Real Food Right Now and How To Drink It: Gin

Summertime and gin go hand in hand. If you're the cocktail drinking type, nothing is better on a warm day in the sunshine than a gin and tonic on ice with a slice of lime. However, gin wasn't always so respectable. It was the favored drink of the poor, the down and out and of sailors. Gin has come a long way, though. And after it fell from favor in the last few decades, gin is getting a second look from craft distillers both here and abroad.

A Brief History

As the story goes, Franciscus Sylvius, a physician and scientist, invented gin in 17th century Holland. He stumbled onto a clever solution to an age-old problem: how do you get people to take their medicine? Juniper, a known diuretic, is a bit unpleasant on its own. But what if one adds booze? Maybe a little sugar as well? Presto. 

Later, during the Thirty Years War, English soldiers noticed their Dutch counterparts knocking back glugs of jenever before battle, an act that gave us the phrase "Dutch courage." And that's not all. The English developed a taste for jenever themselves, bringing the spirit to the motherland and tinkering with it to create a distinctly British institution.

Gin wasn't all fancy lawn parties and splashes of tonic water. Its reputation hit a rough patch during the first half of 18th century when deregulation of the distilleries in England led to just about anyone making homemade swill and selling it. As you can imagine, there was no quality control, and gin became so cheap that it was the drink of choice among the poor. Gin was now "mother's ruin," the stuff of moral and class outrage. Etchings from the time warned of men and women rolling in the streets, infants left abandoned. Look no further than William Hogarth's Gin Lane to see what respectable society thought of the demon drink.

The Gin Acts in the mid 18th century, followed by the invention of the column still in the 19th century, did much to curb the deleterious effects of gin. With improved quality, gin cemented itself as one of England's most popular beverages, after tea. In modern times gin has taken a back seat to vodka and whiskey, but the classic cocktail revival means that once again people are enjoying this historic spirit.

Factual Nibbles

  • Gin is an anglicized version of the Dutch word jenever.
  • If Winston Churchill is to be believed, "The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen's lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire." That's because tonic water contains quinine, an antimalarial drug. As for minds, well....
  • Speaking of Churchill, he famously liked his martinis so dry that he once said, "I would like to observe the vermouth from across the room while I drink my martini." 
  • Please don't shake your martini. Despite what worldly James Bond says, shaking gin with ice bruises the botanicals that make gin so delicious. Give it a stir instead.

Distillation

Gin starts out as a neutral spirit made of corn or barley, clocking in at a bracing 95 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). In fact, gin's base is not that dissimilar from vodka. However, the magic happens when the spirit is distilled again, vapor moving through a tray stocked with a blend of aromatics. The neutral spirit infuses with the juniper, coriander, citrus and other spices. Alternatively, some gins start off as an infusion of aromatics before distillation. The spirit is then diluted to a 40-45 percent ABV before bottling.

Environmental impact

Gin relies primarily on two things -- grain and water. Depending on where you're buying your hooch, the grain of choice is corn or barley. And as we know in the US, corn is a problematic ingredient. It has a high water footprint and the majority of it grown in the US is genetically modified. If you're looking for a GMO free gin, look for a craft distiller using organic wheat, like Wisconsin's Death's Door Gin, or gin made from barley. But with cross contamination and a rise in anti-labeling laws, it's becoming harder and hard to know what is in your food, let alone your cocktail. The good news is that the EU's strict laws around source and labeling are on your side when choosing a Dutch or English gin. But, in terms of food miles (or is that booze miles?), nothing beats something that was made and distilled around the corner, from high quality ingredients.

That said, distilleries have a history of environmental stewardship that often flies under the radar. Often going to great lengths to protect the quality of water and the land, they're on the forefront of sustainable practices. For Bacardi, owners of the premium gin Bombay Sapphire, they've turned their Laverstoke Mill in England into a model of sustainable practices.

Characteristics

Gin is known for its characteristic pine flavor, which, depending on who you ask, is either heavenly or reminiscent of that two day hangover you had in college. But saying that gin only tastes of pine sort of misses the mark. Flavors can range from heavy on the juniper, like in your classic London gins, to notes of coriander, citrus and other botanicals in what have been dubbed New Western or modern gins. On a whole, major gin aromatics include juniper, coriander, angelica root, orris root, citrus, cardamom, cassia, grains of paradise and cubeb (aka Indonesian peppercorn). 

When one looks at varieties of gin on the market, they fall into to two broader categories -- distilled and compound. Here's how they break down:

Distilled Gin:

Most gins on the market are distilled gins. What distinguishes them from compound gins (see below) is that they are often redistilled three or four times before reaching your favorite cocktail. Distilled gins are further broken down by style:

London Gin -- Also known as London dry gin. This is legally defined as a gin distilled to at least 70 percent ABV, using only water and natural flavors. A small amount of sugar may be added after distillation. London gin is known for its dry, classic juniper flavor and can be made anywhere, not just in London.

Plymouth Gin -- Similar to London style, this variety can only be distilled in Plymouth, England. It is a regionally protected gin. It's generally earthier in flavor owing to its use of root aromatics in the distillation. Back in the days of the British Empire, Plymouth was the spirit of choice for sailors who would get rations of 100 proof (50 percent ABV) "naval strength" gin.

