Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Gin History

Gin (Sometimes referred to as Mother's Ruin) is a spirit, or strong alcoholic beverage. It is made from the distillation of white grain spirit and juniper berries, which provide its distinctive flavor. The taste of ordinary gin is very dry, and as such it is rarely consumed on its own. However, the rare handful of individuals who enjoy the taste of straight gin (most notably, The Avant Garde artist Christo) claim that it is, in fact, the most delicious of all distilled beverages/spirits. It should not be confused with sloe gin, a sweet liqueur traditionally made from sloes (the fruit of the blackthorn) infused in gin.

The most common style of gin, typically used for mixed drinks, is "London dry gin", which refers not to brand, marque, or origin, but to a distillation process. London dry gin is a high-proof spirit, usually produced in a column still and redistilled after the botanicals are added to the base spirit. In addition to juniper, it is usually made with a small amount of citrus botanicals like lemon and bitter orange peel. Other botanicals that may be used include anise, angelica root, orris root, cinnamon, coriander, and cassia bark.

A well-made gin will be very dry with a smooth texture lacking in harshness. The flavor will be harmonious yet have a crisp character with a pronounced juniper flavor.

Other types of gin include Jenever (Dutch gin), Plymouth gin, and Old Tom gin (said to approximate the pot-distilled 18th century spirit).

Gin originated in the Netherlands in the 17th century. Its invention is often credited to the physician Franciscus Sylvius. It spread to England after the Glorious Revolution put a Dutchman on the British throne. Dutch gin, known as jenever, is a distinctly different drink from English-style gin; it is distilled with barley and sometimes aged in wood, giving it a slight resemblance to whisky. Schiedam, in South Holland, is famous for its jenever. Jenever is produced in a pot still and is typically lower in alcohol and more strongly flavored than London gin.

Gin became very popular in England after the government allowed unlicensed gin production and at the same time imposed a heavy duty on all imported spirits. This created a market for poor-quality grain that was unfit for brewing beer, and thousands of gin-shops sprang up all over England. By 1740 the production of gin had increased to six times that of beer, and because of its cheapness it became extremely popular with the poor. Of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London, over half were gin-shops. Beer maintained a healthy reputation as it was often safer to drink the brewed ale than unclean plain water. Gin, though, was blamed for various social and medical problems, and it may have been a factor in the high death rate that caused London's previously increasing population to remain stable. The reputation of the two drinks was illustrated by William Hogarth in his engravings Beer Street and Gin Lane (1751). This negative reputation survives today in the English language, in terms like "gin-mills" to describe disreputable bars or "gin-soaked" to refer to drunks. The Gin Act of 1736 imposed high taxes on retailers but led to riots in the streets. The prohibitive duty was gradually reduced and finally abolished in 1742. The Gin Act of 1751 was more successful, however. It forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers and brought gin-shops under the jurisdiction of local magistrates. Gin in the 18th century was produced in pot stills, and was somewhat sweeter than the London gin known today.

The column still was invented in 1832, and the "London dry" style was developed later in the 19th century. In tropical English colonies, gin was used to mask the bitter flavor of quinine, a protection against malaria, which was diluted in tonic water. This was the origin of today's popular gin and tonic combination, even though quinine is no longer used against malaria. Many other gin-based mixed drinks were invented, including the martini. Secretly produced "bathtub gin" was a common drink in the speakeasies of Prohibition-era America due to the relative simplicity of the basic production methods. It remained popular as the basis of many cocktails after the repeal of Prohibition.

At the present time there are numerous types and manufactures of gin, the most notable of which are listed below. Tanqueray Ten has received several awards since its 2000 debut, including double gold medals in 2004 and 2005 at the San Francisco Spirits Competition. Bombay Sapphire is another premium gin that has won international awards since debuting in 1992. In 2005, the Monde Selection in Brussels awarded South Gin (made by Pacific Dawn Distillers of New Zealand) the "Grand Gold with Palm Leaves," rating it the best gin in the world.

The National Gin Museum is in Hasselt, Belgium.

The Book of Gins and Vodkas: A Complete Guide