Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels
Gin is good. Cocktailians like gin, mainly for one reason: it plays well with nearly everything you can toss into a drink. Citrus? No problem. Herbs? Easy, it’s already infused with those. Bitters? Perfect. Aromatic wines? Hey, I already mentioned it works with herbs, fruit, and bitters! It’s a neutral-esque spirit that can easily hold its own, bringing panache to the party; vodka disappears into the crowd, but gin mingles with the party-goers and excites opinion. It’s Winston Churchill meets Holly Golightly.
For those readers unacquainted with gin, and to have something to act as a reference for the Heron Club’s first meeting, I figured a post on the the basics of gin was in order. We’ll cover what it is, the types and characteristics of gin, and look at a brief history. Think of it as a condensed Wikipedia entry.
Gin is a distilled spirit and one of the core “base spirits” of mixology. It is a white spirit that is either unaged or minimally aged. Gin’s defining characteristic is its flavor, which is imparted by infusing a neutral grain spirit (wheat or rye, usually, that has been distilled to 90% + alcohol) with juniper berries and botanicals (a secret mix of herbs and spices).
Dried juniper berries provide the dominant flavor, giving the liquor its unique, “piney” taste. Gins may include (to steal from Robert Hess) lemon and orange peel, anise, orris root, angelica root, cardamom, coriander, licorice root, cinnamon, almond, lavender, and cassia. During the production of true, quality gin, the botanicals are incorporated into the process of distillation: the neutral spirit is distilled, infused with botanicals, and re-distilled, often passed through a second mix of dried herbs and spices, infusing the alcohol with flavor before it condenses and is collected.
Gin is the only one of the base spirits that is infrequently sipped “neat,” often mixed to take the best advantage of its flavor, which can be astringent on its own. Of course, the exception to this rule are sweetened gins, Dutch genevers, and gin martinis served “up” with no vermouth (why order a cold glass of gin and water? I’m at a loss for an explanation).
The two most common types of gin are London Dry gin and genever. The London Dry gins are the most popular variety, especially in the US and UK. Genevers remain popular in the Netherlands, their home turf and the birthplace of gin, but also appear in Belgium and Germany. Two older, lesser-known types of gin are Plymouth and Old Tom, both of which are British. Accompanying the increasing interest in cocktails, spirits, and micro-distilling are two new types of gin: American dry gins, which are often produced by craft microditilleries and are very similar to their British cousins, and what we might call “experimental botanical” gins, which use wildly unique additives in their infusions.
As the name implies, these gins are not sweetened and are therefore “dry.” They tend to be higher proof and more juniper-forward in their flavor profile, emphasizing the “piney” flavor of gin. London Dry emerged alongside column stills in the mid-1800s, developing into a light-bodied, crisp, and highly-refined liquor that is excellent for mixing.
Brands: Beefeater, Boodles, Gordon’s, Tanqueray, to name a few.
Genever is the “original” gin, first produced in the Netherlands. It is also known as “Dutch gin” or “Holland gin.” Genever is distilled from malted grain mashes (as are whiskies), giving them a smooth, whiskey-like taste. “Dutch Courage” comes in two forms, jonge (young) and oude (old). Oude genever is a golden straw color, smooth and aromatic, with a pronounced malt wine taste; it is meant to be sipped neat, at room temperature. Jonge genever is lighter and drier, with a very neutral flavor (like vodka), and is meant to be served chilled, neat. If you find yourself in a bar in Holland, order a kopstoot (or “headbutt”), which is a shot of genever with a beer chaser (very much like our Boilermaker).
Brands: Bols, Boomsma
Smoother, more full-bodied and more aromatic than London Dry gin, and ever-so-slightly sweeter, Plymouth-style gin carries a Protected Geographical Indication in the EU, distilled only in Plymouth, England in accordance with a tradition as old as the British Navy. Unfortunately, only one distillery, Plymouth Black Friars, continues to manufacture it, but they do a heckuva job. Plymouth comes in two proofs: regular, which is fine for everyday mixing, and the hard-hitting Navy-Strength, which is difficult to locate in the US. Plymouth Sloe Gin has also hit the US market in recent years, but it is a liqueur, and not a true gin (though it’s one of the only true sloe gins on the market, and quite possibly the best; I love the stuff). Plymouth is an excellent cocktail ingredient that once enjoyed great popularity in the UK and pre-Prohibition US, and was Winston Churchill’s supposed favorite.
Brands: Plymouth (the one and only!)
An older style of British gin that nearly went extinct at the turn of the last century, Old Tom is a sweetened form of London Dry gin. Before the advent of column stills, gin was sweetened, aged, and infused to mask the inferior product produced by pot stills. It was extremely popular in 18th-century England and 19th-Century America, and is enjoying a comeback as a cocktail ingredient, especially in the classic formulations unearthed by those such as David Wondrich. Our selection of Old Tom is still pretty limited, but across the Pond a number of new gins have emerged. Old Tom Gin works wonders in early drinks, but the amounts of sugar in modernized recipes must be tinkered with to account for the sweetness of the gin.
Brands: Ransom, Hayman’s (these two can be found in the US), Secret Treasures, The Dorchester, Both’s
American gins are similar to London Dry and Plymouth, with an emphasis on precise, small-batch craft distillation and a willingness to experiment with their botanicals. The juniper is often more subtle and less piney, allowing the gin’s citrus and floral characteristics to come through. Leopold’s (Ann Arbor), Aviation (Portland), Bluecoat (Philadelphia), Catoctin Creek Virginia) and Death’s Door (Madison, WI) are excellent examples of this type, ranging from non-piney and juniper-heavy, to floral, to herbaceous, to smooth and neutral. These gins are often best when highlighted with subtle flavors, allowing the gin to bask in the spotlight.
Brands: Leopold’s, Aviation, No. 209, Junipero, Bluecoat, Catoctin Creek, Death’s Door, 13th Colony (Americus, GA)
A number of experimental gins have avoided falling into the aforementioned types, experimenting with blends of neutral spirits and adding numerous unique flavors into their botanical mixes. Hendrick’s, from Scotland, incorporates a flavorful, pot-still liquor into their neutral base and adds essences of cucumber and rose into the final product. G’vine Gin, from France, uses grape spirit and an infusion of green grape flowers, while Citadelle, another French gin, is aged in cognac barrels. Experimental gins are less about the intense, hard-hitting juniper and more about the balance and novelty of their botanical infusions.
Brands: Hendrick’s, G’Vine, Citadelle
Well, it’s incredibly complicated, but we can boil it down to a list of main points:
Like any good history, gin’s remains slightly fuzzy and un-codified two or three decades before the present day. There seems to be a severely limited use of gin in cocktails from the 1970s-1990s, understandable considering vodka’s blitzkrieg and the elimination of small distilleries in the US. In the 2000s, however, during the Neo-Cocktailian Renaissance, gin again found its place in the halls of mixology. The re-discovery of classic gin drinks and formulations, and the resulting proliferation of quality gin, has proved very tasty, indeed.