Patience Gould looks at gin’s re-emergence in the world of mixology and finds no end of potential in its variety

With the gin market in a state of positive flux there is a clear polarisation between the classics – the big juniper brews, such as Tanqueray, and the more fragrant new kids on the block, led by Hendrick’s. The intense activity of recent years which has seen so many gins coming on stream means there is now a rich panoply of different tastes on the scene and that makes for exciting times on the cocktail circuit. In short, gin is ‘in’ and, overall, mixologists around the globe are very happy with that.

“The great benefit of gin is its heritage,” says Beefeater brand ambassador Seb Hamilton-Mudge. “It’s such a credible spirit. It’s a creative category and it’s pushing us to be ever more innovative.”

The two great cocktail hubs are the US and the UK, but mixing is on the up around the world. Indeed, interest is growing much further afield in Asia (in the main Japan) in Europe and there are now high hopes for Russia (well Moscow initially), in South America (Brazil as well as Argentina) and in Australia.  

“Australia’s cocktail culture could be stronger, but we are probably a net exporter of bartender talent. Oz is full of Brits who find their feet in the bar community here, and this is one of the reasons cocktail trends travel so fast now,” says bar trainer Gee David, of  Hayman’s Australian importer Southtrade International’s.  

“It’s a major revolution. The world of the bartender is globally interconnected by Facebook, Twitter et al. London is connected to Sydney is connected to Tokyo is connected to New York is connected to Moscow – less so because of the language barrier, but that’s changing.”

This is all good news for gin which, for a generation, has had to withstand the vodka onslaught but now it seems the trade as well as the consumer is looking for more flavour in their drinks. Gin has that in varying bucketloads thanks to its botanicals, and brands such as Beefeater, Hendrick’s and Tanqueray are all spreading the gin-word, regularly hosting bartenders from all over the world. 

However, it’s not going to be an overnight recovery and, in markets such as the US, gin’s recovery will take time, as the vodka habit has become so entrenched – but at least the green shoots of juniper are there.

“It’s sad to see that gin was swept away by vodka. This is changing, but oddly enough it’s not yet a consumer-driven trend,” says Hayman’s director of international sales Lewis Johnstone. “It’s a bartender-driven trend as a new generation tries to make a serious go of the profession and they need to hang their hats on something, a topic like gin, that is built on true fact and a history that is so rich. 

“Culturally, if the group of key consumer style leaders jump into gin then the rest will follow. It hasn’t happened yet. Eroding the vodka call will take time, but it is happening.”

Of course it all started Stateside, driven by the Martini – that most iconic of all gin cocktails, and arguably cocktails per se. Its historic associations are rich: Noel Coward remarked that his preferred Martini was made by filling a glass with gin and waving it in the general direction of Italy (for the vermouth); while Dorothy Parker famously declared: “I like one Martini; two at the most. Three I’m under the table and four I’m under the host.”

Undisputedly American

Hendrick’s brand ambassador Duncan McRae says: “The Martini is undisputedly American, there is nothing like it. In the universe of cocktails the Martini is the central force.”

The Martini is also the one cocktail which really exposes the quality of the gin being used. “Well, in terms of quality there’s nowhere to hide,” says Beefeater’s Hamilton-Mudge. “It also demonstrates the skill of the bartender and it’s along with the other classics like the Negroni that we are judged. Of course the overall strength of the gin is hugely important. It’s the alcohol that carries the flavour – Beefeater 24 has to be 45% abv otherwise the flavour of the teas in the botanicals would not carry through.”

Although gin can be legally produced in the EU at 37.5% abv, on a par with the likes of vodka and rum, it is generally agreed for gin and its rich tapestry of botanicals that 40% abv is the optimum minimum strength. Berry Brothers & Rudd’s No 3 super-premium gin, weighs in at a hefty 46% and was developed with the classic cocktails in mind, as well as reviving the three-Martini lunch, which was renowned in the US and currently portrayed in the popular Mad Men TV series, which depicts life in 60s America from the advertising executive’s point of view. That said, though, Tanqueray No Ten, which comes in at 47.3% abv makes a stellar Martini (see box). 

