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Feature Tue May 22 2007
The word "cocktail" first appeared in print in 1806. In 1862 Jerry Thomas published the first book on mixing drinks. I have yet to find a recipe in it calling for vodka. The Savoy Cocktail Book, written by Harry Craddock, a New York bartender who fled to London during Prohibition, includes very little in the way of vodka recipes. Vodka's ubiquity in this country didn't come until much later. It enjoyed wider growth in Europe in the first half of the last century. Pablo Picasso named it one of the three great discoveries of the 20th Century, along with the Blues and Cubism. (Say what you will about the arrogance of including the latter.) But vodka didn't really even begin to gain an American following until the 1950s, and it wasn't until the 1970s that vodka outsold bourbon to become the top selling spirit.
As with country music, the '70s marked the sharp, sudden decline in the cocktail. Elegance and class virtually disappeared, being as they were overrun by saccharine and soulessness. I blame Alabama. (The band, not the state. And even then it wasn't really their fault. The brimstone was in the air. Alabama just came galloping on their four horses taking advantage of the situation.)
Vodka, by its very definition, is supposed to be tasteless, colorless and odorless. (This is why the market is flooded with flavored vodkas. How many different ways can one possibly sell nothing?) Vodka is by its very definition boring and innocuous, making it extremely mixable. It adds little to a cocktail beyond a buzz. Vodka is the mixological equivalent of plain chicken breast. (The Cosmo is, by far, the worst offender. No matter how well made it is, that drink is, frankly, pretty fucking boring. There. I said it.)
Prior to the 1970s whiskey, gin and, to a lesser extent, brandy and rum were better selling spirits. Not coincidentally, cocktails made with these spirits had flavor and aroma and character.
Now, don't get me wrong. Not all vodka is evil. Just most of them. (Like Minnesotans.) The vodkas I like have some character to them, from the out-and-out cheap Svedka ($10.99 at Binny's) to the chi-chi and the classily packaged Jean Marc XO, made by a cognac producer ($46.99 at Sam's). The overrated and overpriced vodkas like Cavalli, Stoli Elit and the just ridiculous Snow Queen all fulfill the definition of vodka, being as they are flavorless, colorless and odorless. In fact, it was Snow Queen that hit me with an existential quandary: how flavorless and odorless should something really be? What's the point?
But, gin... Now there's character and flavor and aroma and complexity and possibilities.
Essentially, gin is flavored vodka. It's generally distilled from grain, but flavored by botanicals including, by definition, juniper. Other common ingredients include angelica root, cassia bark, orris root and citrus. The word "gin" derives from genever, meaning juniper. The spirit got its start in the Netherlands, but like Bordeaux, Champagne, Port and rum, it owes its popularity to that great nation of drinkers, Great Britain. British soldiers acquired a taste for Dutch Courage while fighting the Revolution of 1688 that put William of Orange on the throne. Gin was cheap and may or may not have been responsible for various social ills. The artist William Hogarth certain believed it was, producing "Gin Lane," an etching depicting gutter drunks fighting over bones with dogs, a scabby woman with bared breasts oblivious to her infant plummeting to almost certain death, another woman pouring gin down her child's throat, an emaciated gentleman with a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other. And that's all just in the foreground. (If one looks closely, the glasses are all martini glasses.) Compare this with its companion piece, "Beer Street," which shows the gentle citizenry of 1751 London drinking quart-sized tankards of beer and being artistic, loving and industrious. The Gin Act of 1736 led to a sharp increase in the tax on gin, and in turn, led to wide spread riots and the tax was eventually repealed in 1742. More successful legislation was enacted in 1751 that regulated retailers of gin.
The invention of the vastly more effective column still in 1832 allowed for the development of the now common "London Dry" style of gin. (Prior to this gin, like all other spirits, was made in a pot still. Pot stills tend to max out at 70% alcohol, whereas column stills (invented by an Irishman, natch) can distill alcohol up to 96%, which removes far more impurities.) By the mid-19th Century gin was gaining popularity in the refined gentlemen's clubs of London. In the 20th Century Winston Churchill was rarely without gin coursing through his system, Charles DeGaulle returned from exile with a taste for gin, and in 1933 FDR. mixed the first post-Prohibition martini in the White House. (Churchill preferred that the vermouth be across the room, while Roosevelt liked two parts gin to one part vermouth, with a teaspoon of olive brine, and a lemon twist rubbed around the rim.)
