Sunday, February 15, 2015

Know Your Poisons: Gin

Ah, gin; that delicious clear spirit flavored with juniper berries and botanicals. The neutral spirit base of gin is primarily grain (usually wheat or rye), which results in a light-bodied spirit perfectly amenable to the addition of varied herbs and spices.

The Dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius is often credited with the invention of gin in the mid 17th century, although the existence of its predecessor, a beverage called genever, is confirmed as early as 1623, when Dr. Sylvius would have been but nine years of age. It is further claimed that British soldiers who provided support in Antwerp against the Spanish in 1585, during the Eighty Years' War for Dutch independence, were already drinking genever for its calming effects before battle, from which the term Dutch Courage is believed to have originated.

Genever is made primarily from "malt wine" (a mixture of malted barley, wheat, corn, and rye), which produces a fuller-bodied spirit similar to raw malt whiskey. A small number of genevers in Holland and Belgium are distilled directly from fermented juniper berries, producing a particularly intensely flavored spirit.
The chief flavoring agent in both gin and genever is the highly aromatic blue-green berry of the juniper, a low-slung evergreen bush that is commercially grown in northern Italy, Croatia, the United States and Canada. Additional botanicals can include anise, angelica root, cinnamon, orange peel, coriander, and cassia bark. All gin makers have their own secret combination of botanicals, the number of which can range from as few as four to as many as fifteen.

By the mid 17th century, numerous small Dutch distillers (some 400 in Amsterdam alone by 1663) had popularized the re-distillation of malt spirit or malt wine with juniper, anise, caraway, coriander, etc., which were sold in pharmacies and used to treat such medical problems as kidney ailments, lumbago, stomach ailments, gallstones, and gout. Gin emerged in England in varying forms as of the early 17th century, and at the time of the Restoration, enjoyed a brief resurgence. 

When William of Orange, ruler of the Dutch Republic, occupied the British throne with his wife Mary in what has become known as the Glorious Revolution in 1689, gin became vastly more popular, particularly in crude, inferior forms, where it was more likely to be flavored with turpentine as an alternative to juniper. 

Whoa, Wingman. Turpentine?
Seriously, turpentine. 

"There was a good chance in the 18th Century that the gins being drunk in London were genever-style," says Gary Regan, author of the Bartender's Gin Compendium. "A lot of it was probably really terrible. People were distilling in their houses."

Of course, the genever being drunk by William III and his successors was not easy to replicate in a bathtub in a basement.(You’ve heard the term “bathtub gin”?) The eager entrepreneurs reached for just about any additive they could in an effort to make the drink even vaguely palatable. Hence, turpentine, to generate resinous woody notes in addition to the juniper. Ugh.

Another common variation was to distil in the presence of sulfuric acid. Although the acid itself does not distil, it imparts the additional aroma of diethyl ether to the resulting gin. Sulfuric acid subtracts one water molecule from two ethanol molecules to create diethyl ether, which also forms an azeotrope with ethanol, and therefore distils with it. The result is a sweeter spirit, and one that may have possessed additional analgesic/intoxicating effects.

Gin drinking in England rose significantly after the Government allowed unlicensed gin production and at the same time imposed a heavy duty on all imported spirits. This created a market for poor-quality grain that was unfit for brewing beer, and thousands of gin-shops sprang up throughout England, a period known as the Gin Craze. Because of the relative price of gin, when compared with other drinks available at the same time and in the same geographic location, gin began to be consumed regularly by the poor who aspired to drink like the King. 

Of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London, not including coffee shops and cafes, over half were gin shops. Beer maintained a healthy reputation as it was often safer to drink the brewed ale than unclean plain water. Gin, though, was blamed for various social problems, and it may have been a factor in the higher death rates which stabilized London's previously growing population. Seriously, guys; gin was the crack cocaine or crystal meth of its day. The reputation of gin was illustrated by William Hogarth in his engravings Beer Street and Gin Lane (1751), described by the BBC as "arguably the most potent anti-drug poster ever conceived." The negative reputation of gin survives today in the English language, in terms like "gin mills" or the American phrase "gin joints" to describe disreputable bars or "gin-soaked" to refer to drunks, and in the phrase "mother's ruin", a common British name for gin.

