What is Gin? Gin has a wonderful and exciting history, particularly in Amsterdam and London. It also generates the greatest level of enthusiasm and snobbery outside of scotch. People come to know a gin, love a gin, and steadfastly hold to that gin until the day that they die. This does not prevent it from tasting like gasoline to many first-time drinkers. It is generally a higher proof than vodka (often north of 45% alcohol) with heavy herbal and juniper flavors and aroma. It's not meant to be drunk straight, ever. But if you can get a good gin in a well-made classic martini, it can literally bring you to tears it's so good.
Where does gin come from? According to Anthony Dias Blue and his The Complete Book of Spirits, gin was "concoted around 1650 by Franciscus De Le Boe Sylvius" who was trying to find cures for gastrointestinal ailments. His solution was juniper berry oil - a big-time diuretic - but it tasted so bad that he had to figure out a way to make it taste better. His solution to that problem was to blend it with grain neutral spirits. Obviously a different era. He called it genever from the French genievre or "juniper." This was later shortened to gin. The English sensationalized gin in the 1700s leading to the "gin craze" and the beginning of the temperance movement due to public drunkenness.
How is gin made? Today, gin is actually nothing more than a flavored vodka following particular prescriptive herbal flavorings. In the case of traditional "London Dry" gins, the flavor profile is heavily juniper. "Genever" gins tend to follow more old-fashioned recipes and are sweeter with more malt "barley" in the flavor. What we call "modern" gins are more exploratory, searching for flavor profiles that are less juniper and more fruit or flower - but it can't be "gin" unless the dominant characteristic is juniper. The grain alcohol (or vodka) is infused with a proprietary batch of botanicals ranging from few to many - this is why every gin can taste different because the opportunities to elevate one herb over another is limitless. It's a lot like barbecue sauces - they're all similar yet every one different and often one brand inspiring incredible loyalty.
Who should drink gin? Gin is usually "stage 2" for the would-be cocktail initiate but many return to it endlessly so it shouldn't be mistaken for some kind of amateur-level liquor. It's often mixed with tonic and citrus for wonderful summer drinks as well as dashes of vermouth in heady martinis. Always plan to blend it with ice or some other ingredient, especially at first, which will help you enjoy the flavors.
Biggest gin myth to bust... "Shaken not stirred" is a complete Hollywood fabrication. The Martini cocktail is actually designed to be stirred, which allows the ice to blend down the gin but leaves the spirit crystal clear. Shaking a cocktail creates cloud and froth, which purists decry spoils the effect of the drink. It is, however, an issue of complete aesthetics - a shaken martini will taste exactly the same as a stirred martini after a minute or so of rest and there is no such thing as "bruising" a gin.
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