Premium and Craft Gins Define its Rebirth
The Early History
Gin has enjoyed a colorful history. The ancient Greeks and Romans are thought to have distilled juniper berries, but the earliest documented history of distillation came from the 7th and 8th centuries. During the Black Death era 1346-53, Italian monks ineffectively gave a juniper-infused spirit concoction to patients as a Bubonic Plague remedy. The recognized father of gin, however, was Franciscus Sylvius, a physician and scientist at the University of Leyden in The Netherlands. In the mid-1700’s he created a spirit harnessing the “medicinal properties” of juniper, supposedly a cure for bladder and kidney ailments. It contained a neutral grain spirit and was sold in pharmacies. The root of the name gin comes from geniver/jeniver, Dutch for juniper, which masked the roughness of the spirit of that time. The term “Dutch Courage” came from the practice of Dutch sailors taking a sip of gin before battle. Some said it was hard to find a cabin boy sober enough to climb a mast.
Gin Blamed for England’s Social Ills
Gin became widely adopted in England where it is credited with creating major social ills. A surge in gin’s popularity occurred when England’s King William III, ruler of the Dutch Republic, banned imports of French spirits while fighting the French in the Nine Years War. Old Tom gin was heavily consumed at an average of 14 gallons per each adult male. The English gin distillate was crude and made in unlicensed back-alley stills. The famous painting Gin Lane, by William Hogarth, depicted the depravity and socially destructive drunkenness which some called “liquid madness” linked to a lower-class status.
In the mid 1800’s British sailors spread gin to the rest of the world. The British East India Company promoted the world’s best tasting anti-malarial medicine made with the tonic/quinine water and London Dry gin. The cocktail was used to mask quinine’s bitter taste. The G&T (Gin & Tonic) was thus born.
Bathtub Gin Defines the Roaring 20’s
The Roaring 20’s and USA Prohibition (1920-33) brought us sexy flappers. They drank “Bathtub Gin” named after a New York City speakeasy, where the gin was crudely and illegally made. Bartenders argued about garnishes and vermouth strength while crafting the perfect Martini. In the 2014 book, The Spirit of Gin, author Matt Teacher discusses gin’s history and the famous gin drinkers of the 30’s and 40’s: Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Wolff, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and USA President Franklin Roosevelt. Winston Churchill liked his Martini extra dry and was said to “whisper” the word vermouth over his gin cocktail.
Winston Churchill once said, “Always remember that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
Vodka Steals the Scene
The 60’s saw the Vodka craze and its proliferation of sweet mixes soar, while gin’s image began getting tarnished. Gin was viewed as the older generation’s drink, one that your grandparents drank at their country club or retirement village. In an interview with Barbara Werley, MS, Pappas Bros. Restaurants, she noted the resurgence of gin after 1985 and credited the rise to Bombay Sapphire and its “lighter style of gin that competed well with the increasingly popular vodka.”
The New Cocktail Culture
Although Ian Fleming’s James Bond made us love the sophistication of the martini, “shaken, not stirred,” the true renaissance of gin did not occur until the late 1990’s. Drinkers sought the retro-cool authenticity of a spirit with real intrinsic flavors. The1996 movie Swingers starring Vince Vaughn glamorized cocktail-lounge culture. Martini’s once again made gin the spirit of the day. The 2007 Emmy-award winning Mad Men TV show brought back the Madison Avenue two-Martini lunch. Hannah Spencer, a What Culture contributor, comments about Mad Men, “The gimlet is a simple but fruity cocktail that’s been favored by Betty, most notably when she needed some ‘Dutch Courage’ for sexy adventures in Season 2.” Meanwhile, gin bars like D.C.’s Wisdom are proliferating.
Gin Production and Premium Gin Crafters
Gin is produced from a neutral spirit distilled from mash cereals but can come from sugarcane, potatoes, sugar beets or other agricultural products. The gin process calls for second distilling of that neutral spirit with a mix of botanicals sitting inside in a “gin basket” infusing the gin with their flavors and aromas. Historically the dominant botanical was juniper. Botanicals in six categories are used today in the production of gin: seeds, herbs, bark, citrus peel and others like almond and clove. Top selling gin such as Hendricks uses botanicals infused with roses and cucumber and other unusual combinations of botanicals.
