My first experience with the true original gin spirit did not transpire poolside with a gin & tonic. Nor did it happen as a naive rookie bartender painstakingly making Ramos gin fizzes from scratch. My first true experience with gin came during a visit to Wynand Focking (true name), a Dutch spirits-tasting room in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
The barman asked me, “Is it your first visit to Focking?” I nodded with a grin, and he immediately poured me a shot from a nondescript, chilled bottle. “On your first visit, it is the custom to drink with no hands,” he said. I said something vaguely stupid relating to a similar whipped cream-topped “no hands” shooter from across the Big Pond, and the Dutch barman gave me a look that said, “Shut it and shoot it.” The chilled spirit was called Jenever, pronounced “YEH-nay-ver”—the foundation of gin as we know it today.
Jenever—based on the French word for juniper—was originally used in Holland during the early 16th century as a gastromedicinal distillate, flavored with juniper to make it palatable. London dry gin, as it would eventually come to be known, was created by the Dutch. “Dutch Courage” was supplied to British soldiers to ward off the coastal chill they felt while fighting in the Thirty Years War. The British took the concept home and began mass-distilling gin. Essentially, gin became the spirit for the masses.
The term “gin mills” was coined at this time to describe the numerous taverns that distilled and sold the spirit. Mass hysteria, mayhem and debauchery followed, as King William III had applied little regulation to distilling in England. Hence, the Gin Act was introduced in 1739, aimed at curtailing production of lesser quality spirits via taxation but did little to hamper the efforts of rogue distillers.
Contemporary gin is the wine-lover’s spirit. Vodka may be widely popular and easily mixable, but gin can be made with brilliant botanicals such as lemon peel, orange peel, anise, angelica, cardamom, coriander, cassia, cinnamon, licorice root, rose petals and, of course, juniper. With a wide range of potential flavor profiles, gin is currently experiencing a renaissance among certain enthusiasts with a hankering for a cleantasting spirit with more aromatic character than a neutral vodka. Hence: “The Other White Spirit.”
As a cocktail, the word “gin” is commonly followed by descriptors such as tonic, Collins, martini or gimlet, all of which are great aperitifs or palate cleansers. Venturing forth beyond those classics, mixologists around the globe are creating new, inspired cocktails that stand as giants themselves, albeit shadowing the aforementioned. Dale DeGroff, one of the world’s leading cocktail masters, creates potable works of art such as the “Mayfair,” which combines gin with fresh lemon juice, simple syrup and English cucumber discs, served in a frosted glass rimmed with kosher salt and thyme.
Recently, I adapted a gin potion of my own from Mr. DeGroff’s “British spring punch.” My drink, which City Weekly dining editor Ted Scheffler dubbed the “St. Alain,” incorporates gin, elderflower liqueur (as opposed to DeGroff’s elderflower essence), cassis, lemon juice and Champagne, finished with fresh red currants. Maybe back when I worked as a bartender, if I had conceived flavor profiles such as these, instead of painstakingly separating eggs and sprinkling rose flower water for Ramos gin fizzes, I, too, could have entered the lofty world of haute culinary mixology.
Alain Viny works for Young’s Market, a spirits and wine distributor.