Gin is a spirit native to Britain but with strong associations to India too. The tonic water with which it’s traditionally mixed, was developed to provide protection against malaria in far-flung parts of the tropical empire. This imperial association depressed its popularity in Britain, but it’s now resurgent.
Opium is the gin of the modern world
Gin is probably the only spirit that is negatively associated with classes at both extremes of society. Legend has it, the spirit was invented in the 16th Century as a kidney tonic but in the 18th Century it had a reputation much like that of heroin today – and was blamed for the degradation of society’s lost underclass. Hogarth’s famous lithograph “Gin Lane” is from 1751 and Daniel Defoe was probably responsible for its nickname “Mother’s Ruin”. In America too it gained an early association (alongside opium and heroin) with the seedy clubs where the Blues were born.
Slowly though, the “G&T” switched its connection in the public perception – perhaps because of its unpopular association with Empire – and by the mid 20th Century had become associated with the decadent upper crust (why couldn’t they drink a good honest pint like the rest of us!). Retired air commodores with handle-bar moustaches drank G&T whilst watching cricket – so the rest of us didn’t.
Crushed between these strange contradictions, and despite a secure place as a cocktail ingredient, gin slowly faded in popularity until the early nineties.
Those years were a hey-day for gin drinkers! The eclipse of gin meant that some of the best quality brands – like Beefeater (which dates from 1863) – sank in price until almost on a par with cheap supermarket vodka. Needless to say I discovered a liking for it at this ideal moment and found it a supremely drinkable spirit – much more quaffable than whisky, kinder to the stomach than rum, and with oodles more character than vodka.
Gin’s exotic recipe sprung from the fruits of an exotic world
The range of ingredients used in gin explains its deep character. Juniper is the definitive ingredient and the inspiration for its name (I’m told it has some faintly psychoactive properties) but other layers are often contributed by almonds, orris root, angelica, coriander, cassia, cubeb, grains of paradise, rangpur limes, ginger, bay leaves, liquorice, seville oranges, grapefruit and cucumber. These cosmopolitan roots reflect the booming imperial trade routes that converged in London at the time of its invention. To the discerning taste – it has textbooks of history and geography dissolved into a melting pot of delightful uniqueness.
Yet one of the big pluses of gin is its simplicity and lack of pretensions – it doesn’t require years to produce or fruit that’s been uniquely cultivated for centuries in some demarcated region. While some gin is definitely better than others, and some have positioned themselves as luxury brands, you’ll find that many of the cheap ones are delightful and eminently fun to drink.
The Raja and Rani of gins
Today, two whose fame has spread round the world are Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire.
Bombay Sapphire was first distilled only in 1987 – a great surprise to many as it has an exotic Victorian look (her portrait’s on the label after all) with its elegant shaped and blue-tinted bottle.
Tanqueray, I was told, has Welsh roots – but this seems to be entirely untrue although the story still circulates widely. This gin certainly is Victorian in origin (1830) but came from Bloomsbury London (although it’s now made in Scotland).
To be quite frank with you – I never much liked either of these famous brands, nor the third most familiar brand – Gordons. I’m not saying their reputations are undeserved, just that none of them have the sheer drinkability of Beefeater, Burnett’s, Booth’s, Greenall’s (which has a pedigree from 1761) or most of the cheaper alternatives. Both Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire have a host of exotic fruits and spices in their recipes that give them a crafted distinction, but distinction is better appreciated in small drafts. The strong grapefruit edge of Tanqueray, for example, makes one start to quail by the second refill. I fear these “top” brands may be the reason some people fall into the bizarre delusion they don’t like gin!
If you want to drink your spirits in small treats these brands may be just what you want. For us more devoted gin drinkers the others are a better buy and you can drink them with no loss of stamina until the morning light (and that’s the way to appreciate what this drink was always intended to be!)
Don’t forget the tonic!
That little dash of quinine helps the medicine go down, but make sure you avoid the “diet” or “no added sugar” brands. Both of these marketing phrases actually mean “added chemicals” – like saccharin, sucralose and aspartame. What’s the point of buying a fabulous gin and ruining it with vile and toxic substances like those?
Other gins to look for
Plymouth gin was – as you might imagine – a navy favourite and usually comes in at a higher strength. Old Tom was the name of one of the first gins ever produced back in the early 19th Century and is now available again – though whether it resembles the original I couldn’t say. It has a malty flavour and is popular in cocktails. Genever is a dutch version of gin, also with a strong malty flavour. Magellan is flavoured with cloves. Hendrick’s, Oxley, Boodles and Bluecoat are also fashionable brands – I can’t express an opinion on their quaffability (but I’m getting round to it).