There’s something very refreshing, and very British, about a Gin and Tonic. It harkens back to Colonial times and days of Empire past, when Blighty, not that young American upstart or those industrious Chinese fellows, was the true Superpower of the world. Alas, no more, but Gin remains as quintissentially British as Tea, stiff upper lips, and losing gracefully at sports we invented. Just like Tea, we nicked it from somewhere else and made it our own, too, and unlike Cricket, we do Tea and Gin better than everyone else.
The Historical Gin of yesteryear, however, was a very different beast to the sultry minx we enjoy today. She was a robust and pungent, rough and bullsome wench who went about with a clenched fist and a gnarled expression, whereas today she can certainly still leave you laid out on your back and wishing you hadn’t been quite so rude, she does it with a kiss before she takes you out with her perfect little handbag.
Excusing the pun, when you distil her down to her essence, Gin is basically neutral spirit predominantly flavoured with juniper. Bargain basement Gin is quite often just that – essence or flavour of Juniper added to some relatively cheap spirit. Barely worthy of the name ‘Gin’ at all, except by base definition – Juniper flavoured Vodka, of sorts. There are a few categories of Gin that are worth understanding:
- Gin: The most basic label – spirit flavoured predominantly with Juniper, and whether or not she ever sees a juniper berry is best left unasked. Not to say there aren’t some oddball quality Gins using unusual techniques who fall into this basic category, but the majority are own-brand basics, and are no ladies.
- Distilled Gin: This is where the real lady lives. Neutral spirit is distilled with a careful selection of botanicals to create a wonderful, perfumed creature of complexity and vibrancy. This category allows for innovation and flexibility and results in some of the most exciting and delicious Gins (Martin Miller’s, Williams Chase) on the market.
- London Dry Gin: The Grand Old Dame of Gin – she is always a Distilled Gin, but she can not be blended with other distillates, have colouring added, though she can be made anywhere in the world. Two Gins of the Holy Trinity of Classic Gins (Beefeater and Tanqueray) belong in this category, as do some new and excellent Gins (such as the wonderful Sipsmith).
- Plymouth Gin: There is only one, and this is the only Gin to have origin controlled – or appellation – status. First created in 1793 by Mr Coates,Plymouth Gin is made in Black Friar’s Distillery in, you guessed, Plymouth, and forms the final lady in the Holy Trinity of Classic Gins.
Where, though, did this mad (yet inspired) idea of using Juniper to flavour a spirit come from? Well, without getting too deep into the discovery of distillation (though if you’re interested, the work of Persian Alchemist al-Jabir c. 712 who is credited with the invention of the Alembic Still is worth investigating), suffice to say that early distilled spirit was unrefined, rough, and made kerosene sound like an appealing flavour; best to hide it with something. Yet as nasty as spirit (or burnt wine as it was known) could taste, it was undeniably safer to drink than water. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is worth remembering in this time of Socially Responsible Drinking that we first got the habit because booze was once considered safer to drink than water. This was scientifically true, as the process of fermentation and distillation removed harmful diseases and bacteria from the water, rendering it safer to drink. Nowadays, we do not have this same excuse, so don’t even think of trying to get away with that one.
Gin’s story really begins around 1055, where we can observe the first written reference to a Juniper flavoured acqua-ardens (burning water) in the Compendia Salerno, in Italy, where it was likely being proscribed as a health tonic. Juniper does in fact assist kidney function, though I wouldn’t suggest that Gin does all that much good when the best ones today carry an ABV of 40% or higher. During the Black Death, Plague Doctors would stuff their beaked masks with Juniper Berries to ward off the foul odors and airs of the Plague, believing that it would protect them from falling prey. They were partially right – Juniper is a deterrent to the rats that people believed to have carried the Black Death.
Two hundred years later in 1269 we see the first mention of Juniper-based health tonics, in 1552 Phillipus Hermanni recorded a recipe for a Juniper eau-de-vie in his Conselijck Distiller’s Book. In 1575 a certain Lucas Bulsius (later Bols) set up his distillery in Amsterdam, producing his first Genever in 1602. Genever is the direct predecessor to Gin, though it differs owing to the addition of Malt Wine and is sweetened after distillation; imagine sweet gin with a touch of whisky and you’re part way there.
British soldiers fighting in the Dutch War of Independence (1618-1648) developed a taste for Genever (which they referred to as gin); the tradition of taking a measure of Genever before going in to battle is the origin of the phrase ‘Dutch Courage’. They took their love of this Juniper-based spirit home with them, and a good few bottles. In 1688 the English King William of Orange began to restrict imports of French Brandy and encouraged the production of Gin (which also helped find a market for a surplus of grain). Gin really began to take off, and by 1700 the average adult in England consumed 1/3 of a gallon per year. By 1720 this figure had risen to 2/3, and by 1729 when the first (and rather ineffectual) Gin act was passed this figure had risen to 1.3 gallons (or 5 litres). Consumption per capita continued to rise so that by 1743 it was estimated at 2.2 gallons – or 8 litres per year. The Gin Act of 1751 granted licences to distill Gin and restrictions on its production, and consumption decreased; the new legislation also had the effect of improving the quality of the spirit, and by 1790 the days of cheap, poor quality Gin were over.
It is in this period that some of the names we know and love today came to become leading lights in the world of Gin. Booth’s Gin was founded in 1740, Alexander Gordon founded his distillery in 1769. Mr Coates founded Plymouth Gin (the only gin in the world to have AOC Status) at Black Friar’s in Plymouth in 1793. James Burroughs perfected his recipe for Beefeater in 1820 (though did not begin commercial production until 1863) and Charles Tanqueray, whose background was that of a Silversmith, founded his distillery in 1830.
In 1830, another key event occurred; Robert Stein and Aneas Coffey developed their
‘Continuous’ Still, which allowed for the distillation of a far higher quality, purer ethanol than had ever been possible before. With this development, the botanicals of Gin changed their role, no longer did they mask the flavour of a poor quality alcohol, in fact, because alcohol enhances the perception of flavours, they now took centre stage. Gin could now show off the blend of botanicals and the flavours therein.
A final note on Gin: When making a gin and tonic, there are some absolutely essential ground rules. First is that one should use as much ice as one can pack in the glass. Second is that your garnish is a purely personal choice, however, this habit of squeezing a lime in is only of any purpose if you are using poor quality tonic water. There is no law that says you can not put a wedge of Grapefruit in your Sipsmith or Cucumber in your Plymouth, nor indeed a Strawberry and crack of black pepper with your Martin Millers. Good gin is complex and contains a great many aromas and flavours and will work well with almost any garnish you choose. Third, and already alluded to, is that the most crucial element of your G&T is using good quality T. I heartily recommend Fever Tree tonic as a superior quality mixer; poor tonic is harshly flavoured, overly sweet and will wreck your wonderfully balanced Gin. I find a 1:4 ratio of Gin to Tonic is preferable, however if I’ve had a hard day, it’ll be closer to 1:2. If you encounter someone who is not particularly fond of Gin, chances are it’s the Tonic they haven’t enjoyed; Gin and Ginger Ale is a delightful alternative. If you’re a Bloody Mary fan, next time try it with Gin instead of Vodka. You will never look back.
This article was originally posted on my work web-page, which can be found here!