Gin is indubitably in. Gin is cool and trendy. No longer the preserve of the late middle-aged drinking Gin and It on chintzy sofas or red-faced colonials downing Gordon’s and tonic. Gin is cutting-edge, yet firmly steeped in tradition. There has been an explosion in new distilleries and in in soi-distant artisan and craft gins. You can even take courses at some distilleries to make your own individual style and take it home with you.
Part of this is the resurgence in cocktails as a modish thing to sup. There are endless cocktail bars, gin-only bars and it’s only a matter of time before some enterprising fellow opens a replica gin palace. The very best cocktail bar for gin aficionados is The Bar with No Name at 69 Colebrook Row in Islington, although I will admit a part of my fondness is that I lived in a garret overlooking the location as a penniless graduate when I first moved to London decades ago. The Booking Office at St Pancras and any of the Hawksmoor Steakhouse bars are well worth a visit too.
So what exactly is gin? It began its life as a medicine in the Netherlands in the 16th century – the nascent distilling industry was producing crude malt-based spirits and apothecaries traditionally believed in the curative powers of juniper berries. A convenient collision between the two resulted in an alcoholic tincture of juniper extract that was taken as a restorative cordial and soon became enormously popular. In fact so many folks became ‘unwell’ that the pharmacies were overrun and specialist distillers took over production.
Here in England, it became a standard product after troops returned from the Thirty Years War which was mostly fought in the Low Countries (hence the term Dutch Courage). Initially, gin was mainly consumed mixed with beer, often warmed or mulled, in the drink known as ‘purl’, which you will often find mentioned in the works of Dickens. Then, in the 1660’s, the coincidently Dutch William of Orange, having acquired the British throne, dropped the tax on spirits made from British grown corn under pressure from the landed gentry who had a surplus, and raised the tax on beer to compensate. This led to more than 60 years of inebriation which was occasionally eased and exacerbated in turn by well-meaning but clumsy legislation. Eventually, a more balanced alcohol duty structure, the use of licensing for production and sale, and the increase in quality due to the introduction of the plum at still led to the emergence of gin as a premium product, not just a potent narcotic.
Subsequent boosts came from the empire where gin was added to tonic water to ameliorate the bitter taste of quinine, and then the cocktail fashion of the 1960s – although cocktails evolved from the traditional punches long ago, and there was a vogue for mixing bathtub gin during prohibition in the USA to hide the rough taste, it was the cocktail hour that filled the empty time between work and dinner for the growing middle classes that truly established the idea of spirit based gins.
Gin is essentially a flavoured vodka, the flavours being derived from ‘botanicals’ – the plant based substances such as juniper, coriander, cassia, angelica, and so forth, but that is a glib definition and does not reflect the care and skill involved in distillation and flavouring.
Technically, there are several types of gin: the original genever (from the Dutch for juniper) or ‘Hollands’ which is frequently beige and has a pronounced flavour of the malty spirit as well as the botanicals; London gin which must be made from high-quality spirit and prescribed botanicals macerated and re-distilled in a particular way; Plymouth gin is similar but must come from the town it is named after and has a slightly different collection of botanicals (not to be confused with Navy strength gin which was undiluted until actually served so it needed less storage space aboard ship); Old Tom, a darker, sweeter, more full- bodied style, perfect for mixed drinks and now back in vogue; and ‘international’, which generally means modern craft gins that push the envelope on flavourings and methods. There are also the legal definitions of compounded gin (which is just flavoured vodka) and distilled gin which is a poor relation of London style. I could go on, but will spare you the details.
And what of our corner of the country? Kent was a main landing site for smuggled gin, and Maidstone had a successful distillery that was licensed on the basis that it would reduce the illicit trade. Nowadays, gin production in the area is resurgent, with a strict policy on quality and craftsmanship, using both tradition and up to date best practice to deliver some top end liquors.
Tunbridge Wells has its own Professor Cornelius Ampleforth – makers of Bathtub Gin (linked only in name to the Prohibition era illegal stuff that wasn’t made in the bath, but diluted there, the bottles generally being too tall to fit under a sink tap) which is ultra-artisan and small batch and classic in botanicals giving a bold clean flavour of juniper, cardamom and orange peel with a note of cinnamon – it works beautifully with tonic but best in a classic Martini. They also make an Old Tom whose fruity character and peppery citrus nose make it ideal in a Collins (see recipe). Do not be put off by the fabulous packaging – unlike many over marketed mainstream gins, these are solid and well made.
Up the road in Marden is Anno – a modern set-up with a copper still named Patience whose regular gin is a favourite of mine. Anno Kent Dry Gin has a backbone of the traditional botanicals and then a gentle layer of flavours from local plants, including a touch of elderflower, Romney Marsh samphire, lavender, rose hips and hops. Very classy and smooth enough to drink on its own, perhaps with an ice cube and soda on a warm day. They also make an elderflower vodka which is very trendy.
Over the border in Sussex is Blackdown Distillery whose gin has won multiple awards. I first tasted this at a trade show just after it launched and was struck by its crisp clean minerality – the unique ingredient is silver birch sap – the tasty result of a laborious procedure that brings a minimal fructose sweetness and enhances the characteristics of the other botanicals. Again, this can be drunk alone but it mixes well and makes a great Martini.
At time of writing, the Maiden Distillery in Maidstone is not quite ready to come to market but their trial production runs have been a big hit at food festivals in the region. Based in a building that was a historical gin distillery, owner Helen is a renowned mixologist and I expect this to be another great local product – watch this space for more information.
Hopefully, you have a slight thirst now – so go forth and challenge your drinks retailer and cocktail barperson to enlighten you further. Happy sipping.