Some of the points illustrated in the Hogarth Gin Lane engraving:
The Hanged Man: A barber has taken his life in the attic of his own house; his death is unnoticed by the drunken mass of people below.
The Pawnbroker: The pawnbroker’s sign hangs symbolically over the spire of St George’s Church in Bloomsbury. Below it, the bewigged pawnbroker is a rare prosperous person.

Impaled baby: A man with a child impaled on a spike hits himself over the head with a pair of bellows while a distraught woman chases him.

Baby fed gin: On the left a woman feeds gin to a man in a wheelbarrow while on the right a baby receives the same treatment.

Syphilis sores: The bare-breasted woman, who has dropped her baby, has syphilis sores on her legs.

The Pamphlet Seller: The pamphlet seller, warning of the dangers of drink, appears to have died of starvation, but still has an emptied cup.

Drunk for a penny: The cellar sign says: Drunk for a penny, Dead drunk for twopence, Clean straw for nothing. This symbolizes the underground nature of so many gin houses and how one could drink cheaply in large quantity.

The Gin Act 1736 imposed high taxes on retailers and led to riots in the streets. The prohibitive duty was gradually reduced and finally abolished in 1742. The Gin Act 1751 was more successful, however; It forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers and brought gin shops under the jurisdiction of local magistrates. Gin in the 18th century was produced in pot stills, and was somewhat sweeter than the London gin known today. Need a refresher on pot stills and column stills? Go here.

Most Gin is initially distilled in column stills. The resulting spirit is high-proof, light-bodied, and clean with a minimal amount of congeners and flavoring agents. Genever is distilled in  pot stills, which results in a lower-proof, more flavorful spirit.

Low-quality "compound" gins are made by simply mixing the base spirit with juniper and botanical extracts. Mass-market gins are produced by soaking juniper berries and botanicals in the base spirit and then redistilling the mixture.

Top-quality gins are flavored in a unique manner. After one or more distillations the base spirit is redistilled one last time. During this final distillation the alcohol vapor wafts through a chamber in which the dried juniper berries and botanicals are suspended. The vapor gently extracts aromatic and flavoring oils and compounds from the berries and spices as it travels through the chamber on its way to the condenser. The resulting flavored spirit has a noticeable degree of complexity.

Tanqueray Rangpur, made with rare Rangpur limes from India

Classifications of Gin
London Dry Gin is the dominant English style of gin. As a style it lends itself particularly well to mixing. London Dry Gin is the dominant Gin style in the United Kingdom, former British colonies, the United States, and Spain.

Plymouth Gin is relatively full-bodied (when compared to London Dry Gin). It is clear, slightly fruity, and very aromatic. Originally the local Gin style of the English Channel port of Plymouth, modern Plymouth Gin is nowadays made only by one distillery in Plymouth, Coates & Co., which also controls the right to the term Plymouth Gin.

Old Tom Gin is the last remaining example of the original lightly sweetened gins that were so popular in 18th-century England. The name comes from what may be the first example of a beverage vending machine. In the 1700s some pubs in England would have a wooden plaque shaped like a black cat (an "Old Tom") mounted on the outside wall. Thirsty passersby would deposit a penny in the cat’s mouth and place their lips around a small tube between the cat’s paws. The bartender inside would then pour a shot of gin through the tube and into the customer’s waiting mouth. Until fairly recently limited quantities of Old Tom-style Gin were still being made by a few British distillers, but they were, at best, curiosity items. Noted high-end gin maker Tanqueray recently introduced their own Old Tom.

