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.”