Venerable gin began as a tonic
By Sean Nakamura
Lots of alcohol, with a bunch of spice and handsome citrus overtones: If this weren't a column on beverages you might think I was discussing the perfect blend for a cologne. But, since we are talking beverages, I must be referring to one of the most favored spirits in the world gin.
The popularity of gin waned in the '80s in favor of vodka, rum and tequila, but its appeal is on the rise again as we rediscover many of its refreshing qualities. Like remakes of old songs that become even more popular the second time around, many of the classic cocktails, including the martini, gimlet and Tom Collins, are once again chic.
Enduringly popular, the gin and tonic, the preferred libation of this bartender, seems like a match made in heaven, combining the citrusy dry gin with the subtle bittersweet tonic.
I often wonder, though (just humor me), where and how was this spirit ever created? It dates to the 17th century. During his tenure at the University of Leyden in Holland, Franciscus de la Boe, known as Dr. Sylvius, concocted an elixir using the oils of the juniper berry. The juniper berry had long been known for its medicinal qualities and used as a diuretic in treating kidney and bladder ailments.
The spirit was given the name Genievre, the French term for juniper. It wasn't long before the drink caught on with the locals, who used the shortened Dutch term Genever for the newly discovered drink. The modern-day word for this spirit, gin, is an even more shortened English version (just imagine saying it in your best British accent).
Gin became wildly popular in England as an alternative to the heavily taxed French wines and brandies; bars, in fact, were called "gin mills."
With origins in Holland, and early widespread popularity in England, the spirit's separated beginnings gave rise to two differing styles of gin.
Dutch or Holland gin (also called Genever), is more full bodied and malty, lending itself better to straight consumption rather than mixing in cocktails. English or London Dry gin is more of what the modern day drinker associates with gin. Cleaner and lighter-tasting, this style is easily mixed into cocktails, and is the style of all the familiar gin labels.
Although both styles of gin use juniper berries as their major flavoring agent, English gin incorporates a number of additional botanicals to enhance the complexity of the final product.
Each producer has a guarded recipe using differing amounts of these botanicals, giving each gin its distinctive flavor.
Etched on the sides of blue bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin are the ingredients used in the recipe. Typical ingredients of gin, in addition to juniper berries, include coriander, lemon peel, orange peel, caraway, fennel, anise, cardamom, angelica root and cassia bark. Again, each gin label will have its own recipe and may include a number of other flavoring agents.
Gin drinkers are some of the most devoted on the planet, rarely straying from the brand they call their own. Old standby premium labels dominate the market, including Beefeater, Tanqueray and Bombay.
Others, like Boodles, though not called as often in the bar, have their loyal followers. There seemed to be little room for any newcomers in the gin crowd, but recently I tasted a gin that I really liked with a story that had to be told.
Forgive me if a few facts differ from the version of the story you may have heard, but my rendition goes something like this: Tanqueray Gin has long been a favorite of many gin drinkers.
It had long been known at the Tanqueray plant that a certain pot still, No. 10 produced the best gin. Reasoning that instead of wasting that superior product by blending it with gin from all the other pot stills, the makers of Tanqueray decided to create a special bottling, Tanqueray 10.
To further distinguish this gin from others, the makers use fresh botanicals instead of dried to produce a fresh, bright and complex spirit that is worthy of at least a taste.
For the time being, this fickle beast is snared, as I have wandered from my long-time favorite, and taken many followers with me.
Although many are enjoying gin for the first time, gin drinkers have never wavered from their devotion. Try gin in its classic combination, with tonic, or as an alternative to vodka in any cocktail ... or for the more serious drinker, in a true martini. Catch you at the restaurant ... Bottoms UP!!
Here's a bar tip: For an extra dry martini, coat the inside of the glass with dry vermouth by pouring the vermouth in, then out, of the glass. Or use an atomizer to "spritz" the cocktail.
Sean Nakamura can be found behind the bar at Alan Wong's Restaurant.