Summer is finally upon us, though at times the calendar seems to be the only evidence of its presence. As you prepare your summer plans and getaways, I'd like to supply you with information and inspiration that will be invaluable to your inebriation this season.
The subject that I would like to discuss is Gin, and I would like to remain on this subject for the entire month of June. The reasons for this are several. First, there are many drinkers who are reluctant to give gin a shot, precisely because they did so too often during their younger days of inexperienced and indiscriminatory drinking, which left them a negative impression of the spirit. "Back in college" is the common prefatory phrase for many of these stories.
Second, there are varieties of gin which are separate and distinct from the common London Dry that have been long forgotten about until only recently where they are enjoying a return to favor. Each of these varieties (Sloe, Old Tom, and Genever) will be separately explored and utilized in cocktails in upcoming installments of Happy Hour this month.
Third, there are more classic cocktail recipes calling for gin than for any other spirit. Check any of the old texts and you'll see. This is because before the surge of vodka's popularity which came in the 1960s, gin was the dominant spirit for mixing.
Last but not least of which, it is June after all, and it is not by coincidence that gin is the star this month. In fact a good deal of my anticipation of summer was rooted in the excitement of doing this feature on gins, because it is as quintessential a summer spirit as light rum, so there really is no better way to kick off the summer.
Thankfully my first experience with gin was a fond one. I recall sitting around a table with friends playing dominoes at a hotel party during high school (we'd pitch in to rent a room and throw a party). The scent of California sticky permeated the air; Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" was playing in the background; a bootleg version of the classic film Friday was in the VCR--a week before it was due in the theaters; and handles of Bombay Sapphire from Price Club (now Costco) were withing arms reach, begging to be reunited with their familiar friend OJ. It may sound cliche now, but that's only because Hollywood made it so--this was really our lives then.
We didn't really do vodka back then, either. Gin and juice or the occasional straight shot of tequila were the only clear liquors we touched. Again, it wasn't until Hollywood and MTV began pumping the product, especially in late 90's music videos, that vodka became as en vogue as it is now.
Had it not been for such fond memories, I would have likely been among the ranks of those who grimace upon the mere mention of juniper. Unfortunately not all have been as blessed, so there is much work to do. So let the rehabilitation begin.
As the title indicates, today is all about London Dry and Plymouth Gin. First a little background and then, as you know the procedure by know, some cocktails.
Perhaps the best way to begin talking about gin is to be as simple and blunt as possible. Gin is, to put in terms simple enough for the vodka-fiend to understand, grain-based vodka flavored with juniper and other botanicals, with each distillery having their own proprietary recipe. Another way of looking at gin is by viewing its connection with whiskey. Both are grain-based spirits (wheat and/or rye), but where whiskey parts ways is in the aging process, which enables it to taste and look like what it we recognize it to be. This is surely a simplistic view, but it is helpful in dispelling the notion that gin is a mystical spirit derived from some strange-flavored berry only found in remote parts of Europe, and instead reveals that gin shares the same origins as many other popular spirits.
The most popular variety of gin today is the style known as London Dry. Bombay Sapphire, Tangueray, Beefeater, and many other common brands fall under this category. If you've ever ordered a gin Martini, then you have tried London Dry gin, as it is what most people think of when they think of gin. While it is not the first type of gin created (in fact it's comparatively new to the scene, and we'll get to some of the old-school varieties in the coming weeks), it has become king of gins largely due to the popularity of cocktails like the aforementioned Martini.
Although each distillery has its own unique formula, London Dry gins share a few distinguishing characteristics. First, they are relatively light-bodied in comparison to other styles. Also, in addition to juniper berry, which is the common flavor denominator in all gins, London Dry gins are also accented with citrus from dried lemon and bitter orange peels. This results in a drier gin, making it uniquely suited for mixing. Other botanicals such as anise, angelica root, cinnamon, coriander, cassia bark, and many others are commonly added, with each distillery determining their own unique combinations, although none are considered essential to the London Dry style.
Plymouth Gin gets its name from the port city of Plymouth located along the English Channel, where it originated. Nowadays, Plymouth Gin is made exclusively by the Black Friars Distillery in Plymouth, which also has exclusive right to the term Plymouth Gin. Hence the bottle you see pictured above is the only company that makes Plymouth style gin.
