Oh, I know, all you vodka lovers out there just adore your white spirit. And, yes, I will admit, there is a place for vodka in the pantheon of cocktail ingredients.
But have you ever placed seven or eight vodkas side by side and then blindly tasted them to see if you could identify the one to which you are wed? Or even see if you could find any great differences between the lot of them? I may be the only one out here with this thought but after I reach a certain price point, around $22, I find the taste differentials in vodka are negligible.
And I like to taste the base spirit in my cocktail. Once a few ingredients are added to vodka, those additives define the drink, not the spirit. Again, you have to always work with the better, maybe not the best, quality, but the popularity of vodka puzzles me. Except that vodka is an excellent deliverer of alcohol. I will grant you that.
Vodka brands are defined more, in my opinion, by marketing and not so much by stylistic, aroma or palate differences.
A white spirit that I do find interesting, and stylistically different from one label to the next, is gin. I think the main reason gin is off-putting to a lot of folks is that at some point in the past, there was a night of over-indulgence and now gin’s distinctive aromas and tastes serve as reminders of a very bad morning-after. Yeccch!
Gin is a light-bodied, wheat or rye grain-based spirit that originated in northern Europe in the late 1500s, and soon found thirsty consumers in England. The name “gin” is a derivative of the Dutch word, jenever, meaning juniper, the prime fruit compound used in the distillation process. Juniper berries come from evergreen, low-to-the-ground bushes that flourish in northern Italy, Croatia, America and Canada.
In the manufacture of gin, the juniper berries are placed in a “tea bag” that is inserted into the still. There are also botanicals in the bag, usually anise, angelica root, cinnamon, orange peel and coriander, among other herbs and spices. Each gin distiller closely guards the identity of the true ingredients and their quantities. The botanicals are what differentiates the aromas and taste of one gin from another.
Gins go through a multiple distillation process, in which the heart of the condensation vapor is distilled again. This removes harsh flavor and aroma compounds, leaving each distillation’s result “cleaner” than the previous action. The last pass through the distiller is where the botanicals’ tea bag is present, giving the final distillation its distinctive gin qualities.
In the United States and England, the largest gin-consuming nations in the world, a style known as London Dry Gin is most popular. Interestingly, Spain boasts the highest consumption of gin per capita.
While London Dry Gin is excellent for use with other ingredients in cocktails, other gin styles are Plymouth, Old Tom, and Genever. Today, Plymouth gin is made by only one company, Coates & Co., and they own the exclusive rights to the term. Old Tom Gin tends to go the sweet side, a style that was popular in the 1800s. Genever is Dutch-style gin, made from malt-grain mash, and a bit on the heavy side.
If you are a fan of simple drinks that can be made in a hurry, what could be easier than a Gin & Tonic? C’mon the name is the ingredients and there are only two items. Three if you include the lime.
Here are some other gin drinks of interest, courtesy of James Waller, author of Drinkology: The Art and Science of the Cocktail:
This is the ancestor of the more famous Brandy Alexander.
1 oz London Dry Gin
¾ oz white crème de cacao
1 oz heavy cream
2 heaping teaspoons whipped cream
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Combine ingredients, including whipping cream, in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Sprinkle nutmeg on top.
A popular drink in your parents’ day, this is one of the few drinks where Rose’s Lime Juice is better than the usually-preferred fresh-squeezed lime. Delicious and quite simple.
2 ½ oz London Dry Gin, or Plymouth Gin
½ oz Rose’s Lime Juice
Rim cocktail glass with lime wedge. Combine ingredients in a mixing glass, with ice. Stir and strain into cocktail glass. Squeeze lime wedge into cocktail and drop it in.
This is the original sling cocktail and original recipe. Not as complicated as a Singapore Sling.
2 ½ oz London Dry or Plymouth gin
½ oz Cointreau or triple sec
½ oz fresh lemon juice
Club soda or seltzer
Rim a highball or collins glass with lemon wedge. Fill the glass with ice. Combine the gin, Cointreau, and lemon juice in a shaker. Shake well and strain into the ice-filled glass. Top with club soda. Squeeze lemon wedge into cocktail and drop wedge in. Stir briefly.
Ramos Gin Fizz
Legendary bartender Henry C. Ramos invented this great cocktail right here in New Orleans, and it has been an international favorite since the late 1800s. Some folks use a blender but we think the drink should be created just as Mr. Ramos did it.
2 oz London Dry Gin
1 oz heavy cream
1 oz simple syrup
¼ oz fresh lemon juice
¼ oz fresh lime juice
4 drops orange flower water
1 egg white
Club soda or seltzer
Combine all ingredients except club soda in standard shaker with ice. Shake for at least three full minutes. Strain into large, chilled, red wine glass. Top with club soda. Stir briefly.
I have intentionally left off the French 75 from this list. There continues to be great debate over whether this cocktail should contain, as its base spirit, gin or cognac. Cocktail historians are fond of noting that the original recipe, named in honor of a 75 mm cannon used by the French in World War I, designated gin as one of two main spirits. The other being Champagne.
I, however, fall into the camp that I cannot imagine any drink with the word, French, in the title and using Champagne, would use an English spirit. But that’s me. And, I am sure, the French.