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"This Pernicious Liquor": A Gin Primer

Cocktails and spirits often have history and lore connecting them to stories of cure-alls, snake oils and digestive aids. Most are false (or at least the claims made at the time were false), but a few were true, and perhaps the spirit with the strongest connection to medicinal purposes is gin.
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***UPDATE*** The folks from the Knickerbocker Hotel, mentioned herein as one of the claimants to the title of Inventors of the Martini, just sent their recipe! I've added it at the end.

Cocktails and spirits often have history and lore connecting them to stories of cure-alls, snake oils and digestive aids. Most are false (or at least the claims made at the time were false), but a few were true, and perhaps the spirit with the strongest connection to medicinal purposes is gin.

Unlike many distilled spirits, gin's invention can be pinpointed to a specific time and person. While most people think of gin as an English drink, is was actually invented by a German professor of medicine, Franz de la Boë (a.k.a. Franciscus Sylvius), who lived and worked in Holland all his life. He was seeking to create an elixir for digestive problems based on the stomach-soothing properties he'd found in juniper berries.

Juniper is a broad category of at least 40 different evergreens that can range from small shrubs to 60-foot trees. Their "cones" are so small and tightly-packed that they resemble hard berries, and are commonly called juniper berries on your grocers spice shelf.

Professor de la Boë was onto something, and called his concoction "Genever," which is simply the Dutch word for "juniper." It became popular first as a medicine, then as a leisurely sipper. Soldiers returning from the 30 Years War imported to England. During the war they'd regularly been given rations of Genever to fight off the cold, thus the expression "Dutch Courage." But what the good professor called "Genever" bore little resemblance to what we now call gin. His was somewhat thick, cloudy and intense. You can still find a few Genevers on the market, and the hipster crowd is starting to make some on the coasts.

One company goes all the way back, operating a distillery even before Sylvius created his juniper concoction. Established in 1575, Lucas Bols is the world's oldest distilled spirits brand, and grew to become a key part of the infamous Dutch East Indies Corporation, using that powerhouse to obtain aromatics from all over the world. In 1664, Lucas Bols began distilling Genever -- a triple distillate of rye, wheat and corn (what the Dutch call moutwijn or "malt wine"), loosely based on Sylvius' original recipe.

Today the same company makes an enormous variety of flavored spirits, and operates Europe's largest bartender training school, turning out 3,000 mixologists per year.

When legendary barman Jerry Thomas, a.k.a. "The Perfessor," penned what is the first compendium of cocktail recipes, under the magnificent title of Bartenders Guide Containing Receipts for Mixing All Kinds of Punch, Eggnog, Juleps, Smashs, Cobblers, Cocktails, Sangarees, Mulls, Toddies, Slings, Sours, Flips and 200 Other Fancy Drinks, one in four of the drinks contained therein called for Genever. Today the original Dutch style is hard to find outside of Holland.

What most people today think of as gin is a style called "London Dry." London Dry Gin was invented by Tanqueray in London (though due to the bidding of their corporate masters at Diageo, it is now made in Scotland). It was created through a process of double distillation wherein the botanicals -- juniper and a proprietary blend of many others -- is added during the second distillation. Among the results of their methods is a much drier, crystal-clear spirit.

While the British ruled India they had a particular problem with malaria, and they discovered that the troops found the preventative, quinine water, to be much more agreeable when combined with dry gin, and the Gin & Tonic was born. Meanwhile the navy needed to fight off scurvy through the use of citrus, and it turns out that limes taste better with gin too! This of course also led to the semi-derogatory term for Englishmen as "limeys."

Perched somewhere in between the sweeter Genever and the puckering London Dry varieties is the 17th century concoction that came to be called "Old Tom" Gin. Its name is the result of the fascinating confluence of an early government attempt at stemming the consumption of gin through taxation, and what might be construed as the world's first drive-up window.

Americans are familiar with our own temperance movement, which led to the scourge of Prohibition in the early 20th century. But attempts at curbing Demon Drink go back much further, and one such example was in 18th -century England. Wars with France had made brandy difficult to acquire, and the accession of William of Orange had popularized Dutch Genever in Great Britain. With a booming economy came expendable income, which combined quickly with the cheap and ready access to England's newest craze, gin.

Because of the resulting rampant drunkenness, gin was labeled 'the principal cause of all the vice and debauchery," completely set apart from wine, beer, or other spirits. Not unlike problems that led to the temperance movement here in the States 200 years later, most of the worst of the problems were the result of hastily made, often-toxic spirits. The result of the wide concern was that favorite weapon of England at the time, taxes.

Gin is "the principal cause of all the vice and debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people," wrote a Middlesex magistrate, a Mr. R. Jackson, Esq., in a publication called The Pamphleteer in 1736. "It is with the deepest concern your committee observe the strong Inclination of the inferior Sort of People to these destructive Liquors, and how surprisingly this Infection has spread within these few Years ... it is scarce possible for Persons in low Life to go anywhere or to be anywhere, without being drawn in to taste, and, by Degrees, to like and approve of this pernicious Liquor."