In contrast with London Dry, Plymouth Gin is more full-bodied and aromatic, with a less dominant juniper profile. While Plymouth Gin is also accented with lemon and orange, it lacks the bitterness of London Dry because it is flavored with sweet Seville Orange peels instead of bitter orange.
The other botanicals used in Plymouth Gin are orris root, angelica root, cardamom pods, and coriander, many of which are common to London Dry gins as well. This is one reason why the difference between Plymouth and London Dry is not an immense one--most people would likely not even notice the difference if one was swapped for the other in their Martini. In fact, although I used Plymouth in both of today's cocktail recipes, you are free to use a London Dry gin instead if you prefer.
The first cocktail for this week is the classic Negroni, which as far as classic gin cocktails go, is my favorite. In fact, the Negroni is probably my favorite cocktail of all, and is on the short list of Essential Cocktails that every respectable bartender should know how to make. In the church of Negroni, I am indeed an evangelist.
The drink is a bracing combo of gin, sweet vermouth, and the ultimate hate-it-or-love-it ingredient, Campari. It is the antithesis of the fussy cocktail; three simple ingredients in equal proportions, stirred and served either in a glass of ice or served up like a Martini with an orange or lemon twist garnish. That's it. Drink it before dinner (because it is an aperitif) and enjoy a couple more with your dinner if the mood strikes you. (bottom cocktail in picture)
1 oz gin
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 oz Campari
orange or lemon peel for garnish
Tools: bar spoon, mixing glass, strainer
Glass: coupe (pictured), cocktail, or old-fashioned glass
Fill mixing glass with plenty of ice and all liquid ingredients. Stir briskly for about 30 seconds (until frost forms on glass) and either serve "up" (my preference) by straining into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass, or on the rocks by straining into an old-fashioned glass filled with ice. For the garnish (which is essential in this drink), take a knife or peeler and cut a section of lemon or orange rind (I think orange complements the drink much better), avoiding as much of the bitter white pith as possible. With your fingers pinch the peel over the drink to lightly spritz it with the citrus oil, then drop it in the drink.
For a twist that will both enhance the drink and impress your guests, flame the citrus peel before dropping it in. This technique works best with an orange because of the higher concentration of citrus oil on the peel, which is the inflammatory agent. To do this you'll need to cut a piece of orange rind as explained above, and a match. Light the match and hold it above the drink; take the orange peel and prepare to pinch it as explained above, except this time you'll be holding it over the flame while pinching, so that you release the citrus oils into the flame, causing a quick flare that caramelizes the oils; then drop the peel in the drink as you normally would. It may take a bit of practice at first, but it's plenty worth it. I have one hand and I can do it, so you should be just fine. For an easy how-to video go here.
Cocktail number two is also a fairly simple drink to make, which I call the Pineau Cocktail. It is based on a drink recipe from Rachel Maddow in the Jan/Feb issue of Imbibe magazine, which she called the Pineau Martini.
Pineau Cocktail (top cocktail in picture)
3 oz gin
1 oz Pineau des Charentes
2 dashes Fee Brothers Grapefruit Bitters
lemon twist for garnish
Tools: bar spoon, mixing glass, strainer
Fill a mixing glass with ice plus all liquid ingredients. Stir briskly until frost develops on glass and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the lemon twist.
I say this cocktail is based on a Rachel Maddow recipe because it does deviate slightly from the recipe she offered. Hers was simply a 2:1 ratio of gin to Pineau. However because Pineau is a very sweet ingredient, I felt a 3:1 ratio of gin to Pineau would better balance out the sweetness, otherwise the flavor of the gin seemed lost. I also think a couple dashes of grapefruit bitters provides a nice background accent.
Although this cocktail is a refreshing and unique take on the Martini, it is not a Martini, so I felt the need to change the name as well. I am an austere adherent to the belief that the term "Martini" ought only refer to the original Martini cocktail, so I certainly had to change the name (sorry Rachel, love your show though!).
This concludes part 1 of Gin & June. My how far I've come from the gin and juice days of high school! Next week we're going real real old-school, taking you back to Holland to explore Genever, the forefather of modern-day Gin. Cheers!
Come back every Wednesday for Paystyle's weekly Happy Hour column.
Photography by Vanessa Bahmani