The Intoxicating History of Gin
The current gin craze knows no bounds, but the British have been imbibing the stuff for hundreds of years, sometimes with disastrous results.
The other day, I had a White Lady, followed by a Love Thrill and a Hanky Panky. They made a great team. All three were supplied to me by Federico, at the Savoy Hotel, in London. Enter the lobby, make a left, trot up the stairs, and you come to the American Bar, a longtime shrine at which many parched pilgrims have sought relief. The suave and bearded Federico is one of the high priests who, clad in white jackets, serve behind the bar, and I watched in reverence as he aerated the egg white that would soften the blow of my White Lady. I took a sip. It was like being kicked by a cloud.
The White Lady was not invented at the Savoy, and a spritz of mystery surrounds its birth. Credit is often given to Harry MacElhone, the resident genius at Harry’s New York Bar, in Paris, who is said to have devised the mixture for—or with the scholarly assistance of—F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. But it was Harry Craddock, the head barman at the Savoy from 1926 to 1938, who refined the recipe. Legend also insists that he buried a White Lady, presumably coffined in its shaker, inside a wall of the Savoy, like a time capsule. (Future archeologists will, one hopes, unearth the capsule and declare it to be some form of chalice, once used in a sacred rite. They will not be wrong.) The final flourish, the story goes, was then applied by one of Craddock’s successors, Peter Dorelli, who added the egg white, thus conjuring the creamy top note that a good White Lady deserves.
The Love Thrill and the Hanky Panky, on the other hand, were indeed born at the Savoy. The first incorporates, among its other charms, fig liqueur and, according to the menu, banana. I had visions of little yellow bergs drifting mushily around and bumping against the edge of the glass, but no; all that rose from it was a suspicion of the bananaesque. The Hanky Panky is a more serious proposition. It was devised by Craddock’s predecessor, the formidable Ada Coleman, who reigned over the American Bar from 1903 to 1926, at a time when women, as customers, were not allowed in the bar. She came up with the Hanky Panky for a favorite client, who, pleading fatigue, demanded a concoction “with a bit of punch in it.” (He meant a hit, not something festive and fruity in a bowl.) This was duly delivered, and the result, featuring a cameo role by Fernet Branca, has a rich brown tinge, hinting at the medicinal. Nothing is more cunning than a drink that gulls you into the false, short-lived, but delicious belief that it might be good for you.
After my Hanky Panky, and having briefly sampled an Alaska, whose golden radiance is caused by yellow chartreuse, I called it a night. Not that my work was done. I had come to the Savoy on a mission: a single-minded quest, with many paths. Yet I hadn’t even had the basic courtesy to order a dry Martini. And I really ought to have stayed for a Tom Collins, a Window into Paradise, a gimlet, a rickey, and a Sun Sun Sun, before slapping myself back to life with a Corpse Reviver No. 2. I could even have risked an Electric Lover, although that contains glitter, and, as a rule, I try not to be arrested for sparkling in a built-up area. So, what links the White Lady, the Martini, and all these other delights? Well, if I’d had the nerve, I would have requested this:
A fiery Lake that sets the Brain in Flame, burns up the Entrails, and scorches every Part within; and at the same time a Lethe of Oblivion, in which the Wretch immers’d drowns his most pinching Cares.
Those are the words of a guy named Bernard Mandeville, writing in 1714, and sounding stressed, but I didn’t want to eat into Federico’s evening by quoting them in full. Instead, I just asked for gin.
Not that long ago, gin was for squares. Maybe your parents drank it, and your grandparents before them. Gin: the very word was plain and unexciting. How uncool was it to opt for gin, confining yourself to one drab syllable, when the whisky-loving dude beside you at the bar was still deciding among Bruichladdich, Craigellachie, and Smoky Goat?
