Thursday, September 10, 2009

you're never returning to the usa

We've talked about whiskey, we've talked some about vodka: let's talk about gin.

Gin is great.

... okay, I'll say more than that.

There are several kinds of gin, all of which have juniper in common as one of the primary botanicals -- though, just as Coca-Cola led to a spice-citrus combination's association with "cola" more than kola nuts themselves had, there are certain taste expectations that surround the idea of gin, and at least one spirit which is reputed to be very gin-like but doesn't actually contain juniper (and therefore can't be labeled as gin; I'm referring to Square One's rye-based Botanical Spirit), just as Coca-Cola and Pepsi no longer use real kola nuts.

Almost every gin you've ever heard of, almost every gin in your local bar or liquor store, is London dry gin, which starts with neutral grain spirits (vodka), infuses them with the juniper and other botanicals (citrus, spices, and anise-like flavorings are all common), and then distills the result.  Distilling smooths out and removes flavor, which is why vodka has so little of it -- it starts with something that has little flavor to begin with, and distills it multiple times, with most premium vodkas distilling at least three times.  In gin's case, because the infused mixture is strongly flavored, distillation acts more like a remastering, a graphic equalizing, chopping off highs and lows and smearing everything together.  Beefeater, Seagram's, Bombay, Tanqueray -- these are all London dry gins or London gins.  London and London dry are the same style -- the "dry" just means nothing, except in some cases a small amount of sugar, was added after distillation.  Not all ingredients survive distillation, so for example, a gin tinted with saffron is London rather than London dry.

The googlewhack of the gin world is another British style: Plymouth gin refers both to a distinct style of gin and to the only brand currently producing that style (which by law must be made in Plymouth, England).  The difference between Plymouth and London is not significant: Plymouth's botanicals are more pronounced, and it is the traditional gin used in cocktails, especially those associated with the British Empire and her Navy, such as Pink Gin, Gin and Tonic, and the Gimlet.

Several styles of gin are derived from British gins: sloe gin and damson gin are British-style gins infused after distillation with sloes or damsons; both are members of the Prunus family, aka the stone fruits, the same family as plums, peaches, cherries, apricots, almonds, and the Japanese ume.  Both are considerably difficult to find: several brands make sloe gin with artificial flavoring, but Plymouth (the brand) is the only manufacturer of actual sloe-infused gin widely distributed in the United States, and even it isn't that easy to find yet (not available in NH, so feel free to send me some).

Britain -- like the rest of Europe -- never developed the extensive cocktail culture that the US did, though contrary to what you're likely to hear on the Discovery Channel or some shit like that, this has nothing to do with Prohibition, American cocktail culture having been well-established in the 19th century.  Old school British gin drinks tend to have two or three ingredients, and often some practical purpose: the Gimlet, which must be made with Rose's lime cordial and not fresh lime juice (fresh lime juice is a Rickey), helped sailors combat scurvy; the Gin and Tonic made quinine-containing, malaria-fighting tonic water palatable.

Anyway, because of the lack of, for instance, a Gin Old-Fashioned in the British repertoire, Old Tom gin became popular.  Another member of the British gin family, Old Tom is sweetened more than London styles (the sweetness of which is barely noticeable) and is more palatable to many people straight.  The original Tom Collins -- gin, sweetener, and lemon juice -- used Old Tom.  Old Tom isn't in general production now; Hayman's is available in the US, but ... again, not in NH.

You think we're done, don't you?  WE'RE NOT DONE, BONKER.

Allll of these gins descend from Dutch gin, aka Holland gin, aka genever, the name under which it is most likely to be found in the 21st century.  While everything we've discussed so far starts the same way -- add things to neutral grain spirits and then distill them -- genever does not.  The Dutch popularized genever in Britain when Dutch prince William of Orange overthrew his uncle James II and became king of England, Scotland, and Ireland, in the 17th century.  They lost a king, gained gin ... it all worked out.

Genever is made with malted grains, like whiskey.  There are, today, two styles of genever: oude, the original genever, and jonge, which is oude genever diluted with neutral spirits (like "blended whiskey" in the US and Canada).  Both are flavored with juniper, but the use of a non-neutral base spirit makes for a very different final product.  Genever has not been commonly available in the US; Bols, the leading importer of genever, discontinued importing it for several years before a highly publicized cocktailian-friendly relaunch.

Either genever or British gin can be aged.  Citadelle, a French gin producer of London style gins, produces Citadelle Reserve, which is aged briefly in oak; as far as I know, this is the only aged British style gin on the market.  Boomsma ages its Oude genever for "at least" a year.

