Gin Unscrambled: Everything You Need to Know, From A-Z
Article by: William Davis – Certified Specialist of Wine & Spirits, Certified Wine Educator (CWE)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is cold outside. The Rocky Mountains were given another healthy dose of low temps and a well-deserved helping of snow, which bodes well for the plethora of weekend warriors heading to the slopes over the next couple of months. It is cold inside too; I have a nagging groin pull, and an ice pack on the affected area. Unfortunately, I am not sure where I contracted it. It is either from an indoor soccer game, or when I got off the couch last night for the delivery driver at the local Chinese take-out.
I say this because running moguls with a groin injury is virtually impossible, so my time and energy over late winter and early spring is best spent on apres-ski activities. Don’t cry for me, Argentina; I really don’t mind the alternative (besides, I am a terrible skier to begin with). Apres-ski is where it is at. A few light vittles after a day on the hill with a cocktail or a glass of wine (or two, or three), and your spirits, your outlook, are brightened. Whether you celebrate making it down in one piece, or drinking your sorrows away after spraining an ankle or knee, the apres tradition is timeless. After all, drinking is a fun—and honorable—pursuit. Especially when you get to drink well…
Gin (and rum, which we will bring up in the next edition) are spirits that beckon summer sips and cocktails, yet are just as well suited for the wintry season. Let’s talk a bit about its history, styles, and what classic cocktails are ideal for a snow-pack at 8000 feet.
Gin was founded in the 1600s in the Netherlands, a place that has no slopes, but gets plenty cold. Although there are mentions of gin around the year 1623, physician Dr. Franciscus Sylvius of Amsterdam was credited with popularizing this fine elixir, selling it to his patients as a cure for a variety of ailments. Kidney infections? Good ol’ gin will cure it! Anxiety, or a mood malady? Meet gin, the 17th century equivalent of Zoloft. In fact, the term “Dutch Courage” came from British sailors who would knock back a few shots of gin before battle or a voyage.
Fast forward one hundred years, and London got a hold of it. Quickly, gin became a tipple for the commoner. It was estimated that London’s yearly consumption (based on production levels) of gin in the year 1730 was 14 gallons per adult male. Gin became an epidemic, kids were alcoholics before their tenth birthday, and London tried an intervention that very year. Prices were raised, riots broke out, and in 1742 the law was repealed. The updated laws are in place today, and most of the London Dry Gin producers and distillers we see today date from this time. “Gin Palaces” were to follow in the 19th century, venues that put a modern Vegas nightclub to shame. Precursors of the public house, they were built with amenities like bathrooms and gas lamps, (which I understand were quite the rage in the 1840s), and handled both retail and on-site business. One-stop shopping took off. A place where men and women could drink, and take a few bottles home after?
Sign me up.
This was the golden age of gin. The apple of the United States did not fall far from the mother country’s tree. The fashionable style was the “Old Tom,” a sweeter style that worked well for the Tom Collins and Martinez cocktails invented in the early 1860s, and made famous by Jerry Thomas, the bartender extraordinaire of his day. The variation of the Martinez, the Martini, was always a gin base; the substitution of vodka came a century later. In the late 19th century, the temperance movement gained full steam, and prohibition hit the United States. Folks started making their own “bathtub” gin, often with disastrous results. It was once again relegated to the Rotgut School of Technology; anything to cut the bad flavor and poor distillation methods was used. Ironically, the age of vodka was poised to begin…and it is only in the last ten years that gin has made a comeback.
What is gin? A liquor that starts off as a neutral spirit, and created by adding juniper and a number of herbs and botanicals either by steeping them in the spirit or by putting the botanicals in a chamber that allows the distillate to pass through, taking on the aromas and flavors of the secret concoction. Juniper has historically been the base or dominant herb in gin production, but today we see a wide range of styles. In the U.S., simple gin, or compound gin, are generally made by steeping the botanicals in neutral spirit only and putting it on the market; most high-quality distillers deem this a shortcut.
We will focus on the traditional method distilled gin, made by redistilling the steeped botanical and spirit mix, which are in five categories:
1. Plymouth: Named for the city port of Plymouth in England, this rich and aromatic gin style is characterized by a healthy dose of juniper and citrus. There is only one producer of the style—the self-named Plymouth Gin. Known as the perfect gin for cocktails like the Aviation, which enhances the floral qualities of the drink.
2. London Dry Gin: Extremely aromatic, yet not as powerful as Plymouth, it is driven by juniper, citrus, and botanicals such as orris root. Versatile, it works just as well with gin and tonics as it does with more complicated cocktails such as a Negroni. Think Bombay Sapphire, or the new Sipsmith Gin, made entirely in a copper still.
3. Genever: The OG—Original Gangster, original gin. Rich, powerful, with licorice and juniper dominating. Lower in proof, can be aged in oak, and will develop aromas more suited to brown spirits. A great winter beverage. Try Oak Aged Genever in a complex recipe such as The Last Word, or use it in place of Bourbon in a Brown Derby; you won’t be disappointed.
4. American or International Gin: This is a newer style, and a general departure from the heavy juniper recipes of the past. Although juniper may be used, producers like Hendricks (cucumber), or St. George “Terroir” (Douglas Fir) push the boundaries.
5. Old Tom: A style of gin that follows the London Dry Recipe, yet has a noticeable sugar content. Haymans Old Tom or Old Raj Gin are ideal for Tom Collins, as the sweetness works well with the citrus notes in the cocktail.