If you did pick gin, chances were that it came in a dry Martini. A noble thing, which has lent succor to millions of drinkers, it is mainly a coalition of gin and vermouth, although minor parties are sometimes invited to join and, as with all coalitions, the balance of power is fiercely contested. The dryness increases in inverse proportion to the amount of vermouth. Luis Buñuel suggested holding the bottle of vermouth in a shaft of sunlight, so that it would irradiate the gin without touching it: a wicked twist on the doctrine of the Incarnation. Drier still, if spiked with apocrypha, is Noël Coward’s definition: “A perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy.” And yet, for decades, the fact of the Martini somehow clouded the choice of gin, if you could call it a choice at all. Tanqueray. Beefeater. Bombay Sapphire. Gordon’s. That, more often than not, was it.
Similar limits applied to the gin-and-tonic. This was, by custom, a drink that spoke more unfathomably to the deeps of the British soul than to that of other races. From the outset, it was laced with memories, or myths, of imperial rule; what Schweppes first sold in 1870 was not just tonic water but “Indian Tonic Water,” and today, though besieged by an army of Fever-Tree tonics, it still holds considerable sway. The water is tonic because it contains quinine, which is anti-malarial—a lifesaver, if you happen to be invading or infesting a marshy foreign land. That is why, a century after Schweppes’s innovation, to quaff a gin-and-tonic on a summer’s day, in the well-to-do shires of England, was no less nostalgic than refreshing. Up went the hospitable cry “Ice and a slice?” and down sank the hearts of the younger generation, who observed their elders clutching a bottle of Gordon’s as if it were a Teddy bear, and decided that gin was ancient history. Its compound of the hearty and the sprightly was an embarrassment. Its bite was gone. Never again could it become the latest thing.
And now look. Gin is on the rise and on the loose. It has gone forth and multiplied. Forget rising sea levels; given the sudden ascendancy of gin, the polar gin caps must be melting fast. Torn between a Tommyrotter and a Cathouse Pink? Can’t tell the difference between a Spirit Hound and an Ugly Dog? No problem. There are now gins of every shade, for every social occasion, and from every time zone. The contagion is global, and I have stumbled across gins from Japan, Australia, Italy, and Colombia. Finland brings us the uncompromising Bog Gin. I have yet to taste Dragash, which emanates from a mountainous region of Kosovo, but, if it proves to be anything but wolfish, I shall be disappointed. Visitors to Thailand, or lovers of ginseng, will surely enjoy a nip of Iron Balls.
By any reckoning, the spread of gin has been a freakish phenomenon. (I have seen it described as a “Ginaissance.” Anybody heard using this word should, of course, be banned from public bars in perpetuity.) When, where, and why it began is hard to pinpoint; Federico, at the Savoy, puts the cart before the horse and contends that the founding of Fever-Tree tonic, in 2004, drove the headlong return of gin to the market. What’s inarguable is that the outbreak has occurred since the turn of the millennium. One devout Web site, theginisin.com, which lists three hundred and eight American gins, refers to Death’s Door, a fine Wisconsin brand, as “an old kid on the block,” since it harks all the way back to the mists of 2006.
Death’s Door is among the sixty gins, fourteen of them American, that are dished up at Bathtub Gin, on Ninth Avenue, in Manhattan, which does a decent impression of a speakeasy. I dropped in on a rainy day, feeling suitably furtive, and, having survived the close scrutiny of the doorkeeper, felt duty bound to partake of Dorothy Parker, a gin from Williamsburg. (Discounts are not offered, sadly, to readers of this magazine.) A word of advice: head downtown from there, grab a seat at the Tribeca Grill, and, while awaiting your entrée, try a dose of O.R.E. 118—said to be the world’s first raw vegan gin, and new to the market last year. Follow it up with a Wagyu sirloin, medium rare, and feel your conscience explode.
Meanwhile, we have Monkey 47, an über-gin from the Black Forest of Germany, which has become something of a cult, largely on the ground of its botanicals. Not a big deal, you might say, given that botanicals are present in every gin. They are the ingredients—floral, herbal, spicy, and so on—that, via an alchemy that we are encouraged to view as mystical, provide each brand with its singular magic. In most gins, the number of botanicals tends to stay in the single figures, or to hover just above. Not in Monkey 47, though, whose name is a statistical boast. Add three more (bubble gum, manure, and Marlboro Lights, say), and you’d have a nice round number. Personally, I can’t even think of forty-seven botanicals, and, unless the company is selling directly to neurasthenic beagles, I can’t conceive of any customer who will sniff out every aroma. Do some flavors not cancel one another out in the blending?
