezed. And McManus gauged our reactions and rankings with an attention to detail normally reserved for the development of a drug.

My wife and I were mere civilians amongst the dozen subjects who had signed consent forms to participate in this study "in the interest of science and gin." But the organizers, it seemed, had every detail in place, short of federal funding. And tonic. Uh-oh.

"Susie - where's the tonic?!" fretted Bill, suddenly running around the kitchen until he discovered a few small bottles. "We've got tonic!"

And so, by 9:45 p.m., after nearly two hours of preparation, Susan hollered - "I need gin!" - and the tasting began.

I've never been a big gin aficionado, having long preferred darker, more full-bodied spirits. So, I was hopeful that a closer look would give me a new appreciation for the juniper-flavored spirit that has long been a cornerstone of cocktail culture. And I did, in fact, find a clear favorite.

For my hosts, gin was obviously a more familiar libation. But their reflex to approach even a leisure activity as a scientific quest would soon produce a wellspring of data and surprising answers.

"I thought I knew what I liked in my martinis," said Bill. But the gin he preferred turned out to be much less expensive than the more upscale gin he believed he preferred.

The tasting considered six widely available gins - Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Boodles British Gin, Beefeater, Bluecoat, and Burnett's - each mixed as a martini and a gin and tonic, then presented in numbered plastic cups. The numbers were coded and shuffled so neighboring tasters couldn't compare notes. (Yeah, like I'd cheat!)

Sniffed straight, the gins were clearly distinct. But when it came down to inspecting the cocktails, the noticeable differences were so subtle, it was as challenging as tasting bottled waters. A vocabulary of descriptive words was hard to come by - "piney," "citrusy" and "yuck!" were among the most vivid. And, yet, preferences between the drinks were still clear, allowing the various rankings to proceed, resulting in 35 pages of data.

The muse of gin never inspired poetry, perhaps, but the neat art of science saved the night.

Tasters ranked the gins by four different methods - straight rankings, weighted preference votes, simple yes or no, and a one-vote winner-take-all plurality. But the results were consistent no matter the tally method.

Bluecoat gin, a Philadelphia-produced spirit that exhibited the tasting's most florid and citrusy aromas, was the evening's big winner. It was the clear group favorite for gin and tonic and my favorite for martinis, as well. It was also considered the group's top all-purpose gin - if you had to choose one - with Boodles close behind.

Tanqueray's rougher alcoholic edge did not score well when the group overall averages were figured in. And yet, its partisans were loyal and decisive, giving it a tie with Bluecoat in the category of first-place votes.

The classically dry Beefeater, meanwhile, was the distinct martini favorite of the group - and also of Bill Regli, to his surprise.

"All along, I thought I preferred Bombay," he said.

The scientist in him, of course, is quick to point out that 12 subjects aren't nearly enough to be "statistically significant . . . 25 is usually the rule of thumb."

Which brings him to the obvious conclusion: "This project will probably have to be repeated."

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

The Results

What happens when a dozen drinkers put six gins to a scientifically organized blind taste test in martinis and gin and tonics? Some surprising winners and losers:

(All prices are for 750 ml bottles.)

Bluecoat, $24.99: This locally made spirit was the big winner, with a softness and pronounced botanical, citrus aromas that appeal to less hard-core gin drinkers. It was the group's decisive favorite for gin and tonics, and also the all-purpose favorite (by a juniper berry) over Boodles.

Beefeater, $19.99: The old dry standby was the group's clear favorite in martinis.

Boodles British Gin, $18.99: This British classic (and reportedly Winston Churchill's fave) had few first-place votes but scored consistently high enough to be the tasting's strong second.

Bombay Sapphire, $24.99: Without the snazzy sapphire bottle, Bombay was a frequent fourth place.

Tanqueray, $21.99: A gin drinker's gin with a bit of a burn, it didn't score well overall with the group but had a few strong partisans who gave it a tie for first.

Burnett's, $8.99: This inexpensive "control" gin tasted true to its price and landed with a plunk in last place.

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