In with the Gin!
Within the portfolio of whiskey-heavy spirits I represent we also carry a couple of gins. And while I’m obviously a big fan of the brown water, I must admit that the two clear liquors we produce are at the top of my list of favorites. However, each time I execute a demo of our products I receive the exact same reactions as soon as I say the word “gin”; folks either love it or they hate it and if it’s a negative reaction its always for the same reason – early drinking trauma from very bad gin. I am on a mission to change the minds of each gin denier and open your taste buds to an endless world of botanicals and flavors! Not every gin tastes like your grandma’s bathtub hooch that you drank in high school and made you sick. If you open your mind and mouth to some of the beautiful spirits on the market today, you too will be vetoing vodka and saying “in with the gin!”
Gin has one of the most storied histories in the world of wine and spirits. The earliest known mention of juniper-based alcohol dates back to the 1200s, but like many high-octane libations, the monks made it popular when they were seeking medicinal tinctures. Juniper has long been used around the world for its perceived healing properties, and thus that botanical became the standard for classifying a grain neutral spirit as such; regardless of whatever else is thrown inside a gin basket, there must be some aromatic juniper berries if you’d like to slap the word ‘gin’ on the label.
The centuries between the Middle Ages and 1920s Prohibition gin enjoyed quite the journey, globe-trotting its way from the Netherlands across the Channel to England, and finally making its way across the pond to the US. Due to the ease and quick turnaround in which its produced, it was a hot commodity during the 13 years of prohibition. This was also the time many famous classic cocktails we still enjoy were crafted; the unregulated underground toilet hooch that was being secretly produced was sometimes so bad, cocktails were invented out of necessity to mask their rancid taste. Prior to this era, most alcohols were consumed unmixed.
While juniper is certainly necessary in gin, it is also the factor that tips a consumer’s personal taste. I like to refer to it as being similar to cilantro in the way that some people love it and can’t get enough, while others taste it so strongly it is overpowering and ruins whatever it touches. Luckily, there is now a seemingly endless array of beautiful gins, containing varying levels of juniper, that practically anyone can find a brand that tickles their fancy.
Gin is produced by pouring a grain neutral spirit into a pot still, then filling a gin basket above with whatever lovely herbs and botanicals you desire. Then you heat the liquid to a high degree, steaming and extracting all the aromas and flavors from the botanicals above, cooling it down to turn the steam back to liquid, and voila- Gin! Neither mixture we use in both the dry gin and barrel finished gin I represent are juniper-forward; in fact the majority botanicals in our dry gin is watermelon rind and citrus zest, while the barrel aged gin is composed mostly of baking spice and cranberry. The juniper only serves to provide a fresh aftertaste as opposed to being front and center.
Once you find a gin of preference, you can begin to experiment with how you like it. Gin tonics are always a great place to start, because it’s two simple ingredients (gin and tonic water) but you can enhance it with fresh herbs, fruits, veggies and syrup infusions. For example, if you want something fresh and cooling for these steamy dog days of summer, you could muddle some fresh cucumber and add a few basil leaves before shaking your gin and topping with tonic. Or if you wanted something more fall-friendly, use a barrel finished gin as your base, make a cranberry infused simple syrup, and garnish with cinnamon sticks and muddled oranges. There is no end to how you can customize your own cocktail, and it’s great to have a “build-your-own” gin tonic bar at large gatherings.
You can also start exploring some of the classic gin cocktails you may have previously overlooked on menus. One of my absolute favorites is a Last Word. Created during prohibition, this cocktail combines 2 of the monks’ greatest contributions- gin and chartreuse. It’s 4 simple ingredients – gin, green chartreuse, lime juice, maraschino liqueur - all equal parts, shaken hard and strained into a coupe where it’s served straight up with a luxardo cherry. If you like a dry and bitter cocktail over something sweet, don’t miss a negroni. One of my absolute favorite patio sippers that hails from Italy is once again simple and equal parts – gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari. Pour into a glass filled with ice, stir (don’t shake), then strain into a rock’s glass and add one big rock. Garnish with an expressed orange peel. There is nothing better on a hot day!
I hope this intro to gin makes it a little less intimidating. The thing to remember with any wine or spirit is, just because you had one bad experience with one particular glass, doesn’t mean you should write it off entirely. It could have been a bad brand, a bad bottle, or a bad vintage. It’s most likely that you didn’t prefer that particular item as opposed to just not liking it as a whole. The beauty of the industry I work in, is that there is no end to the spectrum of flavors and each glass is unique depending on production, time and preparation. Keep an open mind and an open mouth!