“All things in balance – there should be enough sting in a 40% product to provide the balance and depth of complexity and character in any cocktail,” says Hayman’s Johnstone. “As to what defines the quality of gin in a cocktail such as the gin Martini, I don’t buy into the alcohol strength issue needing to be higher on this one. When Beefeater bought Crown Jewel at 50% abv and said this is the gin that you should make your Martini with, it got it wrong. It was just too powerful.”

Books have been written about the history of the Martini – but generally it is thought that the Martinez – a much sweeter cocktail – was the precursor to this great drink. Sweeter not only for its ingredients but also because it was often made with Old Tom, a style of gin which is sweeter than London Dry – and a style of gin which is also making something of a comeback, both in the UK and the US.

Aside from its sweetness, Old Tom Gin is more botanically intensive than other styles of gin. This gives a distinguished character to the mixed drinks and classic cocktails. As such Old Tom remained the gin of choice in the 19th century and the leading gin houses continued distilling it until the 1950s when it disappeared from the back bar.

Hayman’s Old Tom Gin is distilled from an original family recipe from the 1870s. This style of Old Tom Gin was used in the first cocktail era of the 1880s and features in a number of cocktails from Jerry Thomas’s famous Bartenders Guide. It is also described as an “essential liquor required in the bar room” in Harry Johnson’s Bartenders Manual 1882.

It is the key ingredient of classic gin cocktails such as Martinez, Tom Collins and Ramos Gin Fizz. In the 1890s in the US, this style of Old Tom Gin replaced the previously popular Dutch gin “Hollands Gin” as the preferred gin used in cocktail making.

Classics emerge

Some 20 years later another gin classic, the Negroni, came into the arena. A dangerous concoction originating in Italy, this generally comprises equal measures of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth – but there are variations as demonstrated by Tanqueray’s Perfect 10 Negroni.  

Steve Olsen from Viktor & Spoils, a Mezcaleria & Taqueria on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was a panel judge at this year’s World Class Global Final and came to the Tanqueray Terrace during the competition final in Rio to showcase the Perfect 10 Negroni (see box).

“One thing I know about my peers in the bartending world is that they love a perfect Negroni as much as I do. If I am choosing how to start my evening it is most certainly with a 10 Negroni.” 

At the 2012 Ultimate Cocktail Challenge in New York in June, interestingly the three cocktails mixed with the gin entries were the Gin Martini, the Aviation and the Negroni. Broker’s Gin scooped top prize for the Gin Martini as well as the Aviation. 

“For me there is a simple test of how advanced the gin cocktail culture is in any particular city, namely in how many bars you see a Negroni on the cocktail list,” says Broker’s director Andy Dawson. “The Negroni is big in San Francisco, but it is also big in Sydney and Melbourne. And for that matter Edinburgh.”

Bathtub gin

Of course Prohibition, which incredibly lasted from 1920 to 1933 in the US, ushered in some of today’s classic gin cocktails. And it was the dawn of bathtub gin – a somewhat dubious home brew that required some judicious mixing to mask its raw and pungent taste. Gin Rickey (see Box) is a case in point. It’s Washington DC’s native cocktail where it was first made at Shoomaker’s Bar, now the site of the JW Marriott Washington. Not surprisingly there is a plaque at the 1331 Bar & Lounge at the Marriott honouring the Rickey.

Another Prohibition era cocktail making something of a comeback is Last Word, which was developed at the Detroit Athletic Club. With its equal quantities of gin, Maraschino, Green Chartreuse and lime juice, this is definitely for drinking after all track and field events have finished. 

It was one of the choices of Duncan McRae for Hendrick’s. 

“The general perception of Hendrick’s is that it is a floral gin and as such bartenders condemn it to the more garden-like cocktails, but in fact is has a very heavy juniper backbone, and stands up to the Martinez as well as the Last Word. It really comes through.”

Across the Atlantic in London, The White Lady was invented, apparently originally made with Creme de Menthe, but by 1929 this was replaced by gin, in Harry’s New York Bar, Paris. 

With its mix of Cointreau and fresh lemon juice it has become a gin cocktail stalwart. 

Indeed there are a myriad gin classics for the international cocktail mixing fraternity to lend their talents to, and gin’s very own botanical complexity lends itself to ever greater experimentation. Consider the Experimental Cocktail Club’s St Germain des Pres (see box). And then there’s the Celery Sour – a mix of Hendrick’s, lemon juice, pineapple and celery bitters. And then – well the possibilities are seemingly infinite.