Greetings and salutations, my lovely imbibers! I’m back after an awesome road trip with Bianca and ready to talk about a much misunderstood and often-times snubbed spirit, gin.
Now, having worked for a gin distillery for a year, I’ve grown quite partial to the spirit. This took some time, though. I was totally one of those people who said many silly things about how gin tastes and makes one act before I really knew any better.
Anyway, enough about me. Let’s get down and dirty with the history of gin!
When people think of gin, most people think of English men with monocles in London and spinster ladies with estates in Sussex, drinking away hot summer afternoons with the help of gin and tonics. While this isn’t completely inaccurate (we will get to that part soon), gin did not originate in England. A Dutch spirit known as genever is the first incarnation of what would come to be the quintessential London Dry Gin.
Genever has a pretty neat history. The stuff is made from malted grain, normally corn, wheat, or barley, and has a really distinct flavor, more akin to white whiskey. The spirit is distilled to about 50% alcohol by volume (abv), and flavored with juniper berries. Juniper was thought to cure everything from stomach aches to kidney disease, so like many other spirits, genever was originally sold as a medicinal therapy. Alcohol is actually a very efficient way to get medicine into the bloodstream, so the Dutch weren’t wrong in assuming that there was medicinal value in the stuff.
The English first caught wind of genever in the 16th century during military efforts with the Dutch against the Habsburgs and
the Spanish Armada. The English referred to the spirit as “Dutch Courage”, as Dutch military forces consumed a lot of the stuff before going off to fight. Apparently, being drunk was awfully helpful in dealing with acts of brutal violence. At any rate, the English loved the stuff, and brought it back home with them. Eventually, William of Orange took the throne in England and enacted a law known as the Act for Encouraging The Consumption of Malted Corn and for the Better Preventing of French and Foreign Brandy. This law basically required Brits to get rip-roaringly drunk for the good of the country, and allowed them to keep up their good ol’ hatred of anything French.
The popularity of gin spread wildly through England, and English distillers began to make their own versions of gin that were corn-based, lighter, more juniper-forward, and sweeter than genever. At one point during this time, it’s estimated that the English were drinking five hundred thousand gallons of the stuff. Remember, this is in England. In the 17th century. There weren’t a ton of people there yet. Gin’s popularity was also aided by a few other things:
- Beer was taxed. Gin was not.
- Raw milk could kill you.
- Water in England was too polluted to drink.
According to some sources, one in every four storefronts in London was making and selling gin, and there was even a neighborhood known as Gin Alley.
All this madness continued until 1750 when lawmakers passed the “Tippling Act”. This act outlawed gin shops, and manufacturing privileges were only given to large retailers and distillers. Gin eventually became the drink of the elite despite its humble beginnings, and you know as well as I do that this class demanded a quality product. That didn’t happen until almost a hundred years later with the invention of the Coffey still (Remember that thing? It’s how we get neutral spirit to make vodka). This is when the London Dry style of gin became possible to produce. The gin now had a neutral spirit base instead of a grainy, malted one, and this allowed the juniper and other botanicals to become the stars of the show. Everyone loved the stuff, and as the British Empire grew, so did the popularity of London Dry gin. The British Royal Navy was even given rations of the stuff, combining it with quinine tonic used to prevent malaria (gin and tonic), and preserved lime cordial, which kept scurvy at bay (the Gimlet). Once again, gin had become medicinal, and when the boys in blue brought these drinks home, everyone started drinking them.
I’m going to fast-forward to 1920, and move west across the ocean to the U.S. Something pivotal in the history of the U.S. happened: Prohibition. This “Noble Experiment” as lawmakers liked to call it, did more than just try and keep Americans from drinking. It destroyed businesses, built mafia crime, and instantly made bartenders, bar owners, and almost anyone who wanted a drink into criminals. It spawned terms like “bootlegger,” a person (often a woman), who would strap bottles of illegal booze to their legs under clothing to transport it, and “speakeasy,” an illegal bar where one had to “speak easy”, or quietly, in order not to get caught by authorities. To get in, you’d most definitely need a secret password.
One cool thing happened during Prohibition, though. Women were rarely seen in bars and saloons prior to the ban. Women behaving ‘badly’ was rarely seen before this time, but that all changed.
