Lesson Four: White Spirits

Chapter Two: Gin

Gin Is The Flavor Of History

Let’s start by noting that the cocktail manuals of yore: Jerry Thomas, the Savoy Cocktail book, William Embry, you name it; they dote upon gin. During the late 19th century, when spirit eclipsed wine (or its spirit form, brandy), gin was the painted harlot that captured the hearts of drinkers. Peruse the classic cocktail books and gin dominates; mix gin into a myriad number of cocktails and it cooperates, justifying its numerical superiority in all those recipe books.

But let’s begin by admitting that gin’s dominance might be simply historical, or perhaps economic, and maybe even misleading because gin is not one thing; it is many things.

How many? Well, first off: juniper. Why juniper? Because it’s good for you. During some of those oft-occurring plagues of the 13th, 14th, 15th or 16th centuries (clearly, they weren’t drinking enough alcohol), masks of juniper berries were reputed to offer immunity. Perhaps. One can hope.

Juniper For My Friends

Juniper berries were supposed to cure many less fatal ailments as well. Science hasn’t passed judgment on those claims but reality is immaterial here; we are talking perception. Juniper was perceived to be good and so people used it. One of the first distillers of record, Arnauld de Villanove (or Villanova, if you’re a graduate of that school) chose juniper berries as the dominant flavoring element in his 13th century distillate. Hey, give the brother some room; he’s carving out new territory and he’s smart enough to know that distilled spirit preserves and concentrates things (see the distillation chapter if you’re missing something here). So why not preserve and concentrate something everyone wants?

So juniper is what he chose; if he chose other things, he didn’t write about them. Nor did his pupil (and the guy who may have actually done the work, Raymond Lully).

Dutch Masters Of Distilling

Centuries later, we are still looking at distillation as a method for concentrating exotic or valuable base ingredients. The next important marker on our tour is far from Villanove’s still in Spain; now we’re in 16th century Holland. Why? Because the Dutch rule the seas; their development of a merchant class built upon sharing (at least to some degree) the spoils of a skilled class (developed at the same time and in cooperation with that merchant class) whether shipbuilders, world navigators or armies for hire (Dutch mercenaries were crucial to this country’s founding, shall we admit that?) meant that more people were in the market for new and interesting drinks, price be damned. (And sorry about all those parentheses.)

Now imagine yourself in 16th century Amsterdam. You and your fellow citizens have crafted a city pier by pier, slowly raising the city above the cruel sea. With precious few resources other than your innate mercantile skills, along with a wicked sense that a sweet deal is far more useful than ethics or morals, you’re in business quite literally. Ship after ship unloads its exotic cargo: fruit from India, vanilla from Madagascar, cinnamon and cloves from Indonesia, actually the list could go on for pages, but here’s the thing: those amazing products will lose their character (or just plain rot) soon after disembarking at Rotterdam, Amsterdam’s nearby port.

How to preserve these ingredients…hmm…let me think. Ah, yes, alcohol. We may not connect the Dutch to booze today, but at the time that the port of Rotterdam is flooded with these remarkably valuable ingredients, the Dutch are developing their own army of master distillers. Brandy: it’s the international term for distilled wine. But it derives from branndiwijn, a Dutch term that means “burnt wine”. Oh, burnt wine…makes sense. And that the word in Dutch tells us volumes about which country deserves chief credit in these developments.

Gin Or Cognac?

Later, as Cognac begins its 16th century discovery of distilled wine, as it realizes that it has a unique soil and climate for distilled wine, the region rushes to hire Dutch distillers, to buy Dutch stills, and it is the Dutch who first merchandise spirit as “Coniack brandy”. Being the good merchants that they are, there’s evidence to suggest that they sell lots of spirit from other regions as “Coniack brandy” but, hey, this Dutchman’s got wooden shoes to buy!

Their distillation recipes are lost to history but we know they used juniper, as well as myriad other elements, to flavor their white spirit, as we might describe it today. But from their perspective, it must have been that they simply grabbed all these rare and valuable ingredients, potentially wasting away in Rotterdam’s vast warehouses, and turned then into something nearly eternal: the spirit rather than the flesh of the fruit, spice, herb and everything else.

Juniper was important, both from a medicinal and sensory standpoint. They called it “genever” and other countries (particularly, the British) mispronounced it and shortened the term to “gin”. The Brits had their own merchant force, but whether as a class and as a naval power; they were probably predisposed to adopt the spirit regardless. British history is a remarkable reflection of the sexual shenanigans of a small and weird intermingling of royals and, as only one example, the marital elevation of Willem II of Orange (think Holland) to the English throne (henceforth King William II) in 1689 promoted genever in England. What might have been a momentary faddish embrace of Dutch Courage (as so many have called gin) grew in strength: William II had deposed King James’ Catholicism and assisted in the birth of Parliamentarianism. The two naval powers, England and Holland, had plenty of spear fights (use your imaginations) and American Independence brought them back in conflict. Without genuine Dutch gin to buy, the British were free to make their own. Two and a half centuries later, London Dry Gin is a far more successful and visible version of juniper spirit than its progenitor, genever.

London Calling For More Botanicals

Without the wealth of bursting Rotterdam warehouses at hand, the Brits made a far simpler and predictable version of “gin”: this time, focused upon juniper. London Dry Gin may be a mashbill duet of coriander and juniper, but it’s the juniper that sings the loudest. The coriander is subtler; other notes include orris root, citrus peel, anise, cassia, bitter almonds, caraway, cocoa and angelica root.

