Gin: The Perfect Storm of Tradition and Innovation

For sure, gin is not among the world’s oldest spirits. Indeed, scarcely 300 years have passed since the Protestant William of Orange took the throne of England, Ireland and Scotland and called upon local compounders to provide an alternative to the imported “Catholic” spirits like brandy. Gin’s not even original—the King was merely requesting that his new English subjects match the successes of his Dutch countrymen, who had been distilling and enjoying genever as a social drink in Bruges and Ghent since the 15th century and in the neighborhood of Amsterdam from the 16th century.

However, no spirit has ever contributed more to a country’s social history or language, and this very familiarity is perhaps the reason why, even in its years of neglect, gin has always seemed poised to recapture attention and devotion. And in the last twenty years, gin has finally brought a halt to the seemingly unstoppable advance of vodka, which had surged since the 1950s.

It all started back in the mid-1990s, when a certain Dick Bradsell single-handedly changed the face of the London cocktail scene. He and his fellow bartenders in the likes of the Atlantic Bar and Grill launched a personal crusade to restore bars, bartending and cocktails to the center stage and helped gin in particular regain its reputation and recognition as the definitive cocktail spirit—not least in the Dry Martini, surely the greatest showcase for any spirit.

In so doing what those pioneers proved was that, unlike vodka—which resorts to expensive presentations to justify its luxury status and relies upon constant innovation to create reward in the glass—gin has only to excite trial. With gin, each distiller captures purity and individuality in taste and flavor, resulting in highly personal creations. Gin, like no other, really is the spirit to match our varied palates. Those that claim not to like gin are really just admitting that they have yet to find a gin to suit their palate! They have yet to rise to the perfect storm of choice whipped up by traditional distillers like the Burroughs (of Beefeater) and Tanquerays, whose recipes have remained unchanged for generations, and those newer entrants who—with equal skill—now capture the flavors of today.

Whether traditional or modern in style, gin’s path has shifted over the centuries, paralleling an evolution in the skills of distillation. From the early efforts of the Master Distillers in Belgium and Holland, through the 18th century Lowland distillers of Scotland (who supplied the initial compounders in England) and those in the 19th century who quickly adopted the newly invented continuous still, to distillers today—who capture the most subtle of flavors through the likes of Carterhead and vacuum stills and cold distillation—gin has gained in complexity and refinement. 

Gin’s story began during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), when the English traveled to the Low Countries, where they fought alongside their northern European neighbors to repel Spanish invaders. The fighting was fierce and the devastation great; as they entered battle, the English never failed to note the local soldiers’ habit of downing a shot of genever to give them courage. Returning home, they shared tales of victory and spread word of what they’d begun to refer to as “Dutch courage.”

Forty years later, the Dutch-born Protestant William of Orange arrived to take the throne from King James II. Looking to remove all links with Catholicism, he encouraged local production of a grain spirit. Gin, a corruption of the word genever, hit the streets of London and the masses, when called to do the patriotic thing, rose man, woman and child to drink for England. It was cheaper than beer and safer than water, and by the middle of the 18th century Londoners alone were drinking 125 liters per head annually. Gin, for very good reason, soon earned its reputation as “mother’s ruin.”

Little nips of whisky, little drops of gin,
Make a lady wonder where on earth she’s bin

London was literally awash with gin. Over one-quarter of homes were distilling it. Gin Lane, as depicted by Hogarth, was full of idleness, vice and misery while Beer Street, by comparison, was urbane and successful. Gin Lane itself lay just off what is now the eastern end of Oxford Street—in 18th century London that put it midway between the prison in Holborn and the gallows at Tyburn Place. If prisoners had enough money to bribe their guards en route, they were allowed to step down from the wagon to enjoy one final drink in Gin Lane before moving back “on the wagon” to be hanged. Of course, that phrase remains with us today to indicate a time of abstinence.

