Drinking Dutch Courage is Back in Style
Gin has a history that is more twisted than the fancy spiral lemon peels used to adorn many a happy hour martini.
Italian monks in the 11th century are said to have been the first to distill spirits using juniper berries, gin’s base flavoring agent. It is doubtful that this drink would remind anyone of today’s modern gin. A German-born physician and scientist who spent most of his life in the Netherlands, Franciscus Sylvius, is given credit for developing the first modern-day gin during the 1600s. Dr. Sylvius, born Franz de le Boë, is recognized for early research into the circulatory system and the brain, and for being a leading professor of medicine at the University of Leiden. He also gets credit for more than a few hangovers.
During the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) British troops fighting in Holland against the Spanish nicknamed gin “Dutch Courage” because it could calm the nerves before battle. By 1700 there were said to be 400 gin distilleries in Amsterdam alone. William of Orange helped make gin popular in England, but it was heavy taxes imposed on imported spirits and the permitting of unregulated distilling—much of it taking place in private homes—in the U.K. that caused an explosion in gin production. Thousands of “gin mills” popped up. When Parliament tried to get things under control in 1736 by passing the Gin Act, there were riots in the streets.
The relative ease of and speed in making gin—it is basically a flavored neutral spirit—made it a favorite during Prohibition in the United States. Crude distillers were able to take the edge off bathtub gin by flavoring the liquid with any number of ingredients. Few of these would make the list of prized botanicals that today’s distillers employ for making gin.
But gin also has a classy side best articulated by James Bond, the British 007 secret agent created by novelist Ian Fleming. In Casino Royale, Bond orders a Vesper Martini and is quite specific in the recipe, telling a barkeeper: “Three measures of Gordon’s (gin), one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large slice of lemon-peel.”
With so much history, you would expect the spirit would be as stiff and traditional as a happy hour gin and tonic served at an upper-crust country club. Not likely as a new wave of gin is served across American bars.
“There are all kinds of new things happening with gin,” says Bill Owens, who founded the American Distilling Institute in 2003. Part of the change has been fueled by the growth in craft distillers, including some that harvest their own grain and hand select the botanicals they use. “There are distilleries that are experimenting with barrel aging gin and making yellow gin,” Owens says, “Others are making classic gin styles. Gin is a great cocktail ingredient. I had a gin fizz the other day, a drink I had not had in a long time. It is a wonderful drink on a bright sunny day.”
“Craft spirits are all the rage,” comments Jack Joyce of Rogue Distilling in Oregon, pointing out that making grain-neutral spirits to produce vodka or as a base for gin is simpler and more economical than making a whiskey or other spirits that require aging.
“The important thing for us is asking, What is the distiller’s contribution? With our gin we add our own botanicals. We feel we can be credible in making gin,” Joyce says. “I don’t think we should or would want to be credible making vodka—unless we mashed our own potatoes.”
Rogue uses spruce as a key flavoring component in its gin because “we grow a lot of spruce out here. It’s indigenous, part of the terroir,” Joyce says. “The thing to keep in mind is that botanicals are agricultural products, and they change every year.”
Martin Miller, a publisher, concert promoter and hotelier, got in the gin business in 1999 with two friends after being served a lackluster gin and tonic in a pint beer glass at a London pub.
“I was looking at it and thinking, ‘This is our national drink? What’s happened to gin? Where’s our pride?’” Miller recalls. “We talked a bit and decided we should make a great gin for ourselves. The worse thing that could happen is we’d have a lifetime supply of gin.”
Miller said in making Martin Miller’s Gin they decided to go back to using a pot still and macerate the botanicals to release the oils. The process took two years to find the right combination of ingredients. “We actually do two separate distillations, one that is earthy and the other that has a citrus character. Then we marry them,” Miller says. “It gives you clarity of flavor. There is a distinctive citrus note without being overpowering.”
Miller says the company started making Westbourne Gin in 2003 when the “mixology scene took off and people started making more complex cocktails.” He says it competes with artisanal gins that tend to be slightly higher in alcohol and have more intense flavors.
“Gin people are promiscuous,” Miller says. “There are 50 different ways to drink gin and lots of different brands and different styles with unique flavor profiles.” But he also stresses that unlike vodka, where diverse flavors are added, people view gin as a specific drink with a certain flavor profile. “Deviate at your own risk.”
When Jeff Lindauer was a young boy, his father purchased some remote land in northern Colorado. Little did he know that someday it would lead to Spring 44 Artisan Spirits. In fact, Lindauer says his distilling career started out as a “gigantic accident.” He built a home at the site, about 25 miles from Loveland, in 2004. A friend tasted water from a spring on the property and started pushing Lindauer to go into the water business. The only problem was that Lindauer researched the high-end water business and realized no one was ready to plunk down $15 for a 750-milliliter bottle of Colorado spring water. “It was a stupid idea,” he says.
Lindauer did not give up on the idea of using the spring water in a business venture and realized that water is key to making good spirits. “I became a hard-core student of the spirits business and found that it is pretty much split 50-50 between imports and domestics,” Lindauer says. “But in the $12 billion premium white spirits category. It is around 97 percent imports. There was room for quality domestic vodkas and gins.”
Spring 44 makes a couple of varieties of vodka and adds agave to its traditional juniper-based mix of botanicals in its gin. Lindauer says there is a tension between the juniper and the agave. “It softens the juniper and allows the nutmeg and coriander to express themselves.” Spring 44 is also working on a whiskey and a “mountain-strength” barrel-aged Old Tom-style gin. Lindauer says the return of classic craft cocktails is the driver behind gin’s growth.
“The re-emergence of the real barman who is focused on making great drinks and takes their craft very seriously is so important to craft gin,” Lindauer says. “A third of our business is gin, which surprised me. Bars and restaurants are building programs around gin cocktails. They see great cocktails as part of their brands.”
James Bond would certainly feel right at home.
Rick Lyke is a drinks journalist from Charlotte, NC, and founder of Pints for Prostates.