Often, for reasons of practicality and pride, botanicals are selected with a nod to local produce. Take Calamity Gin, from Texas. Well-trained taste buds, given a slosh, will detect traces of juniper, lavender, bergamot, rose, and cardamom, plus zest of grapefruit, orange, and lime. But those are standard elements, found in varying ratios in innumerable gins. What makes this one special is its secret weapon, bluebonnets. And why? Because the bluebonnet is the state flower of Texas. As yet, nobody in New Hampshire has had the guts to brew a granite gin, with a delicate bouquet of damp stone, but these are early days.
Then, there is Scotland. It has its hands full with whisky, you might think, yet the place is brimming with gins. The most audacious of these is Theodore, which raises the bar, so to speak, by labelling itself as “Pictish.” If gin can hail from extinct ethnic groupings, why not from imaginary lands? The arrival of homely Hobbit Gin, or the self-refrigerating White Witch Gin, distilled in Narnia, cannot be far behind.
Few Scottish innovations have been more successful than Hendrick’s Gin, which has managed the improbable feat of muscling in amongst the major players, thanks in part to its apothecary-style bottles—again, the medicinal touch—and the moxie of its publicity campaigns. (Hendrick’s is part of William Grant & Sons, a sizable Scottish firm that also owns Glenfiddich single malt and other spirits. Hence the muscle.) The inclusion, late in the manufacturing process, of two unlikely essences, rose petal and cucumber, has become a selling point, and Hendrick’s loyalists, when constructing a gin-and-tonic, have been beguiled into adding a slice of cucumber rather than of lemon or lime.
A novice who dives into gin, or simply dips a toe, will soon notice the designation “London Gin” or “London Dry Gin” on many bottles, and will, understandably, assume that the stuff was made in London. Not so. The word “London” denotes a method, and you won’t need me to remind you that Annex II, Section 22, Subsection (a)(i) of Regulation (EC) No 110/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council ordains that London Gin be “obtained exclusively from ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin, with a maximum methanol content of 5 grams per hectolitre of 100% vol. alcohol, whose flavour is introduced exclusively through the re-distillation in traditional stills of ethyl alcohol in the presence of all the natural plant materials used.” In other words, mix your bits together at the start and toss ’em all in the pot. Late arrivals will not be admitted.
By this token, Hendrick’s is not a London Gin, because of that fiddling about with roses and cucumbers in the wake of the distillation; conversely, the much prized Hernö, despite being made on the High Coast of Sweden, does make the grade. To the purist, London Dry is and always will be the eye of the gin storm—calm, clean, and uncluttered, whatever the fads and the frills that swirl around it. And that is as it should be, because any attempt to track gin to its origins winds up going through London. What is more, the city, unwilling to ditch old habits, has been at the hub of the resurgent obsession with gin. New distilleries have opened, as have bars consecrated to gin. In Marylebone, the 108 Bar not only purveys forty-three brands of gin but distills its own, in-house. Further west, on Portobello Road, lies the Distillery, which calls itself “a four-floor mecca for the discerning drinker.” Guests are invited to check into the boutique gin hotel for the night, or to attend the Ginstitute, joining a “team of Ginstructors for an immersive gin history session, followed by a nosing.” Mind if I don’t?
To be honest, the whole country is awash with gin. Sixty-six million bottles of it were sold in the United Kingdom in 2018, a rise of forty-one per cent from the previous year; that’s one bottle per head of the population, and, therefore, by my count, two hundred million headaches. During the same period, the total sales of British gin, at home and abroad, reached more than two and a half billion dollars. With any wave, needless to say, you get the flotsam, and I am now in possession of a board game all about gin, a pack of gin playing cards—for gin rummy, I guess—and, grimmest of all, a bag of crumbly Pink Gin Fudge, which is slightly less appetizing than a bar of soap but costs five times as much. Examining these and other symptoms, one can only conclude that the British people, and Londoners in particular, are in the throes of a full-scale gin craze. Just like old times.
