April 23 is St. George’s Day in England. And even though this not-quite national holiday, which honors the country’s patron saint, is no longer widely celebrated in England, I’d like to do my bit and raise a glass. Since we’re toasting great English occasions, that glass should include gin. And because I like a little learning with my libations, here’s a little gin backstory.
In the Be-GIN-ing
While gin is not, strictly speaking, English (then again, neither was St. George) it is most associated with the country. It all started with genever, a Dutch spirit made from re-distilled malt wine. Genever producers added all types of aromatics, such as juniper, coriander, anise, and citrus peel for flavoring the product, which was hailed for it’s supposed medicinal properties. Eventually, the miracle cure made it’s way to England via British troops who had fought in the Thirty Year’s War. When King William III began to encourage the distillation of English spirits in the late 1600s, production of gin took off.
Making gin is fairly easy and straightforward. Distill a neutral spirit and then add juniper berries and any other botanicals you fancy. Let that steep for a while, filter the add-ins and voila! The process was so simple, and gin proved so popular, that the law of the land allowed anybody to produce and sell their own gin. The idea was to encourage British industry, shore up low grain prices and increase exports. Why buy that fancy French wine, champagne, and brandy when you can have some good old homemade hooch?
Only the plan worked out a little too well—by 1730 some 10 million gallons of the stuff were being distilled in London each year and sold at some 7,000 dram shops. It’s been estimated that back then the average Londoner drank 14 gallons of gin a year. As a wave of rising crime, alcoholism, and higher death rates roiled the city, British lawmakers stepped in to stem the tide by taxing the sale of gin and implementing standards and regulations for its production. By 1757 the Great Gin Craze ended.
Don’t Call it a Comeback
Fast forward to now when gin is on the up. Now I’m not saying that the spirit is anywhere near as popular today as it was way back when (also luckily it’s also better than it ever was), but just about every mixologist worth her or his shaker swears that gin is the ultimate base for such classic cocktails as the martini, the gin & tonic, gimlet, gin rickey, and French 75. Today there are five different styles of gin produced. Genever; the flowery and aromatic London Dry, which is the most juniper-forward; the slightly sweeter Old Tom, which was the original spirit for the Tom Collins cocktail; Plymouth, which is full-bodied and slightly fruity and New American, which pushes flavors other than juniper, to the for fore; and .
London Dry gin is the most common style, and likely the one most people associate with drinking gin. The big players in the category are practically household brands—Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Beefeater, Gordon’s—but don’t sleep on the craft distillers who have been tinkering with blends of aromatics to create more flavorful and robust gins.
Which brings me back to England. The team behind London’s Portobello Star bar are true gin lovers. Not only do they feature gin-based cocktails at their bar, situated in a 19th-century public house at No 171 Portobello Road in Notting Hill, but they also run the Ginstitute, a museum dedicated to their favorite spirit on its top floor. It was at the Ginstitute that veteran bartenders and restaurant owners Ged Feltham, Jake Burger, Paul Lane and Tom Coates began experimenting with the recipe that became their very own gin, named Portobello Road No. 171 Gin. Their creation, which utilizes juniper, lemon peel, bitter orange peel, coriander, orris root, cassia bark, angelica, licorice and nutmeg, has been a hit in the UK since it was introduced in 2011. And it’s finally available in the States. Try it for the taste, buy it for the gorgeous bottle.
Gin is the great dividing line of spirits. For every gin enthusiast who loves the spirit for it’s distinct herbaceous flavor and how beautifully that plays with so many ingredients to form such a wide flavor range of cocktails, there is a detractor who will swear that drinking gin makes them sad, or angry, or depressed. Screw the naysayers, count me among the gin lovers. Besides, if you’re blaming gin for turning you into a sweary or weepy mess you’re either a) drinking bad gin, or b) drinking too much, or c) already have issues unrelated to a or b.
Drink better and smarter. Here’s some recipes from the Portobello Road Gin team to get you started.
1 oz Portobello Road Gin
1 oz Dubbonnet
¾ oz Aperol
1/5 oz Myers Jamaican Rum
Stir, strain, garnish with grapefruit peel
1¾ oz Portobello Road Gin
¾ oz Lime Juice
¾ oz Sugar Syrup
10 – 15 mint leaves
1 inch of cucumber diced
Top with Tonic