Early gin was not the purest of spirits. It was boiled off quickly in huge stills in the Lowlands of Scotland, primarily to meet demand from the growing urban populations of Glasgow, Stirling and Edinburgh, drawn together by the Industrial Revolution. One distiller, for example, proudly claimed that his 43-gallon still could be discharged in just under three minutes. The spirit was sweetened and flavored to make the alcohol more palatable. The sugar gave the down-and-outs calories otherwise lacking in their poor diets, and the flavoring agents provided many useful and varied medicinal benefits. Juniper, for example, not only provided gin’s essential pine notes, but it was thought to be beneficial for the kidneys—the berries had saved many from the Black Plague that had devastated 14th-century Europe. Angelica, another common gin botanical, was so named because of its many health-giving properties, and coriander was known to help (ahem) ease constipation and to relieve wind.

The perceived medicinal value of these botanical flavorings extended gin’s early appeal beyond the oppressed masses in cities like London to the Royal Navy, and then to the more sophisticated and discerning drinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. They offered protection against tropical disease and, when mixed with tonic water, the drink provided sailors with the quinine needed to fight malaria. So for the Royal Navy tonic proved to be an ideal complement to gin, as did the Angostura bitters created in 1824 by Dr. Siegert to help treat Simon Bolivar’s army for fatigue and stomach ailments. Once citrus fruits were found to help prevent scurvy, gin drinks became even more eminently palatable and beneficial. To this day gin remains the choice spirit of the Senior Service, as evidenced by the “Gin Pennant,” a green and white flag featuring a cocktail glass that’s flown from Royal Navy ships to invite neighboring ships’ crews to come aboard for drinks.

Come aboard, fellas. The club is open!

By the middle of the 19th century the Industrial Revolution had produced the continuous still, and the resulting pure alcohol now meant that neither sweetening nor flavoring was required to mask the quality of the spirit. Respectable names like Tanqueray began to distill the drier style of gin that was to become known as “London,” while brewers who’d commanded respect in Beer Street in the previous century now turned to gin to convert their sordid ale houses into gin palaces, designed and decorated with polished mahogany, carved bars, plenty of brass and engraved glass to inspire gaiety and laughter—and to serve gin as a social pleasure providing escape from life’s miseries.

The quality of water was also improving, permitting the poor to replace the sweetened Old Tom gin with lemonade. Soon London Dry began to gain popularity at the expense of Old Tom in England and genever internationally. The malt-sweetened genever, which had been shipped to the US since the 1820s, had become a key cocktail ingredient by the end of the 19th century, outselling London Dry in America six-to-one. With the emergence of vermouth, however, and distillation facilities in the Low Countries soon committed to early 20th-century war efforts, genever’s declining fate in the US was sealed. Bartenders in America were gaining respected status in the wealthy environments of grand hotels and private clubs, and preferences shifted to the London Dry style. Even the calls rightfully heard during Prohibition, to “die for a drink,” failed to diminish the civilizing age of the cocktail that followed, and gin accounted for most cocktails created at this time.

By the 1950s, however, cocktails had lost their appeal, and gin sales were in decline. Smirnoff had launched in the West and vodka was on the way to becoming the white spirit of choice. Interestingly, the one cocktail that did survive for a while was the Brompton, named after the Brompton Hospital in the Fulham Road, where gin and diamorphine were mixed and given to terminal patients as a pain reliever.

Despite the cocktail’s decline, gin remained very much a part of popular culture, especially its darker side. Referring to his gambling den in Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart uttered that memorable line: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Later, when asked for his favorite Martini recipe, Dean Martin confirmed the Rat Pack’s reputation as heavy drinkers with his reply: “Four ounces of gin with a Lucky Strike cigarette and a book of matches.” In the late 1960s—though apparently inspired by Brazilian caipirinhas—it was not the cachaça-soaked but the “gin-soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis” that captured the spirit of Honky Tonk Women for the Rolling Stones.

In truth, gin has no need to rely on the rebels of Tequila and Bourbon or the exotic background of rum or the personality endorsements for vodka. When flavour is embraced gin just needs to be discovered, and there are more to explore today than ever. In 2008, the EU finally defined gin, stating that the predominant flavor in all types must be juniper, but those who are not totally enamored of its strong character can still find many gins to excite their palates. The variety of textures, aromas, tastes and flavors offered by gin is unmatched by any other single category of spirit.

The launch of Bombay Sapphire in the 1980s restored confidence in gin distillers. With Hendricks launching in 1999, the 21st century heralded unheard-of opportunities for established and new distillers alike to do what gin distillers have always done best—scour the world for herbs and fruits, seeds and bark and capture them in a neutral spirit, just as likely distilled today from fruit as from grain.

