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Friday, 12 March 2010

London (gin) Calling....

Continuing our foray into other spirits this month, we fancied a crack at one of London's oldest and most formidable mistresses- Madame Geneva.

There are perhaps fewer drinks that can unequivocally sum up two drastically opposing views of our great nation better than gin. Indeed, this clearest of spirits carries with it an air of louche sophistication; of lavish evenings spent in the company of Indian Princes, the far-reaching arms of our greatest colonial conquests and a beguiling aromatic charm, which seduced the wealthy and privileged ranks of our upper classes. But before this slightly hazy vision of hedonistic happiness came into being, a very different image of gin prevailed.

Barely a few decades after its introduction to our shores, London was gripped by one of the worst epidemics of alcoholic dependency, chiefly caused by the widespread availability of this cheap, plentiful and often deadly elixir. With its sovereignty under threat, Britain needed to take severe action and gin became one of the first targets in the firing line. So just how did we come so close to losing everything, yet eventually grace gin with such high regard, that it has now become such a quintessentially British drink?

The story of gin began back in Holland in the early 17th century when the 'Father of Gin', Dr. Sylvius, developed a medicinal tonic using Juniper infused alcohol. Its popularity across Holland led to the drinks adoption into the field of battle where, it is claimed, British soldiers first encountered Genever (or Geneva) when fighting against the Spanish in the Dutch War of Independence. The phrase "Dutch courage" is believed to have derived from the drinks heady, yet medicinal qualities and returning soldiers bought back quantities of Genever, where it found further popularity in London.

Its popularity had spread enormously by 1694, when anyone wishing to set up production of a spirit still simply needed to post a notice of their intention to distil ten days before doing so, leading to the emergence of hundreds of crude and often dangerous spirit stills. The spirit’s crude recipe often omitted Juniper altogether and on occasion, all the more sinister ingredients took its place including ‘oil of Vitriol’ (sulphuric acid) and Turpentine’. The thousands of dram houses around the murky backstreets of London began advertising their gut rotting, yet effective wares in the most simple of ways: "Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence and straw for nothing".

So how did we get from this.....

To this??

Well, fortunately a few people got the recipe right and today, we have some truly sensational gins. Here are just a few:

Jensen Old London Gin - 43% abv:

Jensen's is a return to the original older styles of gin that were prevalent around the 1940’s, focusing on the traditional flavour of juniper and a minimal balance of classic botanicals, including Coriander, Orris root, Angelica and Licorice.

Nose: An intensely dry aroma, with the juniper giving off a musk like character of the older gin brands, followed by a more elegant creaminess.

Palate: Bitterness, leading into a very dry, but zesty note, working extremely well with Fentimans tonic.

Overall: Simple, effective and classic styling from this excellent London style gin.

Berry Bros & Rudd- No. 3 London Gin - 46%

A brand new gin, painstakingly created by Berry Bros and featuring a classic balance of botanicals -including Spanish orange peel, Angelica, Cardamon pods and Moroccan Coriander, as well as Juniper.

Nose: Superb crispness and an immediate zing from the Juniper and Coriander. The higher strength really helps to lift the botanicals.

Lots of summery citrus notes, from the orange and grapefruit, held firmly in place by the more spicy notes of the Cardamon and slightly peppery Juniper. The Coriander gives an added warming kick on the finish.

A really exceptional gin, making one of the best Martini's i've had in a long time. The citrus aromas and flavours really wake up the senses. (BTW...I always prefer lemon peel as a garnish, opposed to an overly salty olive!)

Hayman’s Old Tom Gin - 40% abv:

Old Tom, described as the ‘gentle cousin’ of London Dry gin, is a style produced by Hayman’s, one of the oldest and most enduring gin brands still around today. Its recipe is based on the slightly sweetened traditional Old Tom gins, partly taking their name from a traditional wooden serving hatch shaped like a cat, found at some dram houses and gin palaces, which the drinker would receive a shot of gin directly into the mouth.

Nose: Very musky and vegetate, with some wonderful woody and aromatic notes, ginger, dark chocolate and coffee aromas.

Palate: Rich mouth feel from the additional sugar, with a sweet syrupy flavour. Notes of lemon zest and anise are present, giving a nicely balanced, old-fashioned style.

Overall: Hayman’s Old Tom would make an excellent Martinez cocktail, the precursor to the original Martini, with 1 part gin, 2 parts sweet Vermouth (seek out Antica Formula), a dash of bitters and 2 dashes of Marschino Liqueur.

Sacred Gin - 40% abv:

Sacred Gin is a micro distillery gin produced by Ian Hart in Highgate, North London, using 12 different botanicals including Juniper, Cardamom, Nutmeg, and Boswellia Sacra (commonly known as Hougary Frankincense) from which the product name is derived. Sacred is the first micro distillery of its kind in the United Kingdom.

Nose: Lots of spices including cinnamon, white pepper, and a bitter dry note from the Frankincense. Left in the glass, a fresh red berry note comes through. Powerful and elegant at the same time.

Palate: Very light mouthfeel, with minted lamb notes, rosemary and some sea salt. Very fresh and summery.

Overall: Despite its heavily flavoured botanical balance, Sacred are producing some excellent gin and this will compliment any zesty cocktail well, such as a Tom Collins.

Also worth seeking out are Pink 47, which despite the shocking bottle, is actually a reasonable gin.

For more info on the 18th century gin craze of London and the effects it had on its citizens, listen here to Patrick Dillon's extraordinary account, aired on Radio 4's Women's Hour.