The British Crown's heavy taxation of gin drove the trade underground, into back alleys lined with the original speakeasies and other houses of ill repute. If you were there, you might be told with a nod and a wink to look for a wooden placard in the shape of a black cat, or "Old Tom." Under it you would find a lead pipe. Drop in a little money, and out would pop a shot of Old Tom Gin, surreptitiously prepared by the barman within.

Recently revived by the New York Distilling Company in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a form called "Navy Strength Gin." It is, as you would expect, much stronger than your typical Tanqueray. NYDC co-founder and cocktail expert Allen Katz said, "the British originally devised that at 57 percent ABV, if spilled, by accident or otherwise, on gunpowder, shipboard cannons could still be fired." Called "Perry's Tot" (after the Admiral), it is infused with juniper berries, coriander seed, dried orange, lemon and grapefruit peel, angelica root, green cardamom, cinnamon and a scant 5 lbs (for a 1000L batch) of a wildflower honey from upstate New York.

NYDC also makes a delightful London Dry style, named for Dorothy Parker of the renowned Algonquin Round Table, where she is said to have mused:

I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I'm under the table,
After four I'm under my host.

Once the most popular liquor in America by far, gin has fallen from its perch and today ranks beneath Vodka, Bourbon and Rum in terms of consumption. But it is still a key ingredient in a number of classic and new cocktails. Genever is still used for the Mud and Sand, Old Tom gave us the original Tom Collins, and London Dry is, of course, the heart of the Martini.

Today it is perhaps best-known as the key ingredient to the King of Cocktails, the Martini, which is simply Gin and Dry Vermouth, in varying proportions, chilled with ice. Setting aside the "shaken or stirred" debate for a moment, please just let me emphasize that all those lovely cocktails with flavors like chocolate or apple that they pedal at various TV-blazing sports bars which they call "Martinis" are not Martinis. They may very well be perfectly delicious cocktails, but serving them up in a Martini glass does not make them Martinis. I can pour water into a wine glass, but that doesn't make me Jesus.

Its origins are, like so many cocktails, disputed. Some attribute the name, if not the cocktail itself, to the emergence in 1863 of the Italian vermouth maker Martini. Some claim the name was originally "Martinez," and it was first created at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco in the 1860s. Still others give credit to the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, circa 1911.

For a real Martini, I subscribe to the ratio of 12-to-1, gin to vermouth. Hemingway called this "The Montgomery," insisting that this was the ratio of the British general's troops to the enemy's that Old Monty required before being willing to enter a battle. I like a number of different gins, among them Tanqueray, Plymouth, Hendricks, Perry's Tot Navy Strength (from Brooklyn), Junipero (from California), Clearheart and River Rose (both from Iowa). For vermouth, I am wedded to the French Noilly Prat. Put these in a pint glass, fill with ice, stir 40 times (shaking oxidizes the alcohol). Strain and serve up in a chilled Martini glass with two Spanish olives or a lemon peel.

The Tom Collins

3/4 oz Fresh lemon juice
3/4 oz Simple syrup (one part water, one part sugar)
1 1/2 oz Old Tom Gin
Club soda

In a shaker, combine lemon juice, simple syrup and gin. Fill with ice and shake well (roughly 10 seconds) Strain with a Hawthorn strainer into a Collins glass or highball filled with fresh ice. Top with club soda and garnish with a lemon wheel and a cherry.

Mud and Sand (courtesy of the good people at Bols)

1 1/2 oz Cherry Brandy
1 1/2 oz Bols Barrel Aged Genever
1 1/2 oz Sweet Vermouth
1 1/2 oz fresh-squeezed orange juice

In a shaker, combine all ingredients. Fill with ice and shake well (roughly 10 seconds) Strain with a Hawthorn strainer into a cocktail glass or coupe. Garnish with an orange peel.

The Aviation

The Aviation is a classic cocktail created by Hugo Ensslin, head bartender at the Hotel Wallick in New York, in the early 20th century.

2 oz gin
1/4 oz Maraschino liqueur (not a drop more)
1/4 oz Crème de Violette
3/4 oz Lemon juice

In a shaker, combine all ingredients. Fill with ice and shake well (roughly 10 seconds) Strain with a Hawthorn strainer into a cocktail glass or coupe. Garnish with a cherry

And this just in:

Charlie Palmer at the Knick's adjacent lounge offers a menu of lighter fare, and, in a nod to the hotel's legacy as the rumored birthplace of the martini, a custom martini cart will serve only the house martini in its most classic form.

This martini, which is stirred not shaken, is made with:
2 oz Tanqueray 10 Gin,
0.75 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth,
0.5 oz Cocchi Torino Vermouth,
Dash of Hella Bitters Truth orange bitters
Dash of Hella Bitters Truth Citrus Bitters
Garnish with a lemon twist.