Gin is one of the essentials of civilized living, but which gin? And how to enjoy it best?
Except during prohibition—an American idea we Brits did not take to—there has been no shortage of gin producers since the spirit was first distilled, but since the ’90s there has been an explosion of new offerings. Many bring something new to the party; others you don’t want to invite.
Read Martin Pilkington’s Curious Drinker’s Primer to Gin on the following page.
by Martin Pilkington
The Making of…
A simple definition to begin with: gin is a clear distilled spirit which has a predominant flavor of juniper, though, within that coverall category there are different styles with their own characteristics.
Some are made in efficient column stills; some in artisan pot stills like those used for scotch. The method of introducing the flavor to gin differs too—at the cheaper end of the spectrum, makers tend to use essences added to the distilled spirit; with finer examples the spirit is distilled a final time through a chamber holding dried herbs, spices and blossoms: the botanicals.
There are dozens of these additional flavorings: dried citrus peels; liquorice, cassia, coriander seed, angelica, orris, cubeb, yarrow, cardamom, almond cinnamon, hibiscus … Some niche versions distil juniper berries rather than the more usual grains like barley and wheat.
In the end, it is how the thing tastes that matters, and that is mainly a credit to the recipe created by the master distiller. A recent favorite is Bloom made by Greenall’s in Cheshire, England. This is an industrial-scale producer, but Master Distiller Joanne Moore has crafted a delicately flowery gin—the botanicals here including chamomile and honeysuckle—that makes a refreshing gin fizz with fresh lemon juice and club soda. The craft-made and much lauded gin from Martin Miller, however, lacks character.
The best-known style is London Dry, made within carefully restricted and legally defined parameters—no colorants, no artificial flavors and almost zero sweetening, for example. Gordon’s, Beefeater, the aforementioned Bloom and scores of competitors fall into this category—Tanqueray is another (not sure if a mention in an Amy Winehouse song is good or bad publicity given the nature of her demise). I love their premium—and powerful—No. TEN.
If you are going to have just one bottle on your shelf, Gordon’s is a safe bet. It’s rare to visit a bar that doesn’t stock it, maybe because of its deep juniper simplicity.
Of course simplicity may not be what you are after. The biggest selling American gin, Seagram’s Extra Dry, offers the complexity derived from a brief aging in oak barrels.
Another category, though there’s just one maker in it, is Plymouth Gin, distilled on England’s south-west coast. It is distinctively earthy and a tiny bit sweeter than London Dry. Many mixologists swear by it—in that bible of the cocktail maker Difford’s Guide look up gin and you’ll be directed to Plymouth Gin.
Plymouth Navy Strength
Far less frequently encountered is a sweet style that lost mass appeal long ago, Old Tom. London distillers Hayman’s have a fine version with a lot of orange notes in the flavor-mix. Given the Tom Collins and (arguably) the Martini were originally made with this type, don’t discount it.
Hayman’s Old Tom
Booth’s Old Tom
Van Wees 15-year-old The last group is Dutch Genever and Belgian Jenever, the sweetest of the lot. Within this style sit two sub-categories, young (the drier of the two) and old, the more traditional and sweeter. This is gin for the purist, best enjoyed neat and ice cold. Think of it as vodka for intelligent people. The easiest to find is generally Bols Genever; happily an excellent example of the breed—complex, sweet, smooth, it cries out to be sipped on its own. A little digging will unearth other gems aged from one to 15 years—the single malts of the gin world.
Outside those core categories, officially or otherwise, you can find innumerable “others.” At times you wonder about the thinking behind them: Gabriel Boudier, more famous for liqueurs, has recently launched a saffron gin: fascinating, well-made, but do you want to drink saffron?
Boudier’s offering epitomizes a trend to big-up flavors that rival (and in some cases overcome) the essential juniper. The most successful of these is perhaps Hendricks, made in Scotland by another female master distiller, Leslie Gracie, employing cucumber and rose essences with dexterity: add a slice of cucumber (no lemon) and some tonic and you have a different G&T that will amuse and satisfy. Harrods, London’s higher-than-high-end department store, has its house brand, Hoxton, with more coconut than a luau, great for cocktails with their own umbrellas if you like that sort of thing.
Gabriel Boudier Saffron
Alone or with a Partner (or Several)?
How you enjoy yours is entirely up to you. Sophistication in gin drinking tends to be in inverse proportion to the number of ingredients contained in the glass, whatever trendy bars claim. An icy Genever sipped and savored needs no support. With just one additional ingredient the G&T is a thoroughly civilized tipple, and showcases dry, Plymouth and subtly different gins. Likewise the Dry Martini, the spirit with a touch of dry vermouth, offering steely elegance that requires an equally austere gin. The Gimlet—gin (preferably Plymouth) with lime cordial—was good enough for Philip Marlowe so it’s good enough for the rest of us.
And then there are concoctions like The Grateful Dead, which boasts (slurring its words) five alcoholic ingredients and three non-alcoholic: for such creations reach for the cheapest bottle, as I defy anyone to discern which gin is present in such boisterous company.
Now, as Robert Benchley said, why don’t you get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini? In moderation of course.