Genever (or Hollands) is the Dutch style of gin, distilled from a malted grain mash similar to that used for whisky. Oude ("old") Genever is the original style. It is straw-hued, relatively sweet and aromatic. Jonge ("young") Genever has a drier palate and lighter body. Some genevers are aged for one to three years in oak casks. Genevers tend to be lower proof than English gins (72-80 proof or 36-40% ABV is typical). They are traditionally sold in a cylindrical stoneware crock and usually served straight up and chilled. The classic accompaniment to a shot of Genever is a dried green herring. Genever-style gins are produced in Holland, Belgium, and Germany.

Mmmmmmmmm, botanicals

Many people don’t like the taste of gin due to the juniper. I guess it’s an acquired taste for some, and I must have acquired it quickly, because lads, your Wingman very much enjoys his gin and tonics. It was actually my first adult cocktail choice. I’d just been posted to Germany in the Army, and I wasn’t even a month past my 19th birthday. I went to a club with a guy from my platoon, and he went to the bar & returned with a pair of G&T’s. I loved it from the first sip. Crisp, light, refreshing, with an interesting bite. I felt like a sophisticated grownup manly man with a cool-ass cocktail without the harshness of a martini. My own personal tastes demand that I make cocktails with a mixer of juice or soda instead of just straight alcohol. Your tastes might be different.  And another kick-ass property of a G&T? It glows in the dark under a black light. In my club days that was awesome.

The Gin and Tonic is just as timeless a classic as the Martini. The cocktail was introduced by the British army in India. In India and other tropical regions, malaria was a persistent problem.

In the 17th century, the Spanish had discovered that indigenous peoples in what is now Peru used a kind of bark to address various “fevers.” Stripped from the cinchona tree, the bark seemed to work well for malaria. The “Jesuit’s bark,” as it was known, quickly became a favored treatment for malaria in Europe. Eventually it became clear that cinchona bark could be used not only to treat malaria, but also to prevent it. The bark—and its active ingredient, quinine powder—was a powerful medicine. 

In the 1700s it was discovered that quinine could be used to prevent and treat malaria, although the bitter taste was unpleasant. British officers in India in the early 19th century took to adding a mixture of water, sugar, lime and gin to the quinine in order to make the drink more palatable. Soldiers in India were already given a gin ration, and the sweet concoction made sense. Since it is no longer used as an antimalarial, tonic water today contains much less quinine, is usually sweetened, and is consequently much less bitter. No less an authority on imperial power than Winston Churchill once declared, “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”

The Perfect Gin and Tonic
4 to 5 tonic water ice cubes
3 ounces gin
4 ounces tonic water
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
Lime wedge for garnish
Place the ice cubes in a tall, narrow, chilled glass (the cubes should come near the top.) Add the gin, then the tonic water, then the lime juice, stirring well. Garnish with lime wedge, and serve immediately.
Note: To make the ice cubes, simply fill an empty ice cube tray with tonic water, and let the cubes freeze. It takes just a few hours.

The Classic Dry Gin Martini
2 ounces dry gin
1 ounce dry vermouth
Olives or a twist of lemon, for garnish
If you prefer a martini with only vodka and the barest suggestion of vermouth, avert your eyes. Assertive gin and a healthy dose of vermouth mix here for a smooth version of the classic. If an olive takes up too much room in your cocktail glass, garnish with a lemon twist.
Place a cocktail glass in the freezer to chill.
Combine the gin and vermouth in a shaker, fill it halfway with ice, and stir vigorously until well chilled, about 20 seconds. Strain into the chilled glass. Garnish with either olives or a twist of lemon. (If using a twist, be sure to run the slice over the glass’s rim.)

The Joy Division
2 oz  London Dry Gin
1 oz Dry Vermouth
.5 oz Cointreau
3 dashes Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir, and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

 And I leave you with this quote from the TV show M*A*S*H*, from the first season, (March 18, 1973 episode #23 "Ceasefrire".)  "I'll stick with gin. Champagne is just ginger ale that knows somebody."-- Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce

Who's got your back? I do.

UPDATE 6-13-2015: The Wall Street Journal just released THIS ARTICLE about upgrading your gin and tonic with some new recipes and drink suggestions.

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