Britain’s love affair with gin dressed the stage for a series of showstoppers: the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are marked by efforts to curtail catastrophic gin consumption. The lessons learned from their successes and failures in attempting to limit gin drinking are as important today as ever. Prohibition was tried and failed. Extreme taxation and prescription failed, though they were cudgels upon the people with all the steel will and inflexible pigheadedness that seems to come naturally to British authority. More measured taxation and proscription succeeded though even today, far too many puritanical spirits are allowed to rule public opinion and gentle measures are seen as lacking in morale certitude while merely lacking in grandiose gesture.

You can destroy a few unlucky souls on the gibbet, but the majority want a drink and gin was that drink. England’s green and verdant land had become the cultural homeland of a resettled globe, its imperial majesty built one loaded ship at a time. The Dutch had crumbled under its stronger hand. The French, the Spanish and the Italians might have retained a few colonies but they only dotted the globe. Yes, the sun never quite set upon the British Empire, at least for a time, so all the world was their grocer, and gin’s botanicals list got lengthier.

For spirits drinkers, England’s sun lies still on the horizon. Today’s gin is hardly Dutch; it’s quintessentially British; further, it speaks of a vibrant British imagination utterly at odds with the stilted English habit of brandy and soda. But let’s be fairer to our cultural forbears. The British created the holiday abroad; they created wine writing; as bad as their traditional food might have been, they helped create food writing as well (after all, they were the first travel writers). Cocktails are an American creation, so we say, but the gin and tonic was the drink of a million young British lads serving on the Indian subcontinent. Those malaria-sickened but hale souls were looking for protection or redemption. Today, the rest of us don’t drink a G&T for our health; we drink them for our happiness. It may be one of the simplest, greatest cocktails ever devised.

Where Have All The Good Times Gone?

The crazy end to this story is gin’s lack of success today. What? You say that gin is on a roll and that your favorite bartenders make every great drink (at least when they’re not using Tequila, Mezcal, Cognac, Armagnac, Bourbon, Rye, and everything else for the base spirit) from gin? Okay, savor this along with your juniper extract: Fifteen years ago, there were only about four important gin brands among the “call” brands. Today there are more than a hundred of them. Things are great for gin, right? Well…except that despite all this rush to the market, gin sales are roughly what they were a few years ago. In other words, if this were a stock option, you’d see right through it: everybody tried to make money off a perceived gold rush, but it turned out to be fool’s gold.

We wish it were otherwise: gin can be one of the world’s most fascinating drinks. A gin and tonic is perhaps the most refreshing summer drink that has ever been imagined. An ice-cold martini (keep your vodka to yourself, please) has been described by no less an authority than Oscar Wilde as America’s greatest gift to world culture. Moreover, among all the classic cocktails of the twentieth century, gin is the most common base spirit, certainly outstripping any other white spirit.

So, we love gin. But we also need to admit defeat gracefully. Gin is no longer the world’s most important spirit; it’s not even that important a white spirit. To far too many today, it’s simply a flavored vodka. Aaarrggh.

Still, if you want to understand the world of classic cocktails, you must embrace gin. You don’t have to love it (but why don’t you, the rest of us plead) but can’t you at least like it? Is there no a shred of humanity left after we forced you to read our gin-sodden history of this particular drink? Well, consider this: You will be told by countless marketers or bartenders that this gin or that is the best because they use Tuscan juniper berries picked by vestal virgins or they have fresh chervil selected only under black lights or even that they have collected only local ingredients. Okay, maybe we exaggerate, but you should now be convinced that balance, as we have tried to convince you all along, is the key. Gin is about juniper too, of course, so please don’t forget that this is a category with historical antecedents; this isn’t work in a vacuum, these brands ought to be built upon what has come before.

Lots of distillers from around the world are trying to compete in this arena: they may or may not get it right (see balance, above). Since gin can be seen to be an evolving category, producers ought to be able to offer their own salient version of morphing that amorphous category. But consistency is the strength of a great distiller: regardless of changes in ingredients, water, humidity, atmospheric conditions, hell, the price of grain, a great distiller finds a way to make brand more important than anything else. And brand perception reflects consistent achievement of a particular and delightful style. In gin, that is everything, and in light of gin’s diverse elements, it is the greatest challenge of all.

Please click on the Learn About Gin Cocktails Button to see BAR Master Ryan Maybee use Gin in a variety of Drinks.


Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Gimlet.

In mixing glass add;
2.5 oz Plymouth Gin
1/2 oz Roses Lime Juice
Add ice and shake
Strain into martini glass
Garnish with lime wheel

Martini (Dry)

Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Dry Martini.

Martini Dry
Chill coupe glass and set aside
Coat the inside of the mixing glass with a little bit of dry vermouth
then pour out any remnants
Add 3 oz of London Dry Gin
Add ice and stir
Strain into coupe glass
Garnish with single olive

Martini (Old)

Ryan Demonstrates How To Make an Original Martini.

Martini Old
In mixing glass add;
2oz dry gin
1oz dry vermouth
2-3 dashes of Regan’s or other Orange Bitters
Add ice and stir
Strain into martini glass
Garnish with lemon zest

Ready for Review?

Now you can click on the “Lesson Four – White Spirits, Tequila” button below to continue your lessons on how alcohol beverages are made.