Gin is next on the list of our tour of the “Big Six” spirits. In my time as a bartender, I have found more customers afraid of it more than any other liquor with the possible exception of tequila. I think it is misunderstood, and after being marginalized for years, it is making a comeback, mostly among younger drinkers, who are reviving old classics. Chicago boasts several places that feature gin-centric cocktail menus.
Like most spirits, gin has an interesting history. Back in 1550, a Dutch physician developed a treatment for stomach pains using grain alcohol mixed with juniper berries, which was called ‘genever’. Later on in that century, British soldiers, who were defending Holland in their war for independence, discovered and liked the drink they nicknamed “Dutch Courage” so much, it was later included in their daily battlefield ration. Once introduced in England by returning soldiers, gin production reached epidemic proportions, and by 1720, it was estimated that a quarter of London households were producing their own gin, often of dangerous quality. The Gin Act of 1739 required a license to distill gin, and although it was often ignored, that act led to improved standards of distillation, which resulted in an overall better product. ‘London Dry’ gin was developed in the 1800’s, and it was this version of the spirit that popularized the ‘Gin and Tonic’, the drink that the British Army used to get their soldiers to take their daily ration of quinine, which warded off malaria (the limes used in the Gin and Tonic were used to fight scurvy). A couple of centuries down the road, the “bathtub gin” that was popularized during Prohibition in the United States returned a rather undesirable throw back to earlier times, for that drink, made by amateurs, was so filled with impurities, people became ill or sometimes died, from imbibing it.
Today, gin comes primarily from three locations. England would be the main country, with Dry gin being the most popular. It is about 70% corn and 25 % other grains, with juniper berries and other botanicals, such as almond, coriander, lemon and licorice. Beefeater is a major brand among the London dry gins. Dutch gin, also called genever, is distilled from grain mash, and then re-distilled with juniper berries. The main brand is Bols, and if you taste it, you will find it quite different than the London Dry gin most Americans are familiar with. In American gin, the finest bases in grain, but sugarcane or sugar beets are also used. There are a wide variety of smaller batch American gins available at your store. Besides the ever popular gin and tonic, other cocktails made with the spirit would be the Tom Collins, the French 75 and of course, the classic Martini, either shaken or stirred.
Until next time, cheers!