Mike Stocks Your Liquor Cabinet Part 3: Gin
I don’t know what I love about gin the most.
First, it was a medicine. That is, it was concocted as an herbal remedy — the infusion of juniper berries into a neutral grain spirit, and then diluted to form Jenever — in order to cure maladies of the stomach and kidneys. This makes sense, of a certain mad kind, that a peculiarly strong liquor should be brewed to treat illnesses of the endocrine and digestive systems. What else cleans you out like the massive consumption of gin? Are you ever going to complain about sore kidneys again, especially in the company of a doctor who made you drink it all the first time?
Fortunately, the English were on hand to find a silver lining to matters: Whatever jenever did for their stomachs, it had the handy side-effect of curing their sense of self-preservation. Soldiers spending time in Holland for the 30 Years War found themselves a handy souvenir for the trip home; we all inherited the term “Dutch Courage”, which endures even to this day in honor of those brave souls enduring in both love and war.
Then, it ruined society. And by that I mean, within a very short period of time, gin was solely responsible for reversing the city of London’s population explosion — first by grinding it to a standstill, and then by actually reversing population growth. Yes, more people were dying in London than were being born, in proportion with the amount of gin getting guzzled. Inexpensively produced to begin with, a tax hike on beers and a royal endorsement from William of Orange made gin the most attainable pleasure of the average working Londoner.
Oh, and how they attained it.
Between the 1690s and the 1740s, gin consumption in the city of London grew from 500,000 gallons a year all the way up to 11,000,000, which is roughly the same amount as the entire nation of Holland exported to the world when gin first reached England. It’s estimated that by the peak of the “Gin Madness”, one in every six households in London was a producer of gin, which wasn’t really a challenge — the only requirement to be licensed was a sign of intent posted in a public place for a week and a half.
Then, it was respectable again. To paraphrase contemporary critics, Londoners had a choice between two activities with roughly the same cost: gin and sex. They chose “the more lasting pleasure” of drunkenness, and it quickly became apparent to all concerned that moral tut-tutting was not going to curb the poor folks from having their good time. Finally, in the 1750s, legislation was passed that effectively shunted all gin production to large distillers, shutting down the neighborhood gin mills. Gin was effectively priced out of the market, sending working-class London back between their filthy sheets to find earthly pleasure.
Consumption of gin plummeted from its dizzy heights to a modest 2,000,000 gallons a year, the quality of the drink improved to the point where it wasn’t very likely to kill anyone, and gin began its climb to high society.
Then, it was a medicine again. Now a preferred beverage among the genteel class, an increasing number of whom were volunteering or being banished to all the most mosquito-ridden locales in the British Empire, gin became a health tonic again.
Or rather, it became the reason anyone would bother to drink a health tonic, anyway. The quinine-infused tonic water prescribed to company men and their families in the Far East was widely (and rightfully) regarded as horrid, and so the flavorful qualities of the oh-so-fashionable gin were mixed in to mask the taste. The potency of the herbal, juniper flavor blended so well that the cocktail itself became iconic — and as an added benefit, meant that it was at least slightly harder to succumb to malaria while subjugating the Colonials.
Then, it ruined society again. Ever hear of the term, “bathtub gin”? It’s a product of Prohibition, which was itself the consequence of slowly-building anti-alcoholic sentiment that brewed in the US even while gin was becoming oh-so-terribly-acceptable through the Empire. As the Londoners of centuries before knew so well, neutral grain spirits were relatively easy to produce in quantity, and could be readily flavored with any number of berries or sugars. Bottled and diluted by water from a bathtub faucet, these gins became the backbone of the speakeasies that flourished across the country in the 1920s, and helped to finance the rise of organized crime in a number of major centers.
Then the Depression hit, and so did a repeal of the Volstead Act. Sometimes we all just need a drink, and no fooling.
Now, gin is respectable again. It’s nowhere near the popularity of vodka or whisky, but gin has seen a real re-emergence now that the cocktail is back in the fashionable eye (and this is the only time I will ever say this, so mark it on your calendars as the day I nearly choke on my own words) thank you very much Sex & The City. Sure, it might have been the liquor hiding in the back of your family liquor cabinet, pulled out only when your elderly neighbors came over, smelling powerfully of a kind of cough syrup you’re glad they don’t make any more — but gin deserves a place in your life, if only to appreciate the odd, compelling complexity of a drink that has been a boon as often as it has been a bane.
The odd thing about shopping for gin is that you might not feel like you’ve got a lot of choice, but in truth there are as many flavors of gin as there are distillers — recipes are closely-kept secrets, and the only openly-admitted ingredient is juniper berry. But any number of herbs, spices and even more exotic ingredients might be hanging around the still during the second distillation, each adding its own complexity to the mix.