“Flappers”, young, single women with short, bobbed hair, short skirts, and the drive to have fun, were coming out to speakeasies and night clubs in droves . Sexist social barriers began to crumble as men and women socialized freely. The poor rubbed shoulders with the rich. Because let’s face it- everyone who drank was a criminal. It didn’t matter if you were a man, a woman, rich, or poor. And the criminal’s drink of choice? Why gin, of course.
Gin was really easy to make at home, as well. Too easy. Even though bootlegging made many a gangster incredibly wealthy, there was simply not enough illicit booze to keep people happy. So, like any tenacious person would do, Americans started making booze in their homes. Specifically, in their bath tubs. All you needed to make gin was alcohol (some poor saps used methanol or wood alcohol, and that stuff will kill you), the aforementioned bath tub, and some botanical flavoring agent. You could even purchase juniper essence from the Sears-Roebuck catalog to flavor your gin, and during Prohibition, juniper essence was the number one selling item in the catalog. After a week or so of steeping botanicals in the alcohol, the booze was ready to hit the black market as gin.
After Prohibition ended in 1933, gin remained extremely popular. It wasn’t until the 1960s that gin was finally overtaken by vodka, and vodka has been on top ever since. However, Gin has recently enjoyed a small resurgence in popularity due to growing interest in craft cocktails and the Craft Distilling Movement. And that’s awesome! Gin has amazing complex flavors that you can’t get anywhere else, especially not from vodka. There’s literally a gin out there for everyone, and I’m going to go through some well-known and craft brands to discuss flavors.
There are technically four styles of gin that exist in the market. I’ve talked about genever and London dry gin, but just to recap all the styles of gin:
- Genever: originates from Holland, and is made using malted grains. Lightly flavored with juniper, and tastes more like white whiskey than like gin.
- Old Tom: a less-malty, more juniper-forward gin that is sweetened.
- Plymouth: Plymouth gin can only be made in the town of Plymouth, England. It’s the only gin that has a controlled area of production. This gin is really similar to London dry gin, in that it’s very juniper forward and has a lot of citrus notes. It’s softer, though, and is often times referred to as a “feminine style” gin.
- London Dry: What most people think of when thinking of gin. Very juniper-forward. Lots of citrus notes. Sometimes people think this stuff smells like pine trees. That’s juniper.
In order for a gin to be labeled as a London dry gin, the predominant flavor has to be juniper. You can use lots of other botanicals in the making of gin, and lots of distilleries use stuff like ceylon cinnamon, fresh or dried citrus peel, cardamom, anise, fennel, teas, orris root, angelica root, lavender, rose, chamomile and cucumber. You can pretty much use anything your heart desires to make gin, as long as it has juniper in it.
Here’s a few traditional brands of London dry gins:
- Beefeater: Really bold, citrusy and spicy. Very juniper-forward.
- Tanqueray: Lots of juniper flavors, strong licorice notes, citrus, and anise.
- Broker’s: Full of juniper, spices, and light floral notes.
- Boodles: Very juniper heavy, oily, and full of resin. Some hints of black pepper and celery.
So, you’d like to buy a bottle of gin for your home bar, but don’t know what to get? Well, first off, I’d recommend not just one bottle, but two. One super-traditional, London dry style gin, and a more modern style gin.
Confused yet? I know if I hadn’t worked so closely with gin that I’d be confused, too. Think of modern gin in this way, though. Juniper is in there, but it’s not the most predominant flavor in the bottle. Here’s a few brands that I’d classify as modern styles:
These guys are all big brands that most people are familiar with:
- Bombay Sapphire: Lots of botanicals present, along with a slight sweetness. Lots of cassia bark, coriander, and cardamom. Juniper is still pretty present here.
- Tanqueray 10: Heavy heavy citrus notes, particularly orange. Grapefruit and chamomile are also present, with very little juniper overall.
- Hendrick’s: Rose and cucumber all day. Other botanicals are present as well, including juniper, but this stuff is rose and cucumber overall.
- Beefeater 24: Chinese green tea, Japanese sencha tea, grapefruit peel, and citrus notes. Light juniper.
