The recent ‘ginaissance’ in bars and restaurants across the world has given the once-infamous spirit a fresh and glamorous cult following.
With its storied past, gin is counterpart to the history of Britain’s class divides, technology and maritime industry.
The spirit’s core ingredient is the fruit of the juniper, a coniferous tree producing aromatic berries – these give gin its defining taste of pine with herbaceous and floral notes. Juniper has been combined with alcohol as far back as A.D. 70 and was used to mask the harsh taste of Dutch spirit, “genever.”
This is the earliest trace of what we now call gin, after the Dutch spread their drink throughout Europe. The British abbreviated it to gen (perhaps in a drunken slur), which has been anglicized into the word we use today.
THE GIN CRAZE
The late 17th century was a momentous time for gin in England, but not in a good way.
Brits first embraced the spirit during the Eighty Years’ War and the Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s, when it was referred to as “Dutch courage.” When William of Orange came from the Netherlands to be crowned King of England, Ireland and Scotland in 1689, he began his reign by passing The Corn Laws which provided tax breaks on spirits production; a distilling free-for-all ensued. A pint of gin became even cheaper than a pint of beer.
By the 18th century, gin was the country’s most heavily vilified spirit. Since it was unregulated, substances such as turpentine, sulfuric acid and sawdust were added during the distillation process. It became known as “Mother’s Ruin” due to the vast quantities consumed and was blamed for the death of thousands through overconsumption, murder, negligence and insanity.
The crisis is depicted in William Hogarth’s artwork, “Gin Lane,” in response to stories like that of Judith Defour, a silk-thread spinner from London’s Spitalfields. Defour was supposedly driven so mad by her gin addiction that in 1734 she and a friend took her two-year-old daughter Mary to a field. The two women removed the toddler’s clothes and abandoned her in a ditch, selling the clothing for money to purchase a small bottle of gin. Poor Mary died, and her mother was promptly sentenced to death by hanging.
Along came the Gin Act of 1751, a parliamentary measure intended to crack down on spirits consumption. This raised taxes and fees for retailers and made licenses more difficult to come by. The consumption of tea and beer were promoted instead.
By 1830, beer became cheaper than gin for the first time in over a century, and England became a nation of beer drinkers once again.
GIN’S ROAD TO REDEMPTION
That same year, the gin scene took a more healthful turn. An Irish inventor named Aeneas Coffey designed a new still that essentially revolutionized liquor production around the world.
Gin producers quickly embraced its ability to distill a far cleaner, purer spirit than ever before. Goodbye sawdust-infused gin; hello crystalline elixir.
Another boost came courtesy of the British Royal Navy. English sailors often found themselves traveling to destinations where malaria was prevalent, so they brought quinine rations to help prevent and fight the disease. Quinine tasted notoriously awful, so Schweppes produced an “Indian Tonic Water” to make it palatable.
London Dry gin was the chosen accompaniment on these voyages as it travelled better than beer. So, eventually the two liquids were combined to form what is now called a G&T, with limes as garnish due to their anti-scurvy properties.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., gin – or something resembling it – was popular during Prohibition, chosen as the base spirit for many of the first batch of classic cocktails.
THE ART OF DISTILLING
Vodka versus gin martini is the eternal debate for cocktail connoisseurs. While most drinkers are on one side of the fence or the other, the truth is that except for one stage in the process, vodka and gin are the same thing.
This crucial step is the distilling (or redistilling) of the spirit with a unique blend of botanicals and ingredients, resulting in an intentional flavor, whereas vodka has next to none.
The selection of botanicals is the key to creating a distinctive and flavorful gin. For example, French brand G’Vine uses grapes or vines while Malfy adds lemons from the Italian coast, and Gin Mare has a mixture of olive, rosemary, thyme, basil and mandarin. The possibilities for distillers are seemingly endless.
Yet, whatever blend of botanicals and spices flavor a gin, you will always find some expression of juniper.
Global sales of spirits grew by 4.4 percent in 2016, even though overall alcohol sales declined in the same period.
The recent spike can somewhat be attributed to Spain’s Basque region, an area renowned for its Michelin-starred restaurants. While hosting The Best of Gastronomy conferences in the city of San Sebastián through the noughties, food journalist Rafael García Santos brought elite chefs together over a ‘Gin Tonic’ (as the Spanish call it) every night to exchange culinary ideas. Once it became top chefs’ off-duty beverage of choice, it didn’t take long for the rest of us to catch on.
Stylistically, the new Spanish-style G&T is a very different drink to the traditional English version. It’s not uncommon for a bar in Spain to stock as many as 50 different gins behind the bar, and the drink is elaborately garnished with many different herbs, spices and flowers to amplify the botanicals in the gin – a long way from the simple squeeze of lime.
All of those beautiful flavors are served up in a large, bulbous goblet known as a ‘copa de balon’, which makes a highball glass seem a little plain.
With Cayman’s warm weather and prime seaside vistas, it isn’t surprising that the gin trend has taken off here, just as it did in Spain. Over the past two years, gin has steadily become a bestseller in bars and restaurants across the island, with bars such as Anchor & Den, Bàcaro, Agua and Ave at The Kimpton dedicating a page of their menus solely to G&Ts featuring various garnishes and mixers. At Bàcaro, for instance, one is served with black cherries and peppercorns, another with sundried tomato and basil.
Anchor & Den even went as far as compiling a gin booklet for its extensive collection of 34 brands (the largest selection in Grand Cayman), including its house-distilled bottling. The core of A&D Gin is a sugar cane base spirit with juniper, coriander seeds, angelica root and lemon peel, plus lavender and chamomile for floral notes supported by cassia for a little bit of earthy sweetness, and cardamom, caraway and white peppercorns for spice.
“We believe it’s the vast complexity and choice of flavor pairings available in gin and tonics which continues to spark people’s interest,” says Anchor & Den’s Manager Marco Mastrogiovanni. “Nowadays, you can find a different gin for every palate while modifying the final flavor by adding different tonics or garnishes.”
THE PERFECT SERVE
There are a few particulars to bear in mind for serving up a good G&T.
First, glassware: go for the balloon-shaped “Copa de Balon,” which holds a lot of ice to help keep the drink cool. One large ice cube is better than many small cubes, as these will melt faster and dilute the drink, affecting the flavor.
Your choice of tonic water makes all the difference, according to Jacques Scott’s Brand Manager Simon Crompton. He points to artisanal brands such as Fever Tree, 1724 and Fentimans which are producing high quality versions, rivaling the once-ubiquitous Schweppes. There has also been a rise in naturally-flavored tonic waters, from elderflower to cucumber to lavender.
Finally, think about the garnish. Whether it is floral, spicy, aromatic or fruity, each gin partners with particular garnishes that enhance the botanicals used in the distilling process. Think: Hendricks with cucumber or Bloom with fresh strawberries. Trying out different combinations to find your perfect serve is the most exciting part of enjoying a G&T, and one reason why it has garnered such a cult following.
“We’re realizing that there’s a plethora of ways to enhance the cocktail, if a little time is spent figuring out which best ingredients to complement your base gin and tonic,” explains John Stanton, beverage manager at Ave.
For the ultimate serve, he recommends: “Take your time, figure out what the botanical profile is of the gin you want to use and select ingredients that will either complement or nicely contrast them. Then select a tonic that pairs well and take care when setting up your glass.”