The Glory of Gin
Gin’s so great it not only has a World Gin Day in June, but a National Gin Day on November 7th! And if you’re us, you celebrate both by drinking gin in the interim between them. Both interims. For breakfast. We just love gin. So let’s ask Man Cave’s resident alcohologist, Luke McKinney, to properly pay paean to the juniper juice.
Every culture creates their own alcohol. That’s how you can tell they’re a culture and not a species of soberly shaved apes. Rum is where the tropics turn sunshine into happiness, scotch is how to stay warm while clinging to drenched mountains, and gin is what happened when the English decided to make raw alcohol even more interesting.
It’s part of the uniquely British idea that everything has to be done properly, even getting as pi ssed as a urinal. You can get falling down drunk as long as you follow established procedure. Here the procedure is adding as many flavors and spices as humanly possible. It’s like they’re trying to compensate for their entire grey cuisine in a single drink. And it works, because gin makes the Martini, and a well-made Martini (with its big brother the Manhattan) counts as fully half of human progress to date.
Gin is the only national liquor not known for shotting. Tequila, bourbon, vodka, all can be sipped and savored, but they’re also instant emergency upgrades to the human condition. They’re all famous for hammering things down faster than a nail gun (with similar effects on the human skull). But gin demands a little more refinement, a little more effort, a cocktail must be constructed before addressing it to yourself. The only thing neat gin does is help practice your stiff upper lip by flexing every face muscle simultaneously.
Gin has a bad reputation as an old ladies” drink, but only among those who don’t understand it or old ladies. When you see an ancient biddy bracing a glass of gin, you have to understand: she’s been drinking for longer than you’ve been breathing. She’s womanned that bar for sixty years or more. She’s seen things you wouldn’t believe, and thinks the only time men lose tears in the rain is when she’s thrown them out for bugging her. If an Emeritus Professor of Alcohol like this drinks gin, it’s with good reason.
Gin is the origin of Dutch courage. The Dutch dosed their British mercenaries with genever spirits for the Eighty Years” War, and the British enjoyed the century of spirited slaughter so much they brought the drink home with them. War survivors do normally return with trauma and pain, but this is the first time it was bottled. King William of Orange made it the most English spirit possible by taxing the hell out of foreign liquors while allowing unlicensed home gin production. That’s how you promote patriotic spirits.
This was the time of the famous Beer Alley and Gin Lane images, boasting the benefits of beer (correct) and complaining about the corruption of harsh liquor (wrong). Which is weird, because the images don’t look like good and bad, but before and after.
It became so popular that early attempts at taxation led to rioting in the streets. It would become popular again during Prohibition. Every time the government has tried to stop people drinking, gin has been there to help them keep going.
Gin’s primary flavor is from juniper berries, and not to say it’s not sweet, but those aren’t berries. They’re actually conifer cones whose scales have grown so tightly together they’ve fused into a fleshy mass filled with pinene resin. Pinenes are also used in perfumes and turpentine, and any veteran gin drinker will wince, sip, and say “Sounds about right.”
Ginlike spirits were often used in early medicine, on the grounds that anything that tasted so bad must be good for you. And that Mary Poppins could suck it. The alcohol was an easy way of delivering the active ingredients. It also made sure the patients felt better no matter what.
Gin’s strength is that it’s a spice cocktail before it’s ever included in an alcoholic one. Each gin is a unique blends of herbs and spices: almond, anise, angelica root, cinnamon, cardamom, cubeb, coriander, licorice, lemon orange and lemon and lime peel, dragon eye, saffron, frankincense, grains of paradise, nutmeg, cassia bark, rose petals, to name only a few. If it’s ever given anything a flavor then someone has tried it in gin. And generally enjoyed the result. If you ever need to load a Space Ark to repopulate a new world, grab a bottle of gin, its ingredients will tell you which plants are worth saving.
All these flavors come across in the cocktails, which is why Gin drinks above all others must work with the base spirit to bring out their best side. The most famous gin cocktails are compounds of strong tastes and deep joy.
The most famous cocktail in the world. A drink so powerful even James Bond wimps out and takes the easy version. Gin and dry vermouth is a more powerful combination of herbs and spirits than Hogwarts entire curriculum. If gin could be used for nothing else, this alone would make it essential for every bar. It’s the most overused drink name in the world, and it still doesn’t dilute the excellence of this cocktail.
Rule Zero of cocktails is that anything you enjoy is a good cocktail. Though we would recommend you steer clear of the “ultra-dry” idiocy, where people pretend that they’re sophisticated by seeing how much they can leave out one of the ingredients of a two-ingredient cocktail. If you want a glass of gin, order it, just don’t pretend you’re urbane as you instruct bartenders to stare intently at a vermouth bottle while pouring you a shot in the wrong type of glass. Calling the wrong things martinis is how we ended up with vodka and toffee apple sours on the menu. A good starting point for Martinis is five parts gin to one part dry vermouth, olives or lemon twist, and bitters if you feel like it.
Gin and Tonic
The gin and tonic is alcophiliac Stockholm syndrome. The English had invaded India, invasion being the style of the time, and their absolute insistence on refusing to learn a single thing from anyone else in the world began to punish them. They started to drink quinine to avoid dying of malaria quite so much. Deciding that if it was going to taste like a chemical ass anyway it might as well get them drunk, they added gin, and by the time they returned home they decided they liked it. The mouth-shrinking aggression of both has been scaled back over the centuries since, and now it’s one of the greatest long drinks in existence.
The Negroni is the Constructicon of herbal liquors, adding all their intense tastes to create something which can stomp over anything. Even an entire Thanksgiving dinner. It’s an excellent aperitif, opening your stomach for a feast to come, but the intense tastes come into their own after the fact, where the herb-alcohol lasers can cut through even the fullest stomach to settle things down as you sink in for the evening. You’re already stuffed, you’re already warm at home, and this drink makes it even better.
The most famous of Navy cocktails, making it the most famous drink of the most famous of drinkers. The Gimlet’s strength is in its total indestructibility: mix some gin and lime juice and whatever comes out has to be Gimlet. The bedrock recipe is Navy-strength gin with Rose’s Lime juice, any ratio you like (it varies more than the mysterious “x” in any equation as you try different cocktail guides), and after that any other taste you add can only be the thirtieth of fortieth spice involved. So try as many as possible
Luke McKinney writes about games, drink, science, and everything else that makes life amazing. He’s a columnist on Cracked and writes for several beer magazines. He’s also available for hire. Follow him on Tumblr and Twitter @lukemckinney.
Luke also explained Why Brandy Is The Best Friendly Fire.