The Great Gin Revival

Dutch courage, mother’s ruin, divine nectar… whatever you call it, gin is back in fashion. Paul Trow salutes its current pre-eminence while harking back to a time when, if possible, it was even more popular than today.

From London to Manchester to Plymouth, and most street corners in between, gin has become the libation à la mode for discerning English tipplers. A few years ago, craft beers and ciders were all the rage, vodkas and whiskies before that. But now artisan gins are springing daily from the traditional straitjackets imposed by supermarket counters and duty-free displays. Whether consumed neat or garnished with the myriad botanicals and tonic waters now fashionable, gin is a mixologist’s delight and increasingly to the nation’s taste.

Humble origins

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”

Back in 1942 when Rick Blaine, aka Humphrey Bogart, uttered these immortal words in Casablanca, there was nothing like the plethora of gin joints that there is today. However, if this iconic Second World War film had been set in London during, say, the War of Austrian Succession (1742-1748), Ingrid Bergman would have faced a far more labyrinthine, almost infinite excursion to effect a similarly coincidental reunion.

In those days, the population of our capital city teetered around 700,000 – ‘teetered’ being the operative word, because more than 7,000 shops devoted to selling alcoholic drinks were at their disposal. In certain areas of London, gin and, to a lesser extent, other spirits were sold on average from one private house in four.

Despite the aegis of modern licensing laws, the situation in London now is inching back towards that 18th century benchmark as craft gins continue to elbow aside the micro beers and macro ciders that flooded the market just a few years ago.

Originating in Holland, gin is a truncation of genever, the Dutch word for juniper. As long ago as 1585, during the Eighty Years’ War, English soldiers who fought at Antwerp against the Spanish were swigging genever before battles to benefit from its calming effects, hence the term ‘Dutch Courage.’

Gin’s history, though, is inextricably and turbulently entwined with London. Genever arrived surreptitiously during the 17th century before taking off in 1689 when William of Orange came over from Holland and claimed the throne jointly with his wife Mary. King Billy’s government immediately imposed heavy taxes on French imports, and genever swiftly replaced brandy as the authorized spirit for the upper classes.

A year later, the government passed the Distilling Act, to encourage the distillation of spirits from home-grown corn. In those days, London’s water was far from safe to drink and gin soon became the go to beverage among the poorer classes, especially women for whom it provided a cheap and uncomplicated route to oblivion. ‘Drunk for a penny, blind drunk for tuppence!’ was the saying.

Not surprisingly, inebriation from gin consumption was soon a social problem. William Hogarth summed it up with his sketch of 1751, Gin Lane, which shows a mother so drunk she’s dropping her baby while her blouse is immodestly unbuttoned and syphilitic sores acquired from working as a prostitute are scarring her legs. No wonder gin became known as Mother’s Ruin.

The government eventually recognised the problem and introduced laws regulating the making and selling of cheap gin. This paved the way for respectable companies to start producing quality products, pitched at an alcoholic threshold of between 40 and 50%, and over the next 100 years gin gradually became synonymous with sophistication.

 

Another development was the introduction of tonic water. And for that, we must thank mosquitoes. Quinine, derived from the bark of the cinchona family of South American plants, was first used by Europeans to treat malaria in Peru in the 1630s. During the Victorian era, denizens of the British Empire, suffering in the tropical heat and plagued by mosquitoes, incorporated it into a carbonated drink they called ‘Indian tonic water.’ But its bitter taste needed something to mask it. Gin, with its strong juniper flavour, was ideal. Gin and tonic thus found itself the drink of choice for colonial Britain.

Juniper has always been the key to gin. Its medicinal properties in the treatment of stomach complaints, gout and gallstones were discovered by mediaeval monks and it was added to grain spirits around the late 15th century.

Gin is unique among spirits insofar as its flavour comes from added spices and fruits (called botanicals) and not from the original distilling process as is the case with brandy and whisky. In fact, the neutral alcohol spirit to which the botanicals are added can be made from any grain.

Long free from its feckless Hogarthian mothers and splenetic officers of the Raj, gin has since undergone numerous image makeovers, though as recently as 1913 Webster’s Dictionary stated, disdainfully, libellously and without explanation, that ‘common gin is usually flavoured with turpentine.’

By then, though, it had established itself as the base spirit for many mixed drinks, including Martinis. Between the wars, clandestine ‘bathtub gin’ was widely available in the speakeasies of Prohibition America as a result of its relatively simple production process.

Back in Blighty, sloe gin came to the fore. This traditional liqueur is infused with the fruit of blackthorn shrubs, although modern versions are almost always compounded from neutral spirits and flavourings like elderflower, along with more distinctive fruits like damsons, strawberries or plums.