Old Tom -- Back in the 18th century, if you were drinking gin, you were drinking Old Tom. This historic spirit sits somewhere between jenever (see below) and London gin. Old Tom is a sweeter, darker spirit that was nearly lost to time, eclipsed by London gins, but has been recently resurrected from old recipes.

New Western -- Also known as New American owing to its origination with craft distillers in the US. In the 1980s and 1990s the gin market was in a slump. The spirit of choice was vodka, and gin's heavy juniper flavor had fallen out of favor. Enter a new style of gins, all designed to tone down the juniper in favor of a new blend of botanicals, from almond, lemon peel and licorice (think England's Bombay Sapphire) to rose, coriander and cucumber (think Scotland's Hendrick's gin). Further, the craft-distilling renaissance has pushed gin further outside tradition by using native or local ingredients.

Jenever -- Also know as Dutch or Holland gin. You could say that jenever, Dutch for juniper, is the granddaddy of gin. The taste of jenever ranges from malty to more like a juniper flavored vodka depending on whether it was made oud or jong style. Unlike gin, it is consumed neat and often served in a small tulip shaped glass filled to the brim. According to Dutch custom, you must take the first sip without using your hands, leaning over the glass to do so. Jenever is also only distilled in the Netherlands, Belgium and parts of Germany and France.

Compound Gin:

Like distilled gin, compound gin starts off as a neutral spirit distilled from a fermented mash of grains. But here's where things get different. Instead of redistilling, the spirit is infused with flavors like juniper, berries or other aromatics. Distilled gin is often infused by running steam through a tray of herbs and spices. Got it? Traditionally compound gins, especially in the 18th century, were a low rent drink of choice. They include:

Sloe Gin -- Although not truly a gin, but a liqueur, sloe gin derives its name from sloe, a tiny cousin of the plum that grows wild in hedges in England and elsewhere. On its own the berries are hella bitter, but soak them in high proof gin with a bit of sugar and you have a classic liqueur that's worthy of a second look. Try the sloe gin fizz, a concoction of lemon juice, superfine sugar, club soda and, of course, sloe gin. Also here's a pro tip -- not all sloe gin is created equal. Make sure you avoid the brands made with corn syrup and food coloring.

Bathtub Gin -- Not really gin either but rather a low quality, homemade neutral spirit that became popular during Prohibition. To mask the flavor of the inferior grain alcohol, bootleggers infused it with juniper berries and aromatics.

Nutrition and effects on the body

As they say, everything in moderation. And this includes booze. True, who doesn't like a nice gin and tonic on a summer day, but knock a few too many back and you've got problems.

To quote my article in this series on whiskey, short-term effects after a serving of gin include impaired motor skills. Alcohol is a depressant and slows down the central nervous system. Toss a few more back and you're looking at dehydration, slurred speech, increased heart rate, inability to walk straight and sleep disruption. Take it one step further and you're at risk of alcohol poisoning and blacking out. Don't do that.

Long-term effects, especially in alcoholics, include inflammation and cirrhosis of the liver. Chronic drinking also can lead to heart disease, cancer and pancreatitis. In addition, alcohol is the leading cause of regrettable decisions and youthful misadventures. 

Of course, always drink responsibly. Never drink and drive.

What to Do With It

Gin is a primary ingredient in many classic cocktails. In fact, gin is meant to be mixed so that the juniper and botanicals play off additional ingredients. Who knew the bitterness of tonic water would be a match made in heaven for a crisp, London gin? Certainly the English were onto something. And don't forget a slice of lemon or lime!

Turns out gin and citrus go quite nicely together. The gimlet is 4:1 ratio of gin to sweetened lime juice and is delicious. Add lemon juice, raspberry syrup and egg white and you have yourself a Clover Club. Egg whites and lemon are also crucial ingredients in the gin fizz. Of course, you can't get any more classic than the martini, a concoction of gin and dry vermouth, the exact proportion of which is highly personal and highly contested. Finally, there's my favorite, the negroni, a bittersweet mix of gin, campari and sweet vermouth. Cheers!

But what about cooking with gin? In all honesty, the botanicals in the gin don't always lend themselves toward savory foods. If you are an intrepid sort, and like gin in your desserts, why don't you try this quintessentially British gin and tonic jelly mold with white currants? Oh, and can you say gin and tonic ice cream?

Storage

Keep your gin bottles away from direct light and excessive or fluctuating temperature and you'll be ready for happy hour.

Pro tip

When making a gin and tonic, do yourself a favor and splurge on the nice tonic water. You know, the one in the fancy small bottles. It really makes a difference compared to the cheap stuff sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. I'm partial to Q Tonic water.

Recipe

The Negroni

You really can't go wrong with the Negroni, a classic gin cocktail that got its start in Florence in the early 20th century. Named after a count by the same name, it's equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari, a bittersweet aperitif that gives the Negroni its characteristic orange hue. Serve over ice with an orange peel and enjoy!

Ingredients:

1.5 oz Campari
1.5 oz Sweet vermouth
1.5 oz Gin

Method:

1. In an ice filled cocktail shaker, pour in Campari, vermouth and gin. Give a generous stir (don't shake!) with a cocktail spoon.

2. Pour over ice in a highball glass and garnish with an orange peel.