Review: Chemist Is a Gin Built Differently

How a landscape architect in North Carolina and her pharmacist daughter reimagined botanical spirits

What we’re drinking: American and Navy Strength Gin from Chemist Spirits

Where it’s from: Founded by Debbie Word (with help from her pharmacist daughter Danielle and her son-in-law James), Chemist is based in Asheville, N.C .

Why we’re drinking these: Besides championing female-led distilleries, it’s nice to shine a light on a great gin with a uniquely American (no pun intended) spirit.

Word, a former landscape architect and stay-at-home mother, is one of the few female distillery founders in the U.S. (one recent estimate suggests less than 19% of American distillers are female and only 2% of distilleries are owned by women).

But the bigger story is the unusual origin of Chemist — which combined Word’s inquisitive mind with her family’s non-boozy expertise … and their dislike of local hooch.

“I had no business doing any of this,” says Word. “I just love to learn how to do things and wanted for years to know why the moonshine up in the mountains was — the real moonshine, not the stuff they bottle and sell in the ABC store now — but why the real moonshine just was so unpalatable and it made everybody sick.” (For the record, North Carolina does have some good and legit moonshine.)

So Word asked for a five-gallon still for Christmas and surreptitiously began to experiment in the mountains of North Carolina. “Everything I learned in the beginning was from the internet and books,” she admits, though she later received some assistance and tutelage from a Scottish distiller. When her daughter Danielle (a pharmacist) and son-in-law James Donaldson (a graphic designer) paid a visit, they hatched the idea for a distillery after a little history discussion about the role of pharmacists and chemists during Prohibition — they were the only professions that could legally make or sell alcohol. By 2018, Chemist was born.

So why gin? “Debbie’s cabin is near one of the rare places here where juniper grows wild,” says Donaldson, who works on Chemist’s packaging and marketing. “We wanted a spirit that captures the flavors of the area. But we also landed on something that would be extremely gentle.” (For now the distillery is using imported juniper, though some local juniper may show up in some future products when it can be harvested responsibly). 

To that end, Chemist utilizes a vapor-infused Dutch method of producing gin, which lends some more emphasis to the other botanicals at play here, including citrus, rose, orange and Thai ginger.

Chemist also has a rose gin, a chocolate orange gin liqueur and a few types of bierbrand, which they describe as distilled beer schnapps or fortified beer. A single malt whiskey is in the works as well. 

In spite of Chemist being a very American take on gin, it’s won several awards worldwide, including a Double Gold at the Women’s Wine and Spirits Awards in London. It was also recently the official gin of the Daytime Emmys, which … well, who knew the Daytime Emmys had an official drink?

Let’s dive in.

How they taste: Made from American botanicals (primarily from Western North Carolina) and distilled wheat spirit, these are exceptionally balanced and citrus-forward gins. They’re not disguising the juniper, but it’s gentler here. The American Gin offers notes of grapefruit, tangerine and lemon. The Navy Strength (57% ABV), meanwhile, is robust, and herbal, featuring a lovely ginger note that pairs nicely with the orange and other citrus flavors.

Fun fact: If you get down to Asheville, check out Antidote, the adjacent apothecary-style speakeasy next to the Chemist distillery. Its Fever-Tree-sponsored rooftop bar has won multiple accolades.

Where to buy: Although currently sold out, you can usually buy Chemist Spirits on Spirit Hub.

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