Another traditional gin-based liqueur with a long and popular history is Pimm’s No.1, a fruit cup laced with citrus, salad items and spices much beloved of visitors to the Wimbledon tennis, Henley Regatta and Lord’s Test.

Fast forward

So how did this pseudo-medicinal tincture, for much of the 20th century a fogeyish curiosity, transform itself so rapidly into the social phenomenon it is today?

The statistics are unarguable. In 2017, sales of mass-produced gin (labels like Gordon’s, Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray) jumped 30% year on year, but this was nothing compared to the rise of demand for artisan gin – up 167% on 2016.

There are now approaching 350 gin distilleries in Britain and, according to the Office for National Statistics, we bought 51 million bottles last year. This £1bn-plus ‘Ginaissance’ may be riding the crest of a wave, but at such volume of consumption it is surely here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Nowadays, each brand of gin has its own recipe and, as well as juniper, can include anything from grapefruit, cucumber, lemon, lime, elderflower, rhubarb, pepper and orange peel to orris root, aniseed, vanilla, angelica, coriander, ginger, nutmeg, rosemary and almonds. In other words, this is a love affair that caters for pretty well every conceivable taste.

But despite this bewildering multiplicity of garnishes and mixtures, fruit and spices, gin remains a fundamentally simple concoction.

Broadly, there are three basic methods of production. The oldest style involves pot-distilling a fermented grain mash from barley or other grains, then redistilling it with botanicals to extract the aromatic compounds. The fermentation produces an ethyl alcohol (similar to vodka) that is predominantly tasteless.

The second approach sees high-proof (96% ABV) neutral spirits distilled from a fermented mash using a refluxing or column still. The fermentable base, perhaps derived from grain, sugar beets, grapes, potatoes or sugar, is then redistilled with juniper berries and other botanicals to allow hot alcoholic vapours to extract flavours and yield a lighter gin that, in the trade, is often known as London Dry Gin.

The third method, an inferior compound process in the eyes of many purists, works by simply flavouring neutral spirits without redistillation.

Manufacturers’ interests are protected through membership of the Gin Guild, based in Chelmsford, Essex, while aficionados’ thirst for fresh information is quenched by the guild’s erudite bimonthly publication, the functionally named Gin Magazine.

On June 9, topers celebrated World Gin Day for the 10th time, alternating their sampling between neat shots, tonic infusions and more elaborate cocktails. In addition to the bars and restaurants that are part of the explosion in gin’s popularity, there were innumerable tastings in spas and on cruises. London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Bristol, Bath and Brighton were all in on the act. So too, further afield, were Germany, where the indigenous gin market has grown beyond 200 brands; Sweden, home to the 82.5% Strane Ultra Uncut from the Smögen distillery (a world-record strength for a commercial gin), and the once boozy, now ever-so-PC Australian cities of Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide.

It is an undeniable fact that sales, of bottles at retail and individual elixirs concocted behind a bar, continue to soar pretty much everywhere is, but the question, in an environment that offers so many alternatives, why?

“Isn’t it obvious? It’s so delicious!” John Burke from the Craft Gin Club explains. “Gin has become so popular for a variety of reasons, starting with the cocktail craze and more bartenders creating new drinks with gin instead of vodka.

“Whereas vodka was the big thing in the 1980s and 90s, the flavour profiles of vodka are far less diverse than gin. We taste hundreds of gins, and we always start by tasting each one neat. It’s the best way to capture the flavour profile. The first step always begins with the nose, where your senses will begin to understand the gin and the distiller’s objectives. But for most people, gin and tonic is also such an easy drink to make at home, incredibly refreshing and, again, much more diverse than vodka and tonic.”

Bartenders, in their enduring capacity as bellwethers and arbiters of taste, are committed to treating gin like the classy lady it is and are overseeing the resurgence of iconic gin-based cocktails at the myriad modern ‘gin palaces’ springing up across the country.

One of the leading lights in this elite fraternity is Simone Marvulli, the bar manager at the Rosewood Hotel in High Holborn. This five-star but distinctly unstuffy central London establishment is home to more than 500 varieties of gin and 27 brands of tonic water. In addition to pointing visitors in the right direction on what turned out to be an especially busy and philanthropic World Gin Day (profits went to Water for Africa), Simone is constantly researching new blends and recipes. “We frequently revise our menu and we always aim to recommend a selection of seven different gin and tonics, which we select seasonally,” he says. “Our regular guests visit us from all over the UK to find out what we have come up with next. And we run regular Saturday afternoon masterclasses for those who are keen to learn about how gin is made and how different botanicals create unique and nuanced flavours.”

