Gin! The gin craze! Mother’s ruin! Genevre! So many exclamations!
But seriously, just what is gin anyway? Why does it even go with tonic? How should we actually be drinking it?
I’m going to open with a fact that most guys under the age of 30 are probably loathe to admit; gin is awesome, I really like gin. We all like to pretend that only old women drink it or it is somehow vodka’s slightly uglier cousin but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
So what is it?
Originally distilled in the 13th and 14th Century as a medicine or plague cure in the region from Flanders to Denmark, the first distillers used the two-pot method and a grape wine base with juniper berries or wood and other herbs added. It was not until the 16th century that a grain base and recreational recipes were offered.
To define gin will always mean juniper. The juniper berry, originally that very ineffective plague medicine, created a flavour that more than one poet has likened to the scent of christmas trees. It is this remarkable experience that so polarises modern drinkers despite unique, bold and subtle variations always being offered by new distilleries and labels.
It was the expansion of the Dutch East India Company that really made gin the global spirit and the choice of mariners and navies across Europe. Official naval records in the United Kingdom show that it was the original spirit served to sailors along with “scurvy grass” (herbs used to ward off scurvy) long before rum was even considered a spirit fit for the lowest of sailors.
Eventually the art of gin distillation grew to the bain-marie method of distillation. This is where a spirit (either neutral or with herbs/juniper berries macerating within) is distilled with a colander-like basket full of botanicals is sitting above the low-wines inside the still itself.
So basically you take neutral spirit, macerate some awesome flavours into it, then distill through some other awesome flavours. The spirit that is collected at the end is left to settle, brought down to the desired proof and bottled.
There is only one botanical necessary for making gin. Juniper berries.
Everything else (sometime more than 20 everything else’s) is the individual distillery’s secret recipe. I have seen gins infused with native South African or Australian bush herbs, lemongrass, Jamaican peppers, even tomato and basil. But if it ain’t got juniper it ain’t gin.
It’s naval history (pre-dating rum officially by a century or so) meant that it was used firstly as a ration and secondly as a curative. Gin’s unique flavour blends leant itself to masking bitter tastes, especially those associated with tinctures made from Jesuits’ bark.
These rather revolting tinctures were an effective preventative for fevers and malaria and had to be diluted in the water used to proof the gin or the sailors and soldiers would refuse to take it. Eventually these tinctures became what we now know as tonic water and during English colonisation of India is reputed to have saved many lives. Modern tonic water doesn’t usually save lives anymore, instead it is formulated to hide the flavour of gin to our ever sweetening palates and kill that aroma of christmas.
So what about martinis? Here’s my definitive answer on that.
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