With all the spirits available to modern day bartenders, gin has had one of the most turbulent histories of all of them: from its years as the curse of the urban poor, to girls in trouble using it to induce miscarriages, to its illustrious stint as the gut-rotter of the prohibition days and the disdain of the society of London at the turn of the 18th century. Gin has had a lot of dirty laundry to air out. But with Generation X’ers beginning to move on from their favourite vodka in search of something new and different, gin is moving to the lead as people’s favorite weekly drink.
Gin’s origins date back to the 16th century in Holland; like most spirits it was originally distilled for medicinal purposes using a neutral spirit infused with flavours of the juniper berry. Grown in the Northeast of Europe, the juniper berry is a small dark berry that gives gin that distinctive dry and aromatic taste. There were also other herbs added, such as lemon peel, star anise root and cardamom, which were believed to stop any ailments the body may encounter. If you have ever tried Bombay Sapphire you will see the actual ingredients that go into every bottle.
Most gin makers use the “racking” method of distillation. Put simply, this involves placing the different herbs, spices and ingredients onto racks in the still chamber and letting the gin vapour pass through them. This is repeated a number of times until the head distiller thinks that the flavours are balanced. This method of distillation usually makes a subtle, balanced gin with more complex flavours, but usually drier. The other method is “steeping” or “compounding” which means that oils and botanical flavours are added to a neutral spirit and left for a few hours to release the flavours into the liquid then distilled. This produces a heavier style of gin with deeper flavours and more of a sweeter juniper dryness.
At the time of gin’s rise to infamous mediocrity, the most popular spirit in England was cognac. Around this time England had a bit of a beef with France and decided to raise the taxes on all French imports, including their wine and, of course, their fabulous cognac. Instead the English started importing and distilling themselves a nasty version of what we now know as gin. They were using hops and barley, the same ingredients in beer, distilling very rough gins with juniper “flavoring.” It became so easy to get gin, that “gin houses” were born and gin became cheaper than beer. And the English drank just as much just as fast. Public displays of drunkenness and alcohol related illnessness soared in the burgeoning metropolis of London. British statistics at the time said the consumption of gin between 1700 and 1751 rose from 1-2 pints of gin a year to a gallon per person. That’s about 8-9 pints of straight gin per person per year in 1751. In William Hogarth’s 1751 painting “Gin Lane”, you can see the disdain of London society and the effects of gin through an artist’s eyes.
Although gin was seen as an “evil spirit”, the English were always true to their beloved gin. While invented in Holland, the English made it their own and there is no better example than the G&T: gin and tonic was the drink said to be created for the British occupying India during the 1800’s. The Brit’s would never leave home without their precious gin and when mixed with quinine laced tonic it was said to ward off malaria and other tropical diseases.
Certain urban myths arose at this time. The old adage of “Dutch Courage” derives from when Dutch soldiers were given a pint of gin before going into battle, bolstering their courage to run into enemy fire. Sailors were also given a pint of gin and lime juice to combat scurvy at sea, a simple concoction that spawned the classic “Gimlet.”
Gin has come a long way in popularity while simultaneously shedding its infamous tag as “Mothers Ruin.” The modern day gins are highly aromatic, beautifully balanced spirits with herbs and spices from around the world. The use of gin in cocktails is becoming more abundant and rightly so. The vodka craze has come and is here to stay, but the clientele that started drinking those flavored vodka martinis years ago have now grown up and are looking for more from their drinking experience. They are looking for the next “hit” and gin has now stepped up on a level playing field and is starting to score some touchdowns.
When using gin in mixology, remember it is not vodka. It has complex flavors and they will come through in your drinks. Try pairing gin with slightly sweeter flavors to offset the gins natural dryness, but don’t go overboard because you want those herbaceous tones to still shine through. Anthony Caporale of the “Art of the Drink” video pod- cast says, “When you get a gin drink right, you’ve done much more than just add alcohol to a mixer – you’ve successfully paired the gin’s flavor and aroma with the tastes in the rest of the drink and enhanced the ingredients by combining them.”
As with most spirits, different gins have different flavors and characters. When mixing a classic martini this really comes into play; each gin should be matched with a different style of martini. Plymouth gin should be mixed with a martini with a twist, whereas Tanqueray with a dirty martini. Each gin has its own flavor profile so start tasting gins and remember what flavor notes each has.
Gin is here to stay and with the hundred or so styles, brands and flavors hitting the market it has only just begun to climb the steep hill of retribution.
Different Styles of Gin
Most of you know London Dry Gin and maybe even Plymouth but have you heard of all the styles of gin that are on the market now and in the past?
London Dry Gin is the most well known. You probably have Bombay Sapphire or Beefeater in your speed rail at work. It is now a generic term for any gins with a drier style. The only gin that is actually still distilled in London is Beefeater. London Dry Gin is just that: dry. It is very juniper heavy and usually has very broad aromatics.
Plymouth Gin is the only gin with a “Geographic Designation”, meaning that it can only be made in Plymouth, England. This gives it distinction in its own right. It also uses the same 18th century recipe that has been handed down from one generation of master distillers to the next. The botanicals for Plymouth Gin are gathered from all over the world and they include juniper berries, angelica root, orange peel, lemon peel, cardamom pods, orris roots and coriander seeds. They are combined with crystal clear water from the surrounding region of the Dartmoor and then placed in England’s oldest pot still that dates back to 1855.
Dutch or Geneva Gins are starting to come back to the mainstream in a big way. This style of gin is usually a little heavier because of the way it is made. The product is produced by compounding juniper berries with a style of malt wine called moutwijn. The two versions of Geneva are usually oude (old) and jonge (young), with oude containing a higher percentage of moutwijn. This style of production makes a much more aromatic, pungent gin.
The rarest gin to find on today’s market is Old Tom. It is a sweetened gin and credited to a Captain Bradstreet who used a carved container in the shape of a tom cat to dispense the gin to sailors. Hayman’s Old Tom from the UK is one recommended brand.
With all these different styles out there then it is only necessary to taste all of them to come to the right conclusion. What gin goes with what style of martini?