It is more or less agreed that the Gin Craze—a solid historical event, like the Thirty Years’ War—ran from 1720 to 1751. For modern historians, the dates blur at the edges; for many people who lived through that era, especially in labyrinthine London, almost nothing was not a blur. In “Gin: A Global History,” Lesley Jacobs Solmonson makes the alarming claim that “at any given time one out of every four residents—essentially all of the city’s poor—was completely and utterly incoherent.”
The craze didn’t erupt from nowhere. The British have been imbibing gin, or some approximation of it, for hundreds of years. Seventeenth-century British soldiers, fighting in the Low Countries, showed a sweet tooth for the local rotgut, and the word “gin” derives from jenever, the Dutch for juniper. (Just to complicate matters, genever—a respectable spirit, sweeter and warmer than regular gin, and ideal for fending off the northern chill—is still widely drunk in the Netherlands.) Juniper had long been embraced as a curative, especially against the plague (it didn’t work), and that benign reputation lingered. We don’t know exactly what went into the “strong water made of juniper” that the diarist Samuel Pepys knocked back on October 10, 1663, but it did the trick and, he said, allayed his constipation.
If you want someone to blame, or to praise, for opening the floodgates to the deluge of gin, the obvious candidate is William of Orange, the Dutch ruler who came to the throne—the English throne—in 1689. A ban on trading with France, the eternal foe, meant that, with French brandy off limits, a gap yawned in the market. Better yet, in 1690 Parliament passed “an Act for encouraging the distilling of brandy and spirits from corn.” (Almost any grain crop qualified as corn.) From that innocent present participle “encouraging” a mighty fountain sprang. And, lo, the people came to lap.
Accurate figures for the lapping are provided by Jessica Warner, in “Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason.” She writes:
In 1700, the average adult drank slightly more than a third of a gallon of cheap spirits over the course of a year; by 1720 that amount had nearly doubled; and by 1729, the year when the first act restricting sales of gin was passed, the number had nearly doubled again, to slightly more than 1.3 gallons per capita.
The annus mirabilis, Warner adds, was 1743, when one person’s average annual consumption hit 2.2 gallons. Note the word “restricting.” For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and for every government that goads us on to consume something delicious, taxable, or addictive, there will be another, not long afterward, that panics, blusters, and tries to turn the tide that it unleashed.
In all, there were eight Gin Acts between 1729 and 1751, which suggests that not all of them had the desired effect. The problem was that distilling had become a domestic trade, with low-grade gin freely and easily produced on private premises. Beer was subjected to well-established regulations, but not gin. Patrick Dillon, in “Gin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva,” points out that “anyone who could afford a vat and a still could set up shop and make spirits.” All that the seller required, Dillon writes, was “a cellar or garret—failing that, a wheelbarrow.” It’s estimated that, in one district of London, the ratio of normal houses to dram shops, as they were known, was five to one. The city suffered an epidemic of drams. The craze was on.
No law on booze will ever surpass the ingenuity of those determined to break it, as any student of Prohibition is aware, and as any reader of “The Life and Uncommon Adventures of Captain Dudley Bradstreet,” published in 1755, can confirm. The author was on the make during the later Gin Acts, and, having studied them for loopholes, displayed both wit and élan in staying, if only by a whisker, within the rules. He realized, for instance, that the authorities, who by now were clamping down on distillation in the home, had no right to break into the home to do the clamping. So he “purchased in Moorfields the Sign of a Cat, and had it nailed to a Street Window; I then caused a Leaden Pipe, the small End out about an Inch, to be placed under the Paw of the Cat; the End that was within had a Funnel to it.” At night, Bradstreet entered the house, shut the door, and waited:
At last I heard the Chink of Money, and a comfortable Voice say, “Puss, give me two Pennyworth of Gin.” I instantly put my Mouth to the Tube, and bid them receive it from the Pipe under her Paw, and then measured and poured it into the Funnel, from whence they soon received it.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the vending machine. Every culture has a soft spot for comic resourcefulness, and you can still see a Puss & Mew, as it was called, at the Beefeater distillery, in South London. Animal spirits, however, were the sunny side of the Gin Craze; the flip side was abominably dark. The damage to health, both mental and physical, was calamitous, and the threat to public order, given that gin was the cheapest and nastiest narcotic available to the working class, was sufficient to frighten the more fortunate. In one dismal development, the Gin Acts spurred enterprising citizens to snitch on illegal distillers—a lucrative but hazardous pursuit, with some informers being chased and beaten to death by angry crowds. And all for gin. The spirit in question was not the elegant nectar, graced with a balance of botanicals, that we celebrate today but a base and vicious moonshine, which, not content with wrecking your constitution, went after your fundamental sense of right and wrong and destroyed that, too:
On Sunday night we took the Child into the Fields, and stripp’d it, and ty’d a Linen Handkerchief hard about its Neck to keep it from crying, and then laid it in a Ditch. After that, we went together, and sold the Coat and Stay for a Shilling, and the Petticoat and Stockings for a Groat. We parted the Money, and join’d for a Quartern of Gin.
