Gin: The Sophisticate's Spirit

<< Back to Robb Report, October 2004

As the martini-pounding Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man series of the 1930s, William Powell and Myrna Loy glamorized gin as the sophisticate’s spirit—a perfect blend of urban savoir faire and polish, with a dash of acerbic wit. The dry martini remains the gin cocktail par excellence, but the drink’s origin is still open to debate. Did bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia concoct the first martini for oil magnate John D. Rockefeller at Manhattan’s Knickerbocker Hotel in 1910? Or is the recipe based on the cocktail that San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel bartender Jerry Thomas made for a guest traveling to the town of Martinez in the 1860s?

When a 16th-century dutch physician began experimenting with juniper-infused alcohol as a panacea for stomach ailments, he could not have known he was creating one of the world’s most enduring spirits. Before anyone could say “Hit me again, Doc,” the enterprising Bols distillery outside of Amsterdam was marketing his malty genever, the precursor to gin.

While the Dutch have always preferred their gins on the sweet side, the Brits created their own version of the seductive spirit, the more bracing London dry gin. Gin has become the melting-pot spirit, incorporating flavors from around the globe to create a variety of taste profiles. Distilled as a neutral grain or corn spirit, gin can be infused creatively with combinations of juniper and other spices and herbs. Some of the agents—orange peel, cumin, ginger, fennel—are familiar. Others—orrisroot from the South of France, grains of paradise from West Africa, and cubeb from the island of Java—are not. Regardless of the ingredients used, most gin brands’ recipes are secured under lock and key.

With new gins arriving from unlikely places—cucumber-tinged Hendrick’s from Scotland, peppery Reval from Estonia, and complex Distillery 209 from San Francisco—the mixology possibilities are endless and increasingly enticing. Plymouth gin is an especially silky version made with soft water from the Devonshire hills, and the saffron-tinged Cadenhead’s Old Raj—a magisterial gin at roughly $50 per bottle—is the most expensive on the market. It makes a great gin and tonic, and its label can prompt playful conversation: It dryly advises omitting the tonic for “expediency if being attacked by a tiger.”

The well-stocked home bar should always include Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength gin, a 90.4 proof powerhouse known for its angelica nose and lavish white-fruit flavors. The gorgeous Tanqueray No. Ten is another bar basic, a near-perfect gin of intense citrus and lush botanicals.

The Dry Martini
{Perfection in a glass}
2 oz. Tanqueray No. Ten gin
1¼2 tsp. dry vermouth or to taste  |  2 oz. crushed ice 
Olive or lemon twist for garnish
Stir gin and vermouth in a mixing glass with ice.
Strain the mixture into your chilled martini glass.
Garnish with an olive or lemon twist.

The Flapper
{Calling F. Scott Fitzgerald}
2 oz. Plymouth gin  |  3¼4 oz. amaretto
1¼2 oz. dry vermouth   |  1¼2 oz. Campari
Scoop of crushed ice  |  Orange peel for garnish
Blend ingredients in a mixing glass. Pour into a chilled cocktail glass and accent with an orange peel.

Coco Chanel
{Opera-length pearls optional}
1 oz. Citadelle gin   |  1 oz. coffee liqueur
1 oz. heavy cream  |  1 oz. crushed ice
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker and mix well.
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

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