Here’s Lookin’ at You, Gin
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 8/22/13

Gin is a colorless liquid with a colorful history. Invented around 1650 by a Dutch doctor, it was later combined with the tonic prescribed to treat malaria. But along the way it garnered a nasty reputation as the cause of many social ills, and, corrupted by unscrupulous “bathtub gin” makers, it actually poisoned Prohibition-era tipplers. Gin, it’s clear, can be as elegant as an icy dry martini and as sleazy as a down-at-the-heels drunk.

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London Gin
to  William Hogarth  (1697–1764 | English artist and satirist)

Early-18th-century London, especially its unwashed precincts, was awash in gin. Spurred by a ban on imported brandy and by implicit government support for British distillers, the so-called Gin Craze devastated the city’s poor, who for a few coppers could forget their troubles with a dram or two (or three) of cheap, locally distilled gin. Public displays of drunkenness provoked outrage stoked by writers like Henry Fielding and Daniel Defoe. Satirical artist William Hogarth joined the anti-gin campaign, issuing his paired prints Beer Street and Gin Lane in 1751. The first depicts a happy, industrious neighborhood, its prosperity fostered by the consumption of healthful English ale. The second portrays a London district modeled on the epidemic’s epicenter, St. Giles parish, sunk into utter depravity by its inhabitants’ addiction to the “cursed Fiend,” gin. Hogarth’s picture—in which tradesmen pawn their tools to buy drink, a drunken madman impales an infant on a stick and, front and center, a dissolute, syphilitic mother lets her baby drop down a stairwell—was hyperbolic but effective. Parliament’s Gin Act of 1751, its passage fostered by the efforts of Hogarth and his fellow propagandists, finally curbed the craze.

The Glorious Revolution  (1688 | English coup)
to  William Hogarth  (1697–1764 | English artist and satirist)

Gin was unknown in Britain before the late 17th century; the first Brits who tippled it were soldiers fighting in Holland, where gin was born. (The word gin comes from the Dutch jenever, meaning “juniper.”) Though alcoholic potions flavored with juniper berries had been distilled in Europe since the Middle Ages, an Amsterdam physician, Franciscus Sylvius, is credited with inventing Dutch gin around 1650. Those visiting redcoats loved it—especially its assuaging effect on pre-battle jitters, which earned gin the moniker “Dutch courage.” Some carried it home, but civilian enthusiasm for the