Charles Casben from Moya’s Juniper Lounge in Sydney on his favourite topic; gin. Check out his bar at moyasgin.com
1. Juniper, vodka… and the Dutch. It all starts with vodka.
Okay, so that’s not the start of the story, but most modern gin at some point is vodka. Truth. But before that, there were the Dutch. And prior to that, brandy, and a plague, and taxes, and some poorly understood chemistry, witches, and many good intentions at various different times.
And now we have gin, since 1714.
But back to vodka. The simplest concept of gin is a “spirit drink produced exclusively by redistilling… ethyl alcohol… with an initial alcoholic strength of at least 96 % vol. in stills in the presence of juniper berries… that the juniper taste is predominant”. Paraphrasing ‘vodka, flavoured with juniper’. And there you have it.
And what about the Dutch? Prior to 1714, the English drank quite a bit of imported liquor, and a good whack of it was a Dutch product called Genever, an old spirit made by distilling grain ferment with juniper berries and yielding a rich, malty spirit with a slight note of juniper. As politics took a turn to the sour, England starting taxing imports heavily and the islanders had to come up with a thrifty method of replacing the Genever, lest they all sober up. Whilst their thirsts were powerful, their craftsmanship needed polish and so they overcompensated with more juniper, lots more… and more. And now we have gin, the word itself coming directly from Genever which in turn comes directly from Juniper.
The cocktail only came into recorded existence in 1806, but since, there has barely been a hair’s breadth separating it from gin. As Eric Felton wrote, referring to the electioneering of Jefferson circa 1800 “the gin slings brought…would have been a pretty simple affair – liquor, sugar and water… add some bitters and you’ve got a drinkable recreation of the cocktail version 1.0”. It was not long at all before gin had cemented itself as the most versatile, abundant and accessible ingredient for mixing fancy drinks. The marriages were endless and by the 40’s, Duffy’s exhaustive ‘Official Mixer’s Manual’ contained no less than 100 pages of gin drinks, whiskey and brandy with, at most 25.
3. Unregulated and uncontrolled.
The production of gin remains rather unregulated; and so does the terminology, aside from a few controls largely aimed at protecting tax revenues and, to a small degree, consumer safety. The term ‘gin’ now appears on a vast array of products of varying age, sugar content and visual spectrum that it can be hard to even hypothesise what might end up in your glass. Sloe, plum, elderflower, cucumber, raspberry, shiraz… they’re all there, making for a kaleidoscope of gins available. But how are we to know what’s what? Sadly, there is no easy way. You just have to start drinking, examining, questioning and deciding for yourself. The more discussion, the better.
4. It’s not all about Tonic.
The Collins, Martini, Gimlet, Southside, White Lady, Cover Club, Last Word… The Ding-a-ling, the Singapore Sling. No doubt a few names ring bells here, and it only goes to reinforce the facts of gin’s versatility and suitability in the cocktail world.
5. The stories, myths and the bad press!
Mother’s Ruin, yes that one is true, though largely correlative. It was a dark time in history, and whilst Madame Genever appeared to carry the sickle, it was certainly not the juniper, but the ethanol that caused all the grief. And now we have tax.
Does gin make you cry? Well, do you only order gin when you’re sad?
Dutch Courage. Again more correlative and really just highlights the bracing effect of any alcohol: “it renders the heart stout and bold while at the same time it muddles the head”.
And what of Alcoholics Anonymous? Well dear Madame Genever had a hand in starting that too, seductively disguised in the now lesser known classic cocktail, the Bronx.
6. Plymouth, London and a little island in Spain.
It’s easy to get distracted by London, after all, the term London appears on more gin bottles the world over than any other locale. It is however, Plymouth that holds the historical record for gin production with the distillery dating back to 1793. It was not long ago that Plymouth Gin held a protected status similar to the regulatory controls associated with Champagne or Cognac. The term London however, is now synonymous with ‘Dry’ in respect to gin, in that it guarantees only a standard of alcohol purity, that flavours are distilled, and that sugar is not added to more than 0.01%.
Madame Genever has a greater empire than Mother England it would seem and there are certainly other ‘Gin Appellations’ worth knowing about, one in particular being the island of Menorca and a little port town Mahon. The Spanish at the time of the Napoleonic Wars had never taken to gin, preferring local brandy. While Lord Nelson was stationed in the Mediterranean gin was needed to fill part of the sailors’ wages. And so a distillery was commissioned for that sole purpose. The locals came to embrace the new tipple and started serving it with fresh lemonade, and to this day the tradition remains and the Gin Xoriguer is recognised as the first Mediterranean Gin and has a protected status.
7. Sloe, pink and the rest.
Sloe Gin refers to a liqueured product with a gin base steeped with sloe berries. Whilst sloe gin is historically relevant the truth is, it is no more a ‘type’ of gin than apple pie is a ‘type’ of fruit. It is certainly made from gin, but it sits firmly in a category of its own. There are now all sorts of liqueured gins appearing on the market from plum, to strawberry and fig and whilst they are not classically ‘gins’ there are many that are quality drinks and highly worthwhile.
Which brings us to the ‘pink gin’. A term dating back to 1826 aboard the HMS Hercules. For nearly two centuries the term referred to a gin pricked with bitters. Very recently however the term has taken a more colloquial meaning and suggests a pink hued, flavoured gin, often with berries and usually sweetened that mixes a refreshing spritz style drink. Whilst very palatable and certainly commercially successful, it is a far cry from the traditions of old.
8. The modern market
From the traditional dry to liqueured, flavoured, sweetened, barrel aged, over-proof and all manner in between. Its simple definition allows for a vast creative freedom for producers to add their personal, local touches. The contemporary gins are those that veer from strict tradition and explore new botanicals, showcase different histories and tell old stories in a new way. There are now over 170 craft gin distilleries in Australia alone, and upwards of 65 in New Zealand. Most of these distillers are making more than one gin, so it doesn’t take long to calculate that the possibilities are endless. So in the undying words of JFK “I’ll have another Gin and Tonic, if you would be so kind”.