MY personal favorites from the big brands? I’ll pick Bombay Sapphire over Beefeater 24, and Beefeater 24 over Hendrick’s. I don’t care for the Tanqueray 10 at all. Hendrick’s has AWESOME marketing, but often times I feel their gin to be just too floral for me personally. I enjoy the Beefeater 24 quite a bit, but it’s not the easiest to find at the bar. Bombay Sapphire did a great job re-defining gin while keeping a lot of traditional elements in place. I really enjoy it a lot.
BUT! If you know me, I love supporting my local craft distilleries, and if I feel that a particular distiller makes awesome products, I’m way more likely to end up with one of their spirits in my glass or at my house than I am a major brand. Here’s a few brands of modern style craft gins that I really enjoy:
- North Shore Distillery’s Distillers Gin No. 6: Not just because I used to work for them, but because these fine folks are doing something fantastic. This is their flagship gin, and it’s really complex. Great juniper base, along with cardamom and cinnamon. Lavender floral notes brighten everything up.
- St. George Spirits Botanivore Gin: Really herbal and complex. Slightly sweet. Nice dose of juniper, as well as rose, honeysuckle, and violets.
- New Holland Artisan Spirits Knickerbocker Gin: Lots of evergreen, juniper, and citrus notes; probably the most traditional of the group. Nice dry finish.
- Berkshire Mountain Distillers Greylock Gin: Nice juniper notes, along with some licorice and fennel. Black pepper, orange peel, and clove also make some appearances.
I could go on and on about craft gins since there are so many… and these just happen to be gins that I can get in my area. Do some research on local distilleries in your area to see what you can get a hold of. Some good liquor stores will even carry samples for you to taste before you buy. It never hurts to ask!
Now, on to my favorite part.. the cocktails!
There are literally hundreds of old-school gin recipes; gin was the spirit of choice in mixed cocktails made both before and after prohibition. The first cocktail I want to talk about is the Martini. The Martini has been pretty bastardized over the last two decades or so, and has come to mean any cocktail that’s served in a martini glass. Real Martinis are made with three ingredients; gin, dry vermouth, and orange bitters.
(This recipe is from the Savoy cocktail book)
- 2 oz gin (you can use either a London dry or modern style gin).
- 1 oz dry vermouth (I like Dolin Dry Vermouth).
- 2 dashes orange bitters (Angostura Orange Bitters works nicely).
Take a mixing glass, and add ingredients to the glass. Add ice, and stir until the glass is very cold. Strain into a martini glass, and garnish with a lemon peel.
Everyone thinks that Martinis are what James Bond drank, but he didn’t. He drank a cocktail called a Vesper, that he named after his female counterpart in the book Casino Royale, which was published in 1953:
“A dry martini,” [Bond] said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”
- “Oui, monsieur.”
- “Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”
- “Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.
- “Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.
Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”
- So, to make a Vesper, here’s what you need:
- 3 oz gin
- 1 oz vodka
- 1/2 oz Lillet Blanc
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Unlike James Bond specified, you should try this drink stirred instead of shaken. Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and stir well until cold. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with a lemon peel.
There’s also a really great drink called a Bebbo, that’s an old, old cocktail from Pre-Prohibition times. It’s one of my favorite cocktails, and I honestly feel that it’s a great intro cocktail for gin.
This recipe is from a book by Ted Haigh called Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails: From The Alamagoozlum To The Zombie, and this is what he wrote about it:
“Another idiotically named drink, the Bebbo was based on the more desirably titled Bee’s Knees Cocktail, but with the addition of orange juice. ‘The Bee’s Knees’ was 1920s flapper slang for the best, top-notch, cat’s pajamas. ‘Bebbo’ is Konkani (one of the twenty-two official languages of India) for frog. Other than that? It’s just a name, and more often a nonsense nickname. Nevertheless, Bebbo has the last laugh. The virtuous Bebbo may have been forgotten, but it’s here, whereas the not-so-great Bee’s Knees remains, justly, nowhere to be found.”
So, here’s the recipe!
- 1 1/2 oz gin (modern gins work really well in this drink).
- 1 oz lemon juice.
- 1/2 oz honey syrup (just add a little hot water to the honey to thin it out).
- 2 barspoons (1/4 oz) orange juice
Place all ingredients into a mixing glass and add ice. Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cocktail cherry.
Next week (and I mean it this time!) we’re going to delve into American Whiskey!
Have a tasty weekend!