Well this week’s Mixology Monday topic is gin.
I should have lots of ideas for this one since gin has become a favorite spirit of mine. I’ve had dreadful arguments about the whole vodka versus gin thing with friends who believe the former is the most versatile cocktail ingredient. I think gin deserves that honor. Sitting here writing this though, I can’t say that I have any particular drink in mind for this Mixology Monday. However, there is one thing that I believe does need to be said.
Gin occupies a unique space in the world of mixed drinks.
Compare gin with whiskey. Much as I like whiskey, and whiskey may even be my favorite cocktail base, gin somehow occupies a superior status as a cocktail ingredient. After all if you feel like whiskey you don’t really need to be drinking a cocktail at all. You can just dispense with all the bother of ice, bitters, sugar, bar spoons, shakers, maybe even the glass. And however good a drink you mix with whiskey, somebody is always going to say that they prefer to drink their whiskey straight, and their preference for purity in this matter is unassailable. If you stuck to your guns and maintained whiskey was better mixed, then in no time at all you would find yourself the losing party in a heated debate with a group of wizened old guys that had spent their lives making whiskey, and whose granddaddies spent their lives making whiskey before them. You would finish up ashamed that you had ever thought to challenge their superior wisdom in the matter.
Rum is another case. Rum cocktails are all very well, but if a pirate suddenly walked in as you were drinking a Daiquiri the chances are you’d blushingly mutter some excuse about warding off scurvy, finish your Daiquiri, and loudly demand a tumbler of straight rum – over-poof naturally. . . Nobody wants to risk losing a limb because a drunken pirate takes umbrage at them holding an umbrella drink, and while a Daiquiri isn’t exactly an umbrella drink you can’t expect a pirate to be sober enough to realize that.
Every rum drinker secretly wants to be a pirate, and everybody knows that pirates drink their rum straight. If pirates want to get fancy they might add gunpowder to their rum and set it alight. However, while hugely entertaining this practice does not make for a tasty drink. Unfortunately the truly serious drinker has to forget about mixing rum except for medical reasons. Fortunately many of us enjoy rather delicate constitutions.
Gin is very different. Gin demands to be mixed. I never heard of anybody secretly fantasizing about being an unconscious body in some 18th century London gin shop. There is nothing romantic about straight gin. Unmixed gin smacks of desperation. Though some would say straight gin has a certain old-world charm, the same could be said of chimney sweeps and press gangs. Basically, enjoying the full potential of gin is probably going to require mixing it. Once you realize this fact and gather together the paraphernalia to facilitate some creative mixing (ice, shakers, barspoons, bitters, liqueurs, glassware etc.) then you have the beginnings of something very civilized indeed. I believe I remember reading a book arguing that human civilization began with gin. Humans had previously lived as hunter gatherers, but distilling and enjoying gin required them to settle down, cultivate juniper berries, forge steel for shakers, blow glass, develop an alphabet for writing cocktail manuals, etc. It was a fascinating book, and I would be able to give a more detailed account of it all if I hadn’t been drinking rather a lot of gin when I read it.
So gin is the ultimate cocktail ingredient. The aromatics in gin mean that it contributes an extra dimension to a drink even when used in fairly small quantities, but at the same time gin is light enough that is doesn’t necessarily overpower other ingredients. Looking through older cocktail manuals probably reveals more interesting recipes with gin than with just about anything else. Gin makes an especially good foil to liqueurs. Gin’s dry nature allows it to work together with liqueurs while minimizing the sweetness of the final drink. This doesn’t apply to the same extent with vodka.
Gin has been enjoying something of a revival recently. One aspect of this phenomenon has been the emergence of lots of premium gins. Being in New Zealand right now and China before that I haven’t had the opportunity to try many of these new gins. However, I have tried Hendricks and Tanqueray 10. Am I impressed? I’m not entirely sure. I wonder whether these new premium gins are not evolving to be less ‘gin-like’ than traditional gins?
One of the distinguishing characteristics of these premium gins seems to be that they taste smooth and appealing even when drunk straight. Some months back I tried an experiment in a bar here in Auckland where I drank two Martinis alongside each other, one made with standard Tanqueray and one made with Tanqueray 10. Despite me specifically asking for a 1/3 vermouth to 2/3 gin ratio the bartender didn’t add anything like that much vermouth, going down the old rinse the ice route instead. The Tanqueray 10 was the better drink, but was the test a fair one? If gin really is best mixed, then shouldn’t mixing involve more than adding a dribble of this or that?
A gin drink I’ve been enjoying recently the Barbara West Cocktail. This drink comes from Ted Haigh’s “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails”. I usually make it with Plymouth Gin, my general purpose gin of choice these days. Recipe below:
2 oz gin
1 oz sherry (something reasonably sweet like a cream sherry – not a fino)
½ oz lemon juice
scant dash of bitters
Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
For a gin drink this one is rather winey and meditative. I often think gin drinks need to be very cold, but this is one that doesn’t suffer as it warms up; in fact it actually gets some new and interesting dimensions.
I have also experimented by substituting pisco for the gin. I thought pisco would work nicely with sherry since both are kind of grapey and aromatic. The pisco version is by no means bad, but without further tweaking I think it is a little one-dimensional compared to the gin version. More evidence of the superiority of gin!