The Slow Food and farm-to-table movement has transformed gastronomy and influenced gin botanicals towards those locally freshly picked, organic, and exotic. Craft distillers such as Orange County Distillery, California, use local botanicals: lemon balm, lavender, ginger mint, all freshly picked and added directly to a gin basket in their column still. DryFly makes fly-fishing inspired gin in Spokane, Washington using raw materials grown locally at sustainable farms. Matt Teacher believes the major factor in the revival of gin is the farm-to-bottle movement. He interviewed Gin Masters who emphasized the quality of every ingredient, “the water source, the grain or source fermenter, everything.”
Monkey 47 is crafted in a premium distillery on a farmstead in Outer Vogelsberg in Germany’s Black Forest. This 2011 Gold medal award-winning gin (World Spirits Award), made amid orchards, meadows and woods in state-of-the-art “Apparatus Alembicus” distillation equipment, is handmade to achieve perfectly balanced layers of complexity and aromas. Porters Gin is crafted in one of Scotland’s top Aberdeen bars using old and new distillations technologies with a distinct recipe of rare botanicals like Muira puama, China’s Buddha’s hand, and calamus root.
The Economics of Gin and Its International Appeal
The economics of distilling gin are sound. Whiskey and Bourbon distillers have jumped into the gin market. Gin has a quicker cash flow than many of the brown spirits (Whiskey, Scotch, Bourbon) with no need to tie up capital for years in barrel aging. “It takes eight hours to make a batch of gin, then it’s on the shelves in a week”, says Simon Buley, Master Distiller, Balmenach Distillery. Speyside Whiskey maker Gleann Mor does make gin with a very short aging scheme. Their gin is “rested” in American oak casks to give it a golden color and rich creamy vanilla tones.
The UK and the USA have witnessed a gin revival, with British-made gins surging 18% the last two years. The UK is the biggest exporter of gin in the world, with about 70 per cent of total production going overseas to 180 countries. Even in economically challenged countries like Spain, gin bars proliferate with Spain rumored to have 250 different gin expressions. Smaller markets like South America continue to rise in consumption, and Argentina’s first gin, Princepe de los Apostoles, has been launched. The US is a huge gin market even in non-traditional gin-drinking areas. Johnny Carros, owner/general manager of Sugarbacon Proper Kitchen in McKinney, Texas, notes, “Of course the brown spirits are king in Texas, but I’m noticing more well-crafted gins than ever before. The Botanist is my favorite.”
Gin Tourism and Its Future
The big gin brands are now focused on consumer tourism with investments in new, beautiful distillery venues. Bombay Sapphire opened a new distillery, Laverstroke Mill, creating a visitor attraction and premium tasting experience. Beefeater is redesigning its distillery and tasting room in London. The WSAT Wine and Spirit Trade Association promotes a London Gin Trail with maps for tourists.
Premium gins now have the potential to gain a cult following similar to single malt Scotch. Today’s ambitious and skilled bartenders admire the complex flavors and bouquets of gin. Its perceived sophistication is a step up from more mainstream spirits. Since craft gin represents only 2% of the gin market, gin has room to grow. Local foods with local craft gin derived of authentic ingredients ensure gin’s continued growth and international appeal. The cocktail culture is expanding. This is the Golden Age for gin, and its future looks bright.
Hendricks’s Cucumber Martini (Sugarbacon Restaurant)
1.5 oz. Hendricks’s gin
0.5 oz. Cointreau
Splash of Agave Syrup
Directions: Mottle the cucumbers. Add spirits and Agave. Shake and strain.
If you go
The London Gin Trail– for trail maps contact: email@example.com
Sugarbacon Proper Kitchen – 216 W Virginia, McKinney, Texas 75069 469-952-5150