We need to talk about gin (1)

Why do we need to talk about gin?
1) because it's a delicious and popular aperitif drink,
2) because its growing popularity has led to certain practices I think need challenging.

I'll look at the challenges next week, but first, a bit of history.

Gin’s been around for the best part of 500 years. Dutch apothecaries were adding juniper berries to tonic drinks in the 16th century, to mask the harshness of the malt wine base. A century later, they had switched to distillation to refine the base a little, but continued to add juniper. Because Jenever is distilled from malted grains, its taste has much in common with that of whiskey, but with the added bitterness of the juniper.

English sailors and soldiers, returning from campaigns abroad, had been bringing back Jenever for a hundred years when William III, a Dutchman, came to occupy (with his wife Mary II) the throne of England, Ireland & Scotland. William pursued a trade war with France, introducing heavy import duties on French wines and brandy. British drinkers turned to Jenever and it became so popular that Dutch distillers could hardly keep up with demand. English distillers stepped in to fill the gap in the market, but used a more neutral spirit than the Dutch malt. Subsequent governments gave the drink a further boost by easing taxes on distillers.

By the early 18th century, gin was said to be cheaper than beer, making it the drink of choice for those with no access to clean water, but with unscrupulous dealers adding such things as turpentine and sulphuric acid to the spirit, it’s hardly surprising gin came to be associated with madness, destitution and early death. The government tried to address this by restricting the right to make gin, introducing the distiller’s licence that we still know today.

Until the 1830s, gins were sweeter than we think of today. Sugar was added to address that age-old problem of rough-tasting spirit, but in 1830, an Irish inventor patented modifications to the column still that allowed it to produce a much lighter, purer, smoother spirit. Distillers no longer needed to add sugar, and the London Dry style emerged – bitter, sharp & clear, giving it infinite versatility.
For an entertaining and Dutch-centric view of the development of English gin, see http://www.bythedutch.com/gin-son-of-genever/

Older styles of gin, such as Old Tom, Cork Dry and Plymouth survive and are greatly appreciated, but the market is dominated by London Dry because of its versatility. Carrying no flavours from its base spirit, it can be varied this way and that, according to different tastes and fashions and remain unmistakeably gin. Having no sugar, it can be mixed easily with sweetened mixers, liqueurs and other products without fear of making the drink too sickly.

Our classic G&T was born out of medical necessity. As the British Empire expanded, British travellers needed to take quinine to keep malaria at bay in hot climates, but quinine powders tasted horrible, so were mixed with sugar and soda to make them palatable. (Have we been here before?) This is your basic tonic water. Why gin was first added is a mystery. It has been said that it allowed bored Raj ladies to drink unnoticed, under cover of taking medicinal tonic water. I suppose there are worse reasons for creating a classic aperitif. Whatever the reasons they were first mixed, it didn’t take long to realise gin and tonic make a perfect pairing. The drink is light and refreshing, with that bitterness that stimulates the appetite and a touch of sharpness to get the juices flowing. With modern access to clean water and cheap refrigeration, it’s also the perfect summer drink, cooling as well as stimulating.

If the medical needs of the colonial administrators gave us the G&T, it was the medical needs of the British naval tradition that gave us the Gimlet. Scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C, was the curse of naval life. In order to keep sailors healthy, huge quantities of limes were taken on board, but they didn’t last long, so were reduced with sugar and water into a more space-efficient cordial. In the navy, gin was kept high strength, so didn’t dampen gunpowder if spilled. Like cordial, that also takes up less room. And so, like those bored housewives in colonial Darjeeling, the sailors did what comes naturally – they mixed their medicine with gin.

Another naval treasure is the pink gin. I’m not talking here about that nasty concoction with too much sugar and all the juniper flavour of a strawberry mivvi. That’s a bad hen party in a glass, not an aperitif. A real pink gin is a simple, strong drink that was often taken by naval officers. It is a measure of gin to which a small quantity of Angostura Bitters has been added. Once again, the drink started off as medicine. Angostura bitters is today made with gentian, spices and other vegetable extracts, but did originally contain angostura bark, used in the treatment of fever and prevention of malaria. Usually, the bitters is splashed generously onto an ice cube in a short glass. This is swirled around to chill and coat the glass, then the whole lot is thrown out. After that the gin is added, sometimes with a fresh ice cube. If you order one in a good bar, you may be asked “Would you like the pink in or out?” In other words, would you prefer it as I’ve described it (stronger and tasting more of gin) or with the ice and bitters left in the glass (so tasting strongly of bitters and becoming more dilute as the ice melts)?

Next time, I’ll look at the 21st century gin revival and why I think it’s becoming problematic. In the mean time, I’m going to practice making a decent gimlet (Plymouth naval-strength gin, Rose’s lime cordial and a squeeze of fresh lime, mixed in the glass over ice) and enjoy the gin.


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