There is a scene in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” where Frederick Henry, away from the horrors of the front lines of the First World War, walks into the bar in a grand hotel and orders his first Martini. He drinks it, has two more and says “I have never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.” Hemingway got it right.
When Hemingway wrote these lines, a Martini was made with Gin and Dry Vermouth. Vodka was nearly unknown outside of the few countries where it was then made, and looked down upon by Americans and Western Europeans. Today the two spirits have traded places in popularity, and most Martinis made in the States are made from Vodka, often without Vermouth (It simply isn’t a Martini without Vermouth: it’s just Gin or Vodka.). Gin still remains the second most popular white spirit worldwide.
Many drinkers don’t understand what Gin is, and so many misconceptions about this spirit are taken as facts. I’ve heard it said, countless times, that “I can drink (fill in the blank) all night long, but two Gins, and I lose control. Rubbish! Ethyl alcohol is what gets to you, and it’s the same whether it’s in Gin, Vodka, Rum or Scotch.
Gin actually starts out as Vodka, in that it is a neutral tasting distilled spirit made most often from grain. In America, corn is used because it is cheap and has a high amount of the sugars needed for fermentation, and the highly efficient column still separates the high proof alcohol from the mash. Aromatics are added to flavor the spirit and to create the unique, bracing bouquet. The original and still most important flavoring is juniper berries, known as Geniver in the Dutch language. This is the only flavoring which is required in Gin: other herbs and spices are used at the discretion of the distiller and are responsible for the fragrance and taste unique to each house. These can include, among others: Angelica, Anise, Orris Root, Hyssop, Peppercorns, Maidenhair Fern, Cinnamon, Coriander, Lime, Lemon Peel, Bitter Orange, Cassia Bark, Rose Petals, and even Cucumber,
There are different ways of adding botanicals, and much of the noticeable quality of different brands depends on the method used in this vital step in the creation of Gin. The cheapest way is to simply add the flavors to the alcohol, and the lowest priced labels are made this way. At this level, extracts are often used rather than fresh botanicals. More costly but resulting in a superior spirit are the Head Method and the Cold Mix.
In the Head Method, the botanicals are placed in a mesh cage inside the still, at the head or top of the alembic. The rising alcohol, in a vapor state, passes through the cage, absorbing the aromas as it passes through. Beefeater is a well-known example of this production method. More modern is the Cold Mix in which the botanicals are steeped in a small amount of neutral spirit and then redistilled in a pot still (similar to the stills used to make single malt Scotch). This concentrated liquor is then diluted with more neutral spirit until the flavor level is correct for the house style.
The highest quality Gins are made by a second distillation, of the botanical infused spirit, reduced by adding demineralized water from 190 proof down to 120. This gin has flavor and aroma notes that are more complex, rich and fully integrated.
Most of the Gin that we drink in the US is
classified as London Dry Gin, named for the style rather than the place where it was distilled. Holland Gin uses barley for its mash, with a small amount of corn and rye, and the entire distillation takes place in pot stills. These stills accentuate the barley character and produce a spirit of lower proof (100 to 110) and, when redistilled with the aromatics, use less of them than other types of Gin require. Plymouth Gin, back in the American
market after a long absence, is reduced from its straight-from-the-still proof with mineral free water from Plymouth, England. It is smoother and less aggressive in flavor and aroma than others made today and is held to be more like the gin our great-grandparents drank before Prohibition. Old Tom is rarely seen, and has a sweet flavor that makes it an ideal choice for making a Tom Collins. Germany makes a gin called Steinhäger, lightly
flavored with juniper berries and aged in stone crocks.
This makes a rather small drink, but that’s the way I like them. Those big “birdbath sized” glasses give you a drink that’s warm before you’re halfway done!
In a mixing glass, add plenty of fresh ice cubes, two ounces of Gin, one teaspoon of Noilly Prat Extra Dry Vermouth (Don’t use a lesser brand: it makes all the difference!). Stir quickly and well (No, don’t shake. It breaks the ice into tiny chips that get into the drink, diluting it too much.), getting the gin very cold. Strain into a cocktail glass, adding a single large, pitted green olive. Sip. Relax. Enjoy. Repeat as necessary.