That is the confession made by a Londoner named Judith Defour. The child was her own daughter, Mary, whom she murdered in January, 1734. Defour was convicted and hanged, and her crime was one more piece of evidence in the case against gin. The notion that strong liquor can dissolve the ties that are meant to bind society together, and that the principal outcome of drinking is not pleasure but chaos, was never propounded in more vigorous detail than by “Gin Lane,” William Hogarth’s famous print of 1751. At the center of the image is a woman with her clothes in rags and her breasts exposed; lost in a haze of gin, she smiles, and fails to notice that her child has slipped her embrace and tumbled over a railing to its doom. She has not taken a life deliberately, like Defour, but let it fall away, without a care. Behind her, the townsfolk tussle and bicker; one man shares a bone with a dog; housetops collapse into the street. The world is dead drunk.
“Gin Lane” was one of a pair. Its counterpart, to be viewed in juxtaposition, was “Beer Street,” in which the English recline at their ease, lightly flirt, and go about their lawful business. The comparison could not be starker, and it proves that what troubled Hogarth, and kindled his moralizing gaze, was not the act of drinking in itself—after all, a tankard of good English ale was evidently a boon—but the drinking of gin. That was the root of all evil. (Like so many evils, as perceived by this island race, it had started abroad.)
The same year that “Gin Lane” was issued, Hogarth’s friend Henry Fielding, who was not just the author of “Tom Jones” and other novels but also a senior magistrate in London, much concerned with the plight of the poor, wrote a pamphlet entitled “An Enquiry Into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers.” One cause that Fielding cites is inebriation, and specifically “that Poison called Gin.” He regrets having to send offenders to prison, when “Gin alone was the Cause of the Transgression,” and his antidote to the poison is bluntly economic: “Suppose the Price was to be raised so high, by a severe Import, that Gin would be placed entirely beyond the Reach of the Vulgar!”
All of which demonstrates why Jessica Warner is right to call gin “the first modern drug.” Our terrors about opium or crack cocaine, our debates over legalization, and the variations in our judicial severity are amply prefigured in the Gin Craze. When Warner raises “the question of whether a reforming elite was reacting to gin per se or rather to larger and more intractable threats to their society and way of life,” she is looking around her and not merely back into the past. Not that everybody, then or now, is automatically filled with the zeal for reform; for a classic statement of the libertarian approach, try Samuel Johnson, whose brisk Tory tolerance had an answer for most conundrums. Asked why it was worth giving halfpence to beggars, since they would “only lay it out in gin or tobacco,” he asked, in return, “Why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence?” He continued:
It is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure, reckoned too coarse for our own acceptance. Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding; yet for the poor we delight in stripping it still barer.