When the Spanish hit South America, they found the locals using the bark of the cinchona tree to prevent malaria. They brought it back to Europe, where the knowledge of its anti-malarial properties spread and became known as quinine. The British took it to India, where they mixed it with gin to make it more palatable and created the gin and tonic in the process.
The point of all of this digression is this: I find gin a far more interesting ingredient to work with. While I really dislike the flavor of juniper, I've come across some gins in the last year or so that have made me a huge fan of the genre. As I wrote previously, I have a serious soft spot for North Shore Distiller's Gin #6 with its gorgeous lavender. Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire are fine enough gins, but there's more out there. G'Vine is a French product distilled from grapes and would make a fine introduction to gin for all you vodka drinkers out there. Here are some other gins I really dig and think are worth checking out.
Beefeaters: Potentially the most underrated gin on the market. This is a nice, wonderfully made classic London Dry gin. It is, in fact, the only gin actually manufactured in London. Recently, due presumably to the Beefeater lobby, a law was passed in Great Britain allowing only Beefeater to call itself a London Dry gin. All others in the category must go by Dry London gin. With botanicals including licorice root, almonds and coriander, this gin is simple and clean. (Try cutting up a cucumber, putting it into a sealable container and pouring a bottle of Beefeaters over it. Let it sit for five days or so and strain. Drink it on the rocks with some club soda.)
Boodles: Priced similarly to the far better known Beefeaters, but way more fun to say, this is the gin rumored to be Churchill's favorite. Boodles shows some citrus and delicate juniper on the nose and has a flavor that's fairly full, a slight sweetness and a killer body.
Plymouth: The classic London style gin, this is a gin geek's gin. Distilled at an old monastery where the Pilgrims spent their last night before raising anchor and heading to the New World, this is made at England's oldest continuously working distillery. There are records of a "mault-house" dating back to 1697, although they didn't begin distilling gin for almost another hundred years. The current recipe is based on the one originally created in 1793. Plymouth is well balanced with very definite juniper, but not overpowering. This is the perfect gin for a gin and tonic.
Aviation: Currently only available on the West Coast, this gin is worth seeking out through either friends or the Internet. (Illinois is one of the states to which it is legal to ship alcohol, provided that one is of legal drinking age.) I came by my bottle from a visiting journalist who was kind enough to leave one for me. It's made in Portland, Oregon as a co-production between the distillery House Spirits and Seattle mixologist Ryan Magarian. It's distilled from rye and includes the unusual sarsaparilla as one of the botanicals. The Aviation is an old school cocktail popular with true bar nerds that consists of gin, lemon juice and maraschino liqueur. This particular gin is more of the Dutch style, with less juniper letting other botanicals take the forefront.
Zuidam: This Dutch distillery produces two gins. One is a genever, a traditional Dutch style, and the other is a dry gin. The elegant genever is pretty wild and worth seeking out. Along with the usual suspects, it's made with vanilla, anise seed and marjoram. This one's sweeter than the others included here. (The dry is very good as well.)
Martin Miller's: Made in Langley, England in a hundred-year-old still named Angela before the raw, overproof spirit is sent off to Iceland to be cut with that country's extremely pure water and bottled in a very classy package. The company's propaganda says that a secret ingredient, unknown even to the master distiller, is added in Iceland and challenges the drinker to guess what it is. (I'm guessing cucumber.) This is, hands down, one of the best gins I've ever tasted. Kick-ass complexity with noticeable cucumber on the nose, but no one element jumps out on the palate. This is the most complex yet well-balanced gin I've ever tasted. I had everybody who was willing taste this gin, including several people who said, savoring it, "Wow! This is gin? But I hate gin." I'm sorry, Sonja and Derek, but this gin fucking rocks.
I understand a hesitancy towards gin. Like I said, I don't particularly like juniper, but I came to gin as an ingredient that was vastly more interesting than most other clear spirits out there. The more gins I tasted the more fascinated I became by them. As much as you think you don't like gin, there's probably one out there for you somewhere. Just give it a try.