Ever since James Bond ordered a martini, “shaken and not stirred,” made with vodka, in Ian Fleming’s 1958 novel “Dr. No,” gin’s popularity began to sink.
While vodka has cannily capitalized on the youth market, gin, the other white liquor, hasn’t been a hot category for decades. Gin sales have been soaring in China, India and Russia, but in the top markets like the Philippines, the U.S. and Spain shipments have dropped or remained flat, except for premium imports.
Of course, purists would never dream of making a martini with anything but gin, whose dryness is the subject of countless jokes, as in the instructions to “have a bartender just glance at the vermouth bottle” before pouring the gin into a shaker. A few other classic cocktails demand gin, the Gibson, the gimlet, the negroni, the French 75, and the Singapore sling, but none has the cachet of newer cocktails like the saketini or Cosmopolitan.
Three hundred years ago, gin was all the rage. Originally created by Dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius, gin was used to treat everything from gallstones to bubonic plague. Cheap to produce, gin became the drink of the poor, with 7,500 gin shops in 18th-century London, whose squalor and dissipation were depicted in Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” engravings.
One innkeeper of the day advertized “Drunk for a penny, Dead drunk for twopence, Clean straw for nothing!” During Prohibition in America “bathtub gin” could literally be made by anyone with access to neutral spirits.
Gin’s name derives from “genever,” the Dutch name for a spirit that uses juniper as its principal flavoring. Gin is just one of many genevers, which may have many different flavorings. The minimum alcohol level required by the European Union is 37.5 percent. In the U.S. it is 40. The two main types are Hollands and London. The term “London” once connoted a gin made in or near London, but is now a general term.
For a full immersion course in gin-ology, visit the House of Bols Cocktail & Genever Experience in Amsterdam, just across from the city’s Van Gogh Museum. During a self-guided tour you’ll learn the history of the Genever Co., founded by Lucas Bols in 1575, and pass through a gorgeously lighted Hall of Taste where you can touch and smell the ingredients that go into genever, and sniff from 36 “puffers” of flavorings from strawberry to white mint, coffee to peach.
The tour ends at a bar/lounge called the World of Cocktails, where they’ll make you any of hundreds of cocktails made from scores of Bols genevers. There’s even a Ladies Night special discount, and you can sign up for the Bols Bartending Academy to become a registered bartender.
You will also learn the proper way to drink genevers, which involves leaning over to take a sip from a full shot glass on the table without picking it up. And if you follow a beer with a chaser of genever, it’s called a kopstoot (headbutt) in Flanders.
Bols sells its products worldwide, but while new vodkas -- from improbable places -- seem to appear in the market every month, few producers anywhere seem to be making new gins. So I thought a tasting of well-established gins was an easy way to tackle what’s out there.
Professionals usually taste whiskies cut with a little water, but who would ever drink gin with water? I tried them straight.
Beefeater London Dry Gin ($20)
Beefeater is a true London gin, “distilled in the heart of the city,” at a high 47 percent alcohol, so it’s very lush. When I poured a little from the bottle, its aroma of juniper, Seville oranges and lemon bounded out of the glass. Very aromatic, Beefeater is complex and wonderful on the rocks, but also good for a Gibson, a martini garnished with cocktail onions.
Gordon’s London Dry Gin ($17)
Gordon’s is based on a 1769 formula, with an “By Appointment by Her Majesty the Queen.” The weak nose is a little sharp and it’s a fairly bland, minty gin that would do well as a mixer with tonic or in a negroni.
Seagram’s Extra Dry ($14)
“Extra Dry” means little since all gins are distilled dry. This has a light aroma of citrus, that floats over the palate, with a distinctly American taste -- punchy, with not too much alcohol (40 percent), fruity and fleshy. At $14 you can see why it’s such a big seller in the U.S. My father, a smart man, always used to have bottles of Seagrams and Gilbey’s in the liquor cabinet. He’d use the Gilbey’s for those who asked for gin on the rocks or with tonic, the Seagrams to make a perfect martini. He was right.
Bombay Sapphire East ($25)
Worth every penny, with 42 percent alcohol, this U.K. product is a stylish gin rife with aromatics, many stenciled on the bottle, like Thai lemongrass and Vietnamese black peppercorns. They make it unusual and somewhat exotic, the kind of gin you might have expected in a Singapore sling at the Long Bar in Raffles Hotel, before heading out to tend your rubber plantation.
Tanqueray Special Dry English Gin ($25)
For many gin lovers this is the apex of London gins, highly refined, bursting with aromatics and tropical fruit, all balanced with spice notes that linger on the palate. It’s almost creamy and is best enjoyed on its own or in the very driest martini a bartender can make, with a lemon peel, not an olive.
(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)