And so the arguments blaze on, from age to age. The madness that gripped the British capital in the first half of the eighteenth century was the worst and the most notorious phase in the saga of gin, but it was certainly not the last. From the beginning, this transparent liquid, readily mistaken for water, seems to have self-infused, sucking up our deepest intimations—more pungent than any botanical—about how we should live together, how fast the standards of that living can plunge, how they might best be raised, and how, if we renounce all hope, any of us could die in a ditch. Gin, in short, is never just about gin. A century after Judith Defour was executed, Dickens, who was attuned more keenly to London than anyone has ever been, saw that not much had changed since Fielding’s day, and that what comes out of a bottle is of less importance than what drives us to pick it up:
Gin-drinking is a great vice in England, but wretchedness and dirt are a greater; and until you improve the homes of the poor, or persuade a half-famished wretch not to seek relief in the temporary oblivion of his own misery, with the pittance which, divided among his family, would furnish a morsel of bread for each, gin-shops will increase in number and splendour.
So, venom or elixir? Panacea, luxury, or hooch? Or a pretext for not mentioning other things? The jury will stay out forever. In order to define gin, however, or to pronounce on its universal impact, it’s not enough to bemoan the excesses of the past or to carouse amid the wares of the present. If you thirst for the quintessence of gin, you have to make your own.
Meet Tyler. In some respects, I prefer Beryl, and she’s even more remarkable, but I couldn’t handle her. She deserves better than me. Tyler it is, then. Together, we can make beautiful gin.
By tradition, most gin stills have female names. One distillery, in the Cotswolds, is home to Proud Mary, Lorelei, and Janis. (A tribute to Joplin, if you’re wondering.) Take the high road to Islay, in the Inner Hebrides, and you’ll find Ugly Betty. Elsewhere, there’s a Messy Bessy, a Gin Jeanie, and the plainspoken Joyce. And let’s not forget Ethel the Still—a piece of machinery, not a modest medieval queen—by the shores of Lake Michigan. As for London, the reigning matriarch is Prudence, “the first copper pot still to launch in London for nearly two hundred years,” according to her owner, Sipsmith. She arrived in 2009. Two sisters, Patience and Constance, came along later. The three of them sound like the well-bred daughters of a nineteenth-century temperance clan, yet their job is to pour forth an intoxicating stream. Bliss.
Beryl is the one and only still at 58 Gin, a small but purposeful firm, founded by an Australian named Mark Marmont, in 2014, and now tucked away down a mews in the East End of London. You go through an archway, and there, at the rear of the premises, stands Beryl, a steampunk dream in copper and steel. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, you would probably ask yourself why the brass, woodwind, and timpani sections of the London Symphony Orchestra had been moved to the lair of a Bond villain.
On the left is a pot, as bulbous as a genie and as big as an igloo. Polished to a blinding shine, it can hold four hundred and fifty litres. There’s a lockable metal hatch, which swings open, as if to admit a deep-sea explorer. (Marmont is a former dive instructor. He must feel right at home.) Down the hatch you tip your personal potpourri of ingredients; inside, they mingle politely with near-pure ethanol and demineralized water. Once heated, the mixture emits vapor, which steams out of the top of the pot and passes through a network of pipes, cooling as it goes, and eventually emerging, from a column on the right, as a clear liquid. This you dilute. And that, give or take a hundred adjustments, and a few perspiring years of practice, is how you bring gin—proper gin—into being.
Or, at any rate, that is one way of doing it. Other methods exist, notably vapor infusion, whereby the botanicals, rather than macerating in the alcohol and water, are hung above, in sieves or baskets, through which the steam ascends. But Beryl’s technique remains hard to beat, and it is copied, in a less complex form, by Tyler—one of a row of mini-stills that line the side of the room. Tyler is no taller than a coffeepot, with a temperature gauge the size of a wristwatch, and it was quietly thrilling to witness the procedure at work. The penultimate stage, in which the heat of the almost-gin is abated by running water as it glides through a copper coil, was enough to breed the illusion, if only for a few minutes, that I was in charge of my own private nuclear reactor.
58 Gin, like many distilleries, offers gin tuition, and the teacher, for the evening class that I attended with three other hopefuls, was Hannah Jeffs. She handed each of us a clipboard, on which was a list of twenty-six botanicals. Some of these were fairly mainstream, like pink grapefruit and chamomile; others were more recherché, like aniseed and cassia; and one, Grains of Paradise, sounded like a gnarly and sardonic rock band from Hawaii. Three were compulsory—juniper, angelica, and orrisroot, which looks like sawdust, smells of next to nothing, and is also much in demand in the perfume industry. (At one point, Chanel allegedly bought up so much orris stock as to put gin-makers in jeopardy.) This left me with the agonizing task of choosing five or six more ingredients to create my unique brew. Briefly, recalling the example set by Monkey 47, I toyed with the idea of throwing in all twenty-six, plus eye of newt and toe of frog for good measure, but wiser counsels prevailed.