The Rosewood may be the hub of the capital’s gin market, and the American Bar at The Savoy (just ten head bartenders since 1893) its Harrods, but these are mere corner shops compared with the Guinness world record holder for gin purveyors. At the last count, no fewer than 1,028 gins were available in the Evil Eye Lounge in York – a statistic that equates to more than two years and nine months for a punter to consume one different gin per day.

Bar manager Dave Hartley says: “Gin is far more versatile than other spirits – you can do a lot with it and they all taste completely different. The owner, Shelley Green, loves her gin, and because nowhere else round here does gin like we do, many of our customers come from way beyond York.”

Author’s account

Since the editor asked me to compile this assessment of all things gin for CALIBRE, I’ve been bombarded with information… and recipes. Everywhere I’ve gone, socially or otherwise, it’s been impossible to avoid, even if I was only thirsting at the time for a pint of real ale.

The menu at my humble local pub in north London, The Catcher in the Rye in Finchley Central, parades a selection of 20 recipes. Meanwhile, The Shops at Dartington mall in Devon now has its own on-site gin distillery to provide stiff competition for its up-and-coming near neighbour, Salcombe Gin. On a recent cricket-watching visit to east Yorkshire, the Tiger Inn in Beverley regaled me with its multiple choice and even po-faced Chichester in West Sussex, where many of my posher relatives reside, stages regular tastings at the Minerva Bar & Grill in its Festival Theatre – once a regular watering hole for such grand thespian knights as Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.

The credit to tuning me back into this Divine Nectar, though, must go to fellow Finchleian Mike Braff, who trades under the name of Artisan Drinks. Mike’s legendary Thursday evening tastings consist of five different gins, consumed both neat and with the recommended tonics and garnish, along with a tapas meal. This is a nod to the 20 years he spent living in Barcelona where gin has long enjoyed popular exaltation.

Special mention must go to a few of the smaller names that are making their way in the British gin industry’s organic world. Silent Pool, from the Surrey Hills near Guildford, offers fresh floral and citrus notes grounded by earthy cassia bark and spicy cubeb, and finished smoothly with the help of local honey. Fishers Gin from Suffolk has four botanicals – spignel (smoked wood fragrance), rock samphire (craggy outcrops), wood avens (like asparagus) and bog myrtle – that are all grown on the marshland that divides the North Sea from the River Alde. And Victoria’s rhubarb gin from Warner Edwards of Northampton makes use of a crop of rhubarb that was originally grown in the kitchen garden of Buckingham Palace during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Niche or mainstream, though, the bottom line when it comes to buying gin is price. This can get out of hand in bars, restaurants or hotels with pretentions towards the upper echelons of the social ladder. But in the high street, how much should consumers expect to pay for a high-quality bottle of artisan gin given that most standard brands weigh in at around £20? Kieran Wheeler, a salesman for high-end London No 1 gin, could be forgiven for wanting to persuade punters to pay silly money for their favourite tipple. However, he is adamant. “No one should ever pay more than £40 for a [0.7cl] bottle of gin,” he insists. “No matter what the name is on the label.”

I’ll drink to that.

 

Mike Braff, of Artisan Drinks, recommends some of his favourite gin recipes

John Tony’s

Named after a barber from Amsterdam who moonlighted as a distiller, the thyme and rosemary in John Tony’s gin hit straight away, followed by lemon balm and peppery juniper, then liquorice. Best served with a liquorice stick and pink grapefruit.

Gin Mare

This fabulous Spanish tincture is made with arbequina olive, rosemary, thyme, basil and mandarin orange. For tastings, favour coriander, tart juniper and citrus zest for a spicy finish.

Family of Hounds

Created by an Italian living in England, this winner of two gold medals at the San Francisco spirits awards is piney, with lemon and orange peel, lavender, pink grapefruit, cardamom, ginger and coriander. Add tonic and garnish with grapefruit and cranberries.

Kongsgaard

Distilled in France in open-flame Cognac stills, this complex Danish-owned gin is a forest product – with inspiration from charred oak resin, cinnamon bark and apples. Its hints include pine needles and vanilla pod.

Ramsbury

Spun in 2015 from a Wiltshire brewery, the juniper used in Ramsbury hails from Salisbury Plain. All the other grains – orris root, cinnamon, liquorice, angelica, fresh quince and coriander – are grown on site. Best served with apple wedges and a spring of sage.

Hustle

This Northamptonshire gin is hand-crafted in a copper still and features seven botanicals, with pear and basil recommended as garnish.

Billy Bones

Produced in Hohenstein, Germany using a combination of traditional botanicals as well as a few that are not so-traditional, including Venezuelan cocoa beans, lemongrass and Szechuan pepper, Billy Bones should be drunk with Fever-Tree tonic and no further additions.