There is an additional style, maybe two or three, that doesn't have a name yet -- I've seen suggestions, but none of them have caught on.  The 21st century has seen a revival of interest in gin, and a number of new gins have been introduced, often playing with new botanical blends (incorporating grape flowers, lychees, or spruce, for instance); some of them reduce the juniper to an afterthought, some of them play it up big and bold, and the most common complaint from old-school gin drinkers who don't dig this is that the botanicals lack the balance of older tried-and-true formulas.  Because so much of that action is on the west coast, few of the brands are carried in the US, so I can't really comment.  I've tried some of them, mostly before moving here, and few of them seemed worth paying an extra $5, $10, or more for, especially when my go-to brands (Plymouth, Bombay, and Citadelle) do so well.

Okay.  So.  Here's the gin I have in the house at the moment:


The aforementioned Citadelle Reserve, which doesn't taste drastically different from regular Citadelle but is certainly worth trying.  The effects of oak aging are pretty predictable -- there's a smoothness and the familiar vanillin presence from the oak -- but the aging is brief enough that much of that disappears in cocktails with strong supporting casts.

Plymouth is the cocktail standard, with good reason.

Boomsma Oude genever is one of the few genevers available in this country.  In addition to it and the (much more expensive) Bols, there is Anchor Distilling's Genevieve, but I've read that it's more "genever-like" than a genuine genever, so I decided that shouldn't be my first experience with this liquor.  The Boomsma ... it smells a lot like tequila when you open the bottle ... or more to the point, it smells like "tequila and...", where something uniquely genever follows the ellipsis.  The taste is a lot like whiskey.  British gins have a thickness to their texture, almost an oiliness, which is lacking here.  This is very very good, both familiar and new.

And the green stuff?  Because of the juniper, people who don't get gin say it tastes like a pine tree.  That doesn't taste like a pine tree, man.  Clear Creek's Douglas Fir eau de vie, which infuses an eau de vie with young fir buds?  That tastes like a pine tree. It's crazy expensive (eau de vie is resource-intensive to produce) and from what I understand, the proprietor of Clear Creek doesn't like his products being used in cocktails, so this probably shouldn't be here at all.  It's good, good stuff, and saying it "tastes like a pine tree" is a little misleading; this is no Pine-Sol.  It tastes a little like being in the woods in the morning.

Also pictured: Fever Tree bitter lemon, which is like tonic water combined with lemon juice.  I used to say tonic water was the best way to experience a new gin, but I'm no longer sure of that, because of the syrupiness of most tonic waters.  Fever Tree's product, however, while not widely distributed, is now carried on Amazon, and I have Amazon Prime so I get free shipping.

Postscript: I should make a real pizza post sometime, but in lieu this was lunch today: I used tipo 00 flour from Naples for the dough, very ripe tomatoes, cheap pepperoni, and a combination of fresh and dry mozzarella and Pecorino Romano. The danger of fresh mozzarella in home pizza -- the fresher, the more dangerous -- is the extraordinarily high moisture content and the inability of a home oven to reach the temperatures that real pizzerias rely on in order to dry that moisture out without interfering with the crust.  This pizza cooked for over fifteen minutes, which is ridiculous, but the mozz made me do it; you can see that the tomatoes are more cooked as a result.  I promise, I really will make an actual pizza post at some point, probably this month -- it may be later, because I realized I would probably be pretty good at developing and curing a sausage specifically designed for sausage pizza, which would take a little while and a little money that'd have to come out of my next paycheck, in October. Like hamburgers, cola, and oranges, it's a food I care a lot about: to eat great pizza is to sit in God's lap, hands on the wheel and eyes on the divine road while He works the pedals.


(Yes that sounds all fancy, "oooh you bought flour from Italy for your fancy schmancy pizza," but pizza is CHEAP, and the per-pizza cost of this flour is under a dollar.  It's made specifically for pizza, with up to thirty different wheats blended to achieve the desired results: dough that is extensible, not elastic.  Elastic means it will snap back when you stretch it; extensible means it'll stay put without either snapping back or breaking.  That said, this is my first time using the flour, and I don't have the dough where I want it yet, though the flavor is fantastic.  This is one of those pizzas with a crust -- cornicione -- that you will want to eat.)


  1. I'm fast becoming a bore on this subject - but check out Fentiman's Botanically Brewed Tonic Water; with added lemon grass (and unusual ingredient!)it counterbalances the bitterness of the quinine that usually masks the subtletly of the spirit. For me it re-writes the rules as to what a good mixer should be like - by truly complimenting the spirit. Who else will drink to that? Cheers! Celli

  2. I haven't had anything from Fentiman's, but I've been curious about them for a while, especially their cola (I have a long fascination with cola which I'll blog about at some point). Now I've got one more reason to seek them out.