Frontier Psychiatrist

Frontier Mixology: All About Gin (From Dutch Courage To Blue Ruin And Back)

Posted on: March 4, 2011

This week’s column is the first in a multi-part series on the various categories of base spirits, and it starts with an often misunderstood spirit that fuels many classic cocktails: gin.

Snoop had it right.

Every spirit, including gin, relies on fermentation, in which yeasts feed on sugars of some sort and produce alcohol.  The sugars can be practically any agricultural carbohydrate, with the source determining the category of the resulting spirit: fruit (brandies), cereal grains (whiskey, gin, and vodka), sugar cane (rum), or agave plants (tequila).  The resulting fermented liquid, which is a sort of beer (if from grain) or wine (if from fruit), is then distilled to separate out the alcohol.  Of course, at each step there are many different variables at play, which is why there are so many different kinds of spirits.In particular, gin is a grain spirit that has been infused and redistilled with botanicals, primarily juniper berries, but also citrus peel and all manner of spices.  The grain spirit can come from any combination of grains, e.g. wheat, barley, and/or corn, which are malted, fermented, and then distilled to separate the alcohol and remove impurities.  Here’s how they do it at the Breuckelen Distilling Co.  If you stopped here, put the result in barrels and aged it, you’d have whiskey.  Gin takes the grain spirit and steeps it with the botanicals, each brand using its own proprietary selection, redistills the spirit, and bottles it without any aging.

Known as “Dutch courage,” gin was first created by the Seventeenth century physician Franciscus Sylvius, who also lent his name to certain cerebral structures.  The word is a corruption of the Dutch word for juniper, jeneverbes, which was thought to have healing properties and which is gin’s distinctive flavor.  At the time, distilled alcohol was largely the province of medicine and alchemy.  Much like the road marijuana is on now, however, it did not take long for the “medicinal purposes” moniker to become a sham.  With the ascendancy of William of Orange, a Dutchman, to the British throne in 1688, gin came to England in force.  To a population generally adapted to drinking copious quantities of relatively low alcohol beer, the introduction of affordable, high proof gin proved disastrous.

The Depravities of Gin Lane

Gin came to be known as “blue ruin,” and several acts of Parliament were passed in an attempt to reduce the consumption of spirits (and exact a nice tax, too).  Over time, the virtue of moderation tempered – to a degree – the passion for intoxication, and gin made its way from the hoi polloi to the upper crust.

The original Dutch or Hollands gin was a malty, funky spirit, much more like a young whiskey.  It is still available today and known as genever, with Bols being the brand you’ll find most often in the US.  Improvements in distillation technology over time allowed gin makers to begin with a much purer spirit.  The resulting style came to be known as London Dry, and it is the gin you will find today.  It is a very different spirit from older styles, akin to the difference between light and dark rums.  A subtle variation on London Dry is Plymouth gin, which is a touch less dry, and which is a favorite among many bartenders and the house gin of the Frontier Mixologist’s lair.  Of note, too, is an intermediate style of gin known as Old Tom gin.  Sweeter than a London Dry but not as malty as a genever, Old Tom was often used at the end of the 19th Century, and has been called the Missing Link in cocktail circles because of the character and touch of sweetness it adds to classic gin cocktails such as the Tom Collins and the Martinez.  You can approximate Old Tom gin by adding a dash of simple syrup to Plymouth gin.

The essential cocktail using modern styles of gin is that icon of mid-century sophistication, the Martini.  H.L. Mencken called it “the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet.”

To respect that perfection, no vodka Martinis, please.  Also, don’t be stingy with the dry vermouth, it adds necessary complexity and texture, and a dash of orange bitters rounds out the drink.  You can garnish with an olive if you like, but for me a swath of lemon peel, removed from the fruit with a vegetable peeler and wiped around the rim of the glass before being dropped in, is the way to go.

The Classic Martini

2 oz. dry gin (sugg. Plymouth)

¾ oz. dry vermouth (sugg. Dolin)

dash of orange bitters

Stir with ice for at least 40 to 50 revolutions; strain into chilled cocktail glass; garnish with lemon twist.

When gin first gained popularity, distillation technology was still fairly primitive, and the spirit could be pretty harsh – think moonshine.  The infused botanicals masked this harshness, as did the sweeteners added to Old Tom gin.  Distillers can now easily and cheaply produce a crystal clear spirit with no odor or flavor, i.e. vodka.  Gin is still around, however, because it is like salami and pickles.  These foodstuffs were once made out of necessity to preserve perishables, but, even though we can now transport and store fresh produce and meat, they’re still around because they taste good.  Same thing with gin.

Drink up,

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