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The Gin Crowd

A slew of new varieties is proving that the old spirit still has plenty of kick left in it. With nine classic cocktails.

Despite its country-club image, there's nothing stodgy about gin. Throughout its history, it has been a dangerous, untamed thing. Gin made the Roaring Twenties roar, and it was what turned the regulars at the Algonquin Round Table into a vicious circle. The nicknames gin has earned over the years pay tribute to its rough-and-ready nature: red eye, mother's ruin, tarantula juice, strip-and-go-naked.

Gin, in short, has always been the life of the party. In the past few years, however, gin has been outshone by a recent arrival--vodka. But gin never really went away: it merely stumbled into the bedroom and passed out on top of a pile of coats. Now gin is back, and it's making as much noise as ever.

The evidence is on liquor store shelves, where a small crowd of new gins has shown up, none of which was around two years ago. The newcomers are all the more remarkable because they are all so various in style, from traditional, full-flavored sorts to modern, mild types. I'd almost say the gins in this second bunch are so soft-spoken they're hardly gins at all-- if it weren't for the fact that gin's ability to reinvent itself is one of its chief characteristics.

Dutch Treat
If gin has been subjected to a lot of experimentation over the years, it may be because it was first cooked up in a laboratory. In the mid-1500s, a professor of medicine at the University of Leyden in Holland was searching for botanical remedies for tropical diseases when he came across the berry of the juniper tree. Suspended in alcohol, juniper extract had amazing effects: it lowered blood pressure, eased insomnia, stimulated the appetite and acted as a diuretic. (It also disguised the taste of the alcohol, which was truly vile in the early days of distillation.) Gin would eventually be made with other berries, barks, peels, roots, nuts and leaves--for flavor and for a pharmaceutical kick--but juniper is the essential aromatic ingredient:without juniper,it's not gin.

A new product called Leyden Dry Gin has tried to capitalize on this history. While it does have some juniper in it all right, and it is made in Leyden, it doesn't have much in common with the strong-tasting Dutch original. Leyden Dry Gin is one of the relatively tame new gins with only a hint of juniper's bite--just a nip, really. In fact, it hardly tastes like medicine at all. I can't imagine anyone using it to cure anything more serious than a case of nerves at the start of an office party.

Churchill's Choice
From Leyden, gin sailed around the world, receiving a warm welcome everywhere it landed--particularly in England. The English were in such a hurry to enjoy the spirit that they took the French word for it, genièvre (meaning juniper), dropped the last two syllables and called it gin. They streamlined the spirit, too, making it crisper, clearer and smoother. One of the oldest English gins is Plymouth, which was created in 1791. One authority states that Plymouth was used to mix the first dry martini. It's a controversial point, but Plymouth certainly became a martini standard. It was the gin preferred by Winston Churchill, who, when supplies of French vermouth ran short during World War II, would respectfully bow in the direction of France when mixing his drinks.

Because I'm the kind of person who lies awake at night wondering what Winston Churchill's martinis tasted like, I searched for Plymouth gin for years. Finally I concluded that the company that makes it must have gone out of business. But it turns out that Plymouth had simply been neglected. Until two years ago, that is, when a couple of British entrepreneurs bought the brand and brought it back on the market. (It's now available in this country for the first time in 20 years.) The new owners also redesigned the bottle, but happily they haven't changed the formula--which means that now I know what Churchill's martinis were like. They were fantastic. All the same ingredients--cardamom, coriander, citrus peel, bitter almonds and, of course, juniper--are thrown into the Plymouth stills, but thrown in so carefully that no single flavor dominates. The result is an unusually well-balanced and intensely aromatic drink.

Coming to America
A wooden ship in full sail tacks its way across Plymouth gin's label: the Mayflower. Like the pilgrims, gin traveled from Leyden to Plymouth before coming to the New World. Although bourbon and rye whiskey would later become America's most popular spirits, gin was on the scene first. The earliest distillery in the United States, on Staten Island in New York, made gin. And of course during the Prohibition years, gin came to the rescue of a thirsty country. The bathtub gin that got Americans through Prohibition was nothing remarkable--just low-quality alcohol with oil of juniper added to make it palatable. But unlike rye and whiskey, which need to be aged, gin was ready to drink in the time it took to carry it from the bathtub to the bar. In short, it was the ideal do-it-yourself spirit for a time when people had little other choice.

Now, 66 years after the repeal of Prohibition, gin still appeals to American do-it-yourselfers, like Jim Bendis of Bend, Oregon. When Bendis looked around the Pacific Northwest, it seemed like everybody and his brother had a microbrewery. He wanted to set up a business in a less crowded field, so he built a still, hiked into the mountains around Bend to raid wild juniper trees for berries and made gin. His Cascade Mountain gin has a slight sweetness that makes it the most approachable of the new gins, and the one that's most like vodka. I like to think of it as Absolut Juniper.

Bendis is not the only West Coast iconoclast to start a microdistillery. There's also Fritz Maytag, who created Anchor Steam beer and with it the entire microbrew revolution. Each bottle of Maytag's gin, called Junipero, bears the word essay on the label above a series of coded letters. Essay is another word for attempt, and Junipero is just that: an attempt, a work in progress. Maytag may decide to tinker with his formula with each new batch he distills, but for now he has a boldly aromatic, juniper-rich drink.

With his essays and his laboratory-style notations, Maytag is reminiscent of the scientist who devised this constantly evolving spirit. While I'm fascinated by the way gin continues to undergo stylistic variations, though, what I find most interesting is not the way gin keeps changing but the way it changes me. Whether I'm having an old-fashioned aromatic gin or one of the softer new models, gin martinis do something for me that vodka martinis don't. After I've had a couple, I don't have any trouble at all believing that I'm under the influence of a substance that was first created in a laboratory. And with gin's talent for blending into wonderful, invigorating cocktails, I'll be glad to lend my services as a guinea pig anytime.

In old bartending guides, the section on gin is always the longest one, in part because this spirit lends itself to so many different treatments. Those given below are my favorite classic gin drinks, some of which feature unexpected ingredients and highlight gin's versatility. All recipes are for 1 drink.

Published August 1999
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