In the end, my list was short and solid: blood orange, Spanish lemon (not to be confused with Egyptian lemon, which was less smoky), rosemary—a warhorse of the gin trade, and none the worse for that—and cubeb pepper. Whatever that may be. Hannah, kindly but cryptically, advised a last-minute speck of vanilla bean. All these I weighed out, in tiny amounts (0.05 grams, for the pepper), and lovingly dropped into Tyler. Alcohol and water were already in situ. The still was fired up. Thumbs were twiddled, fingernails chewed. And, a paltry half an hour later, out came gin. My gin, easy as pie. If you want to know how Moses felt when he smote the rock, just find your nearest distillery, book a lesson, and start smiting.
One advantage of gin, unlike many other spirits and almost every wine, is that it’s ready to roll. Make it, and you can drink it straight away. Not the head, as it’s called, the first liquor to issue from the pipe as the distilling begins to bear fruit, or the tail, the dregs that conclude the operation, but the stuff in between. (The vocabulary of spirits is strangely carnal. After you swill a small amount around a glass, the lines that trickle downward are referred to as legs, and their viscosity is a useful pointer to the balance of your botanicals.) This you can bottle without delay, having paused only to top it up with water, thus determining its potency. London Dry Gins, say, must have a minimum alcohol content of 37.5 per cent, though most of them, in practice, occupy the low-to-mid-forties zone. You can use less water, the result being Navy Strength gin at fifty-seven per cent or higher, but only if you have no plans to walk upright for the rest of the day.
Thus it was that, at the end of my trip to East London, I was able to go home with a bottle, labelled and wax-sealed, of what I had produced. If I’d been assembling my own Scotch whisky, I would have been away for three years; that is how long, by law, whisky has to sit and ruminate in casks. Of late, admittedly, a fashion has arisen for the casking of gin, and I have recently sampled Hibernation, a Welsh gin that bides its time in white-port casks, and PX Cask Gin, manufactured by Greensand Ridge, in Kent, and aged in casks of Pedro Ximenez. The latter has the color and the distant aroma of sherry, though it would take a palate less primitive than mine to discern any casking in the liquor itself, sipped neat—until, that is, it receives a splash of water, or a burst of tonic. Then the sherry starts to talk.
And so we arrive at the central enigma of gin. However funky the flavorings that you insert after distillation, and whatever the fizzy mixers you pour on top, you can never add anything of genuine meaning and substance to gin. All you can do is bring out what is there. (Directors of Shakespeare, I suspect, feel much the same way.) The gin that I cooked up was oddly non-disgusting and, at first blush, not so far from the signature product of 58 Gin—hardly a surprise, since they have many components in common. But mine, on further acquaintance, dwindled into a novelty, whereas the experience that underlay the professional version began to glimmer through. I made a few cocktails from each, and there was no denying the melancholy truth: my Hanky lacked Panky.
It was a moment of revelation when Joe Harper, the bar manager at the Savoy, said to me, “You can only echo the gin.” Thus did gin itself, during the craze of the eighteenth century, bear echoes of the lusts and the gross inequalities of the epoch. The history and the taste of gin are interfused, ceaselessly, twist upon twist. In which case, what will the multitude of twenty-first-century gins, and the silly things that we do with them, tell of us? As I reach for an Electric Lover, or a shot of Kokoro Gin Blueberry & Lemongrass Liqueur, or—God preserve us—a bottle of Zymurgorium Flagingo Pink Gin, what message am I sending to the future? Whether such mania can or should persist, of course, is open to debate. All bubbles burst in the end, and gin will be no exception. Something else, no doubt, will swell in its stead. Already, there are rumors of rum.
Author: Anthony Lane
Publication: The New Yorker