Tanqueray and Beefeater have both been quick to respond to the demand for new recipes. Tanqueray highlights fresh grapefruit, orange and lime, mellowed by chamomile, in Tanqueray Ten. Meanwhile, Desmond Payne, Beefeater’s Master Distiller, discovered that the father of James Burrough (Beefeater’s founding father) had been a tea merchant in London, supplying his fine teas to none less than the Royal Household. Building on this historic link to the company’s founder, Desmond added a blend of Chinese green teas and rare Japanese Sencha teas to the core botanicals that underpin Beefeater 24.

Alongside these awakened giants of gin, little time exists to appreciate one newcomer before another appears, yet some are establishing themselves with recipes as distinctive as those that first established the London Dry category. Johnny Neill’s Whitley Neill London Dry fuses traditional flavorings with those of his wife’s South African homeland—cape gooseberry and the fruit of the Baobub tree—to deliver a pink grapefruit-like twist to a G & T. G’Vine, distilled in France, softens the traditional juniper character with Ugni Blanc grape spirit—a pure-"ginius" addition to a Grape Martini. Gin Mare, produced near Barcelona, captures the flavors of the Mediterranean via individual distillations of arbequina olives, thyme, rosemary, basil, cardamom, coriander and ginger berries alongside citrus fruits. The process delivers a very rare gin with loads of olive underpinning a particularly savory taste.

Returning to England, farmer William Chase distills organic cider apples from his Herefordshire farm, combining the result with traditional botanicals and elderflower to produce Williams Chase Elegant Gin. His Great British Extra Dry employs additional spices. Onward to the garden of England, where you’ll find Anno Kent Dry combining juniper with flavors of Kent drawn from local hops, lavender, elderflower, rose hips and samphire from the Romney Marsh. It delivers a complexity of flavors which grow with every sip before the crisp, dry lift in the finish.

Even one of Scotland’s most renowned Scotch distillers has not been able to resist gin. On Islay, Queen of the Hebrides, Jim McEwan of Bruichladdich distils Botanist, gently coaxing the complex, signature aromatics from no less than 22 botanicals foraged from the island’s peat bogs, heather-clad hills and Atlantic shores, into a magical, truly artisanal, small-batch labor of love.

And finally we return to London, where it’s encouraging to note that more than 100 years after the likes of the Burroughs, Tanquerays and Gordons established their reputations as Master Distillers of the emergent London Dry style, new craft distillers are bringing a gin renaissance to its spiritual home. Among the new wave are distillers Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall of Sipsmith, Ian Hart of Sacred, and the City of London Distillery, which brought gin distilling back to the City for the first time since 1825.

Today traditional London Dry Gin is alive and very well. It’s a juniper hit, refreshed with citrus fruits, made attractively complex with numerous herbs and spices. London, however, is not a geographical definition; it’s a style. It can be (and is) distilled anywhere in the world, so long as its production conforms to the regulations. But the dictatorship of juniper is no more: Many gin distillers today are embracing a freedom to interpret the rather loose definition of gin.

The trend Dick Bradsell started in the mid-nineties has been embraced by brand owners and bartenders alike, and today gin represents just what today’s taste-seeker demands: the unique recipe of one individual distiller, created from natural ingredients, distilled in the purest of spirits, to match modern tastes backed by generations of historical experience—a perfect storm of tradition and innovation.

Mark Ridgwell has worked in the spirits industry for 45 years with many of the world’s leading spirit companies, including Smirnoff, Hennessy, J&B Rare, Ballantines, Beefeater, Courvoisier, Canadian Club, Bols and Hiram Walker Liqueurs. The pinnacle of his corporate career saw him taking Maker’s Mark out of America and introducing it to the rest of the world.

In 1998 Mark left the corporate world and set up Taste and Flavour, a network of renowned speakers, each passionate about spirits and keen to share their knowledge with enthusiasts and professionals alike. Mark worked with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust to create the Level 2 Certificate in Spirits, now, along with the Level 1 Award in Spirits, the only globally recognized vocational qualifications relating to spirits and liqueurs.

Mark is the author of Spirits Distilled, recommended in our bookstore.


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