I am extremely fond of gin. I love its subtlety, its fragrance, its fascinating history and, above all, its power to render me as comprehensively wrecked as a smashed crab in fewer than four servings.
Imagine, then, my delight at the current resurgence in the British gin scene with every back-bar loaded with tailored, designered, bespoke and exotic gins created by keen, young, independent distillers. I should be in dipsomaniac’s nirvana, but instead, I am confused.
Our national relationship with gin is old and well-established. Between 1689 and 1697, the British government, troubled by the increasing consumption of imported wines and brandies, created legislation which taxed these drinks heavily while encouraging the domestic distillation of gin. Within a few years anyone with access to quantities of wheat and some simple equipment was turning out gallons of cheap “white lightning” – pure (ish) alcohol. Unlike the Scots and the French, we didn’t waste valuable drinking time storing or maturing the stuff in barrels, we just flavoured it with various aromatics. The most popular was juniper – an idea we’d freely nicked from the Dutch who called it “jenever”, hence the contraction “gin” – but many others were used. The British took to gin with astonishing alacrity and soon drunkenness was effectively epidemic; the “gin craze”. Early Georgian governments attempted control through legislation culminating in the Gin Act in 1751 – the same year William Hogarth etched and engraved his brilliantly dystopian “Gin Lane”.
Sophisticated distillers added the aromatics before distillation to produce a gorgeous limpid fluid. This is a “distilled” gin. A simpler method much favoured by the Georgians was simply to chuck in the ingredients and let them macerate to create a so-called compound gin. You can still make your own compound gin by dropping a few juniper berries and other herbs and spices of your choice into a bottle of vodka (essentially flavourless spirit) and letting it stand around long enough for the flavours to transfer.
For many years, most of the big-brand gins tasted predominantly of juniper. Bombay Sapphire was the first to rack up the exotic aromatics, which, along with a highly decorative blue bottle, made many a hardened barfly wonder whether to drink it or dab it behind their ears. Since then, gins with everything from grapefruit to citrus and, in one case, geranium predominating, have filled the shelves.
Gin, then, is defined by the quality of its aromatics – as our new artisanal master distillers are amply demonstrating – but it’s here that my confusion begins.
Gin is almost never drunk neat, or even, as the Georgians were fond of doing, with a little hot water to bring out the aromas. Purists will mix it into a lethal martini, with vermouth – a fortified wine flavoured with another complex mixture of botanicals. Even hardier topers will order their gin “pink”, with a splash of bitters – a strong alcohol base flavoured with, you’ve guessed it, a complicated and usually secret melange of aromatic roots, herbs and spices etc.
Perhaps this made sense back in the days of Hemingway, Benchley and Parker, when gin was of a simple, just-post-prohibition character. Today though, if the marketing material can be believed, a hipster with a still has spent half his life selecting the combination of flavours most calculated to seduce our senses. The very idea that we should then serve it with another unrelated mixture is like telling a chef you want his sauce bordelaise served blended with someone else’s custard.
Serving a decent gin with “tonic” – mass-produced, sugary fizz, laden with bitter quinine – is little short of blasphemy and it’s no use telling me it “contrasts with the sweetness, cuts through the oiliness or brings out the flavours”. Tonic could stun the palate of a scavenging rat… and that’s before we stick a lump of lemon in it.
It seems that to stop my senses becoming permanently and terminally confused, I’m going to have to make a fairly simple choice. I can either ignore the blandishments of the new craftsmen and stick to gin that tastes of nothing but juniper. Or I could learn to drink it like a Georgian costermonger: with furtive pleasure, a shifty glance and a shot of hot water.