“Get me a bromide—and put some gin in it!”
—Flora, Countess DeLave, The Women (1939)
This section of the website is usually devoted to food and to “Eating Well,” but how about having drinks first?
And if we’re having drinks, and since the weather is getting warmer, let’s start with gin.
Alec Waugh, the connoisseur who is said to have invented the cocktail party, wrote in the still invaluable 1968 Time-Life book Wines and Spirits, “gin has taken a long time to live down the bad reputation that it acquired in the 18th century.”
And there were reasons this bad reputation had been acquired. To understand these reasons, it would help to know something of the history.
Gin was first introduced into England by William of Orange, leader of the Dutch Republic who also, with his wife Mary, occupied the British throne. (Readers of this website should be reminded that it was William who also introduced the Pug to Great Britain. Clearly, a gentleman of taste.)
In any case, although there are references to gin in literature as early as the thirteenth century, it was in the mid-seventeenth century that a Dutch physician, Franciscus Sylvius, came up with an early version of the modern potation. He created his gin as a medicine, flavoring distilled grain with juniper berries. Since this concoction was believed to have medicinal properties, it was originally sold only in apothecary shops. However, the “medicine” proved so popular that many apothecaries set up their own distilleries. English soldiers serving in the Low Countries tasted it and liked it, and it was then that William of Orange decided that it would make a tolerable substitute for the brandy his enemy—the French—produced.
Within a short time, the English created their own version of the Dutch original and gin became enormously popular, particularly in crude, inferior and cheap forms (more likely flavored with turpentine than with juniper). Consider this: forty years after its initial production in Britain, gin production rose from half a million gallons per year to some twenty million gallons—a period known as the infamous “Gin Craze.”
By 1743 England was drinking 2.2 gallons of gin per person per year despite the fact that the libation they were guzzling was reported to render men impotent and women sterile. Notices appeared all over London offering “Drunk for 1 penny, Dead drunk for tuppence, Straw for nothing.” Dangerous times indeed. It has even been suggested that the effects of binge drinking gin in those days would make the use of drugs today seem almost benign.
Waugh comments on the chaos created by this new popularity: “The slums were littered with gin-sodden crones, and gin earned the sobriquet ‘mother’s ruin.’”
Ah yes, “Mother’s Ruin,” the title of this essay.
The phrase was introduced as a sad but accurate commentary on those “gin-sodden crones” of yore, but today it is more often used with a giggle and a wink. Happily, despite its sordid past (which actually can be said to have lasted through the 1920s, prohibition and bathtub gin), gin has now become respectable.
Maybe this new reputation actually started with the British as well when they discovered in their tropical colonies that gin was the perfect beverage to mix with quinine—the only effective early anti-malaria compound.
“Gin and tonic anybody?”
Maybe it was the increasing popularity of the aforementioned cocktail party or the glamour treatment it received from Hollywood in movies like The Women or Auntie Mame.
“Who’s making the martinis?”
Or maybe it was simply the drinking habits of veterans returning from World War II or Korea.
“A Tom Collins eye opener? Or maybe a Negroni?”
In any case, gin has evolved. And today you have an enormous variety available and that variety can be bewildering as well as impressive.
The first brand that comes to mind is the tried and true standard, Gordon’s. First produced in 1769, it is still promoted as the world’s best-selling variety. According to the company’s publicity, the recipe is known to only twelve people in the world and has been kept secret for 250 years. (This seemingly impressive statistic is trumped by the French monastics who produce the liqueur Chartreuse. At any given time, the exact recipe is known only to the two cloistered Carthusian monks who prepare the herbal infusion mixture at Chartreuse’s core.) Gordon’s gin is triple-distilled and contains juniper berries, coriander seeds, angelica root, licorice, orris root, orange and lemon peel.
Diana Angulo recalls that Gordon’s was the preferred gin in the days before World War II when she was living in China.
“At home in Shanghai in those days you had to boil the water. The servants would then put that boiled water into empty Gordon’s gin bottles. It looked like we lived on Gordon’s gin! And the British Navy used to serve Gordon’s gin and tonics on board their ships. That’s why the Americans liked to anchor next to them. In the city I remember martinis being very popular despite the fact that the American women we knew could not hold their gin. Their shoulder straps were forever falling down.”
At an informal recent tasting, Gordon’s was found to be somewhat harsh, certainly possible for mixed drinks but when drunk alone one friend put it this way: “every sip seems to be cleaning the tartar off your teeth.”
Interestingly enough, Sipsmith Gin, a new artisanal variety created by an independent distillery in London, tastes rather similar to Gordon’s. Yes, it too has a somewhat harsh taste. Somehow it feels young and not quite there yet but would certainly add a nice alcoholic kick to a mixed drink.
