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Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

The Atlas Bar in Singapore claims to have the world’s largest collection of gin. More than a thousand options are on the drink menu. By that measure, my collection is modest. But with just over 200 bottles and counting, I might just catch up.

Collecting and drinking gin combines my love of fragrance and flavours with my hunter-gatherer tendencies. Like any good hobby, it’s also a way to forge connections. There’s storytelling in these bottles. Especially during a time of circumscribed travel, gin’s gateway to escapism, by way of a cocktail glass, is more than welcome.

“[Gin] is a spyglass through which one traces social, political and even agricultural developments,” is how drinks writer Lesley Jacobs Solmonson puts it in Gin: A Global History, her book about the spirit. My shift from merely stocking a bar to compiling a library happened about a decade ago when I bought a sampler pack from St. George Spirits in Alameda, Calif. It included a bottle called Terroir, a mossy gin that counts California bay laurel, coastal sage and Douglas fir among its locally sourced botanicals. True to its name and Jacobs Solmonson’s theory, Terroir captures a sense of place. It also tastes sublime on a rock or in a Gimlet.

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Spurred on by the craft distillery boom, I soon directed my energy to bottles from indie producers. In an industry dominated by conglomerates and big brands, it’s refreshingly analog to hunt for the originality that comes from unique combinations of foraged ingredients such as sumac and seaweed.

Now, I’ve got gin that veers into tequila territory (Gracias a Dios 100 per cent agave gin from Mexico) and gin made from apples. There are also several dozen varieties that boast nothing more complicated than typical elements such as juniper, bright citrus, coriander seed, Angelica root and ginger. Montreal’s Royalmount is a new go-to and a good homegrown alternative to Hendrick’s, the juniper similarly toned back in favour of cucumber and delicate rose.

Idiosyncratic bottles, like the skyscraper ROXOR gin from Dallas, also feed into my fascination with packaging and graphic design. I’m the person who once screen grabbed a movie trailer to figure out exactly what gin the lead was sipping because I didn’t recognize the elegant cut-glass decanter. Turns out it was a bottle of filmmaker Paul Feig’s own brand, Artingstall’s, which is named after his mother and crafted at Minhas Craft Brewery’s micro distillery in Wisconsin. Beautiful labels are catnip, too, such as the bird-in-an-aviator-jacket that artist and perfumer Victor Wong illustrated for Waxwing’s Bohemian Gin. I bought Dorothy Parker American Gin as much for my appreciation of the dried hibiscus and elderberry nose as its witty namesake.

A gin collection resolves the quandary of travel mementos. I accumulate the stuff the same way my grandmother collected souvenir spoons. There is always spare bubble wrap in my suitcase. Local distilleries and liquor stores top every sightseeing itinerary. My collection is aided and abetted by family and friends who have taken up the challenge of gifting me ever more obscure bottles from their own far-flung travels to Tasmania or Denmark or Wales. They all add up to what I call my “United Nations of gin.”

As my entertaining frequency dwindled during the pandemic, sharing these souvenirs and the adventures behind them is one of the things I’ve missed most. Fid Street, distilled in Maui’s pineapple region, has hints of the fruit and reminds me of my last big family vacation. Himbrimi, brought from Reykjavik by a friend, has an herbal finish and smells faintly of the wild arctic thyme that grows along Iceland’s rivers. Kyoto Distillery’s Ki No Bi and Okinawa Recipe No. 01, both discovered by my beau on trips to Japan, showcase notes of yuzu, green sansho, hinoki wood chips, bamboo leaves and Okinawan bitter melon.

What you do with all these strong and unusual flavours can be challenging. One solution presented itself a few years ago when I found myself on assignment aboard the Orient Express train from Paris. In the 1920s bar car, mixologist Russell Davis taught me the Valet, his briny take on a Gibson cocktail. Its spicy gin (try Ophir or distilled-in-Toronto Reid’s) was mixed with an elixir of bergamot tea and garnished with pearl onions and a lemon peel.

Even in more straightforward tipples, the subtle changes in flavour when you swap out one gin for another is what keeps things interesting. For the best dry martini, my winners are Monkey 47, Artingstall’s and Ki No Bi. There are endless ways to shake up a white Negroni, an Aviation or the Martinez. It’s hard to get bored when I’ve got 14 different varieties of Old Tom, a sweeter and less botanical style than London Dry, to play with.

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