(image credit: Pig in the Kitchen)
But why bother with the engineering process at all, am I right? What if you’re the kind of person who already built a dry smokehouse in your backyard, and a tandoor in your basement? Who has the room, free cash to bribe healthy and safety officials, and patience to go distilling your own gins? Isn’t this the do-it-yourself era? Is frugality not the new black? What’s wrong with you anyway?
Precisely my point, which is where sloe gin jumps in. Sloe berries are a fruit of the blackthorn, the color of a dark plum but slightly smaller in size. Pull one off of a bush to eat it, and you’ll probably realize why the English decided it might do better if it sat in a vat of neutral spirits for a while. With something of a chemical bite, they infuse beautifully into a clear liquor like vodka — but they mix incredibly well with a gin, producing a liqueur that’s both full of both fruity sweetness and green pine flavor.
It’s not a true gin by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re hung up on the details, I suggest you take a spin back through the history of this drink. Its origin is in crazy home-brewing, to the point of population control and public policy modification. Do you really think you’re going to hurt gin’s feelings?
London Dry Gin
Oh, all right. By far, the dominant standard in gin is the London Dry style, which strays towards a more bitter flavor than any other variety. It’s easy to note the presence of botanical additions like lemon or orange peel — and when I mention those, think equally of the pith and the zest’s flavors. Both are present, each underscoring the distinctive juniper flavor and lifting up the more subtle notes of spices like anise, cinnamon or even coriander.
It’s possible that you may have seen a London Dry Gin at some point during a trip to your local liquor store.
Yep, basically all of them.
Not that there’s anything wrong with London Dry — it’s the most popular for a reason, and each respective distiller will argue that theirs is the most true to the spirit of the liquor. As we’ve seen, though, the spirit of the liquor is really a hearty, “Git ‘er done,” so perhaps it’s not wise to rest on tradition too much. Every London Dry that you try will feature the same basic configuration of juniper and citrus, and then move on to contending over the finer points — one might be more herbal, another floral, a third offer a cleaner finish, a fourth offer a warm aftertaste.
The joy of London Dry is the joy of arguing over baseball: there are an infinite number of fine points, and while there may be losers and winners on a given day, there are hundreds of chances to get it right. You will absolutely encounter snobbery when you pick up your first bottle of London Dry, but take comfort in the fact that it will happen regardless of which brand you choose. Each offers its own combination of the subtle and the bold, and the joy of a complete shelf is your opportunity to choose which suits you — and your cocktails — the best.
And who’s to say you have to stick with one? Limited thinking, I say.
But then there is Plymouth.
Imagine everything I just said about gin was wrong:
- That it was never a local hack booze peddled as a medicinal tonic
- That it wasn’t the favorite of soldiers that became the staple of the poor working class
- That it couldn’t be made in any random pot still with enough heat, water, moldy grain and a will to use it
- That it doesn’t to this day retain a little bit of mad science, amongst its tradition and industry
No, instead pretend for just a moment that somehow gin became like wine, and that there was only one place in the world that really knew how to make it. That this one place scored a naval contract on the basis the Good British Logic that officers shouldn’t drink common rum like the rabble below-decks, and that they profiteered off of Prohibition more than even the mob did. Imagine an entire community dedicated to nothing but the production of a single alcoholic beverage, committed to its quality and uniqueness amidst nearly four hundred years of tradition.
That’s Plymouth Gin, in a nutshell. At first blush it may seem enough like London Dry that you wonder what the fuss is about, but then notice the presence of citrus without bitterness, or the sweet finish on your tongue, rather than the dry rush tumbling down your throat. Plymouth is what gin is like when it’s polished to a high shine, with all the edges filed away and the flavors carefully melded together into a smooth liquor that makes you feel slightly guilty to be mixing with anything else… well, maybe a gimlet’s okay. But still, I don’t know anyone with a bottle of Plymouth who isn’t worried about finishing it, as if somehow it will go away and never come back.
But how insane a notion is that, really? The gin we drink today is nothing like the fire-water and turpentine of the 18th Century, or the home-brewed speakeasy fodder of the 1920s. For all my talk of delicate flavor and careful composition, it’s worth remembering that most modern cocktails were devised to cover up the flavor of gin — that’s how far we’ve come from those glory days. Vodka or rum have histories, but gin has an evolution, from a ground trooper’s preferred substitute for reason all the way up to James Bond’s preferred martini fodder.
The key to gin is to open yourself up to the concept, the idea that a liquor that tastes like your fingers after you’ve moved a Christmas tree can be a good thing, and can start you down the path of increasingly complex and enjoyable varieties. Whether it’s the truly home-brewed randomness of a Sloe Gin, the mainstream reliability of a London Dry, or the niche refinement of a Plymouth or a Hendrick’s, there are no end of rabbit holes to dive down. Each is a leap of faith, they’re the first step down the road towards having a liquor cabinet that is complete, rather than one that is simply standard.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, for some reason my kidneys really hurt. I don’t get it, I’ve been taking my medicine constantly now for hours.