The original Tanqueray London Dry Gin was launched in Britain in 1830. For whatever reason, today it does not command a sizable market in the land of its birth—the largest market is North America, where it is the highest selling gin import. Frankly, our group of tasters didn’t understand the popularity on this side of the Atlantic. The gin packaged in the familiar green bottle with the red wax seal seemed to us to have too muscular a wallop, all strength and no subtlety. One guest commented that it would be perfect if you only wanted a really strong martini.
Tanqueray No. 10, however, is an entirely different story.
According to the company’s publicity, this premium label is crafted in the their small No. 10 still and is “the only gin made using whole citrus fruit, including white grapefruit, lime and orange, along with juniper, coriander, and a hint of chamomile flowers.” Although these ingredients are not immediately discernible to the casual imbiber, this gin is without question one of the most sophisticated and delicious available.
In the late nineties, celebrity chef Rick Moonen suggested I try a gin that had recently come on the market from San Francisco of all places. I remember it being delicious and unlike any other I’d ever tasted. I still feel that way. Junipero is unique with a strong perfume-like aroma and an obvious complexity that is quite intriguing. Somehow you don’t think you’re drinking gin. However it would be the perfect component of a gimlet or even an alternative to grappa.
For many years the Victorian Society Scholarship Fund sponsored a benefit in New York and the distributors of Bombay gin very kindly provided bottles of their original product for the bar and for gifts. It was, after all, the gin with Queen Victoria’s portrait on the bottle. At that time, it was the original Bombay (not the blue bottled Bombay Sapphire, which arrived later) and it was an excellent addition to those festivities and continues to be a top-rated example of the genre. This is a classic 86 proof, clean, crisp and light gin which could be a proud addition to anyone’s home bar. The newer invention of the company—Bombay Sapphire—is 94 proof and flavored with ten botanicals. Personally, I find it less appealing than the original. As one online reviewer put it: “Sapphire is one of those wonders of marketing. A gin for those who don’t necessarily like gin, made famous.”
Named after the prestigious gentleman’s club in London, Boodles was created in 1845 and is said to have been the favorite of the club’s most famous member, Winston Churchill. Boodles can be recognized by its distinctive lingering juniper flavor and a somewhat floral scent. Unlike most of the other popular brands, it contains no citrus ingredients.
Once the largest gin producer in the UK, Booth’s is still popular but is now mostly regarded as a low-cost alternative to some of the more prestigious brands. One website goes so far as to say people will probably want to hide it in a highball or use it as the base for drinks like the notorious Long Island Iced Tea.
The first known recipe for a dry martini specified Plymouth gin (Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them, 1896) and, according to the company’s publicity, by the 1930s it had become the star of the cocktail era. It’s a very good gin. Less heavy-handed than Gordon’s or Tanqueray, less dry and with a less obvious juniper flavor than most of the other brands mentioned, it is a reliable and delicious variety—worthy of being grouped with the best.
Jean-Guy Proux, a gifted organist and a man of discerning taste who lives in Quebec City, touts the special qualities of Canada’s own Ungava gin. He believes that it is the most splendid of beverages and that it serves as an after-dinner cordial as well as an excellent basis of mixed drinks. The Ugava website offers a lot of information and tells us, among other bits of arcana, that the gin is named for the Ungava peninsula, a vast territory at the northeastern tip of Canada.
In my not-so-humble opinion (and it is an opinion shared by the group of local fellow tasters), the gold standard among all brands is a gin produced in Scotland and launched in 1999—Hendrick’s. I was first introduced to this sublime variety in a martini served at Caffe Grazie here in New York. Although I’ve tasted many martinis in my life, I’d never found one to be quite so delicious. Hendrick’s gin is an absolutely first-class product and is discernibly more sophisticated than most of the other varieties sampled. It has a beautiful aroma, it’s smoother, it has depth and it is obviously complex. You know you’re drinking something very fine when you first sip Hendrick’s and it is well worth the premium price.
International designer Raj Tolaram of London and Hamilton, Bermuda, agrees wholeheartedly. He finds Hendrick’s sharp, crisp and aromatic—preferring to drink it straight with a thin slice of cucumber. Or maybe with “Canada Dry tonic, a squeeze of lime and one large ice cube.” Yummy.
Interestingly enough, in 2003 The Wall Street Journal described Hendrick’s as the “Best Gin in the World.”
So now it’s up to you. Go forth and have your own taste tests. But don’t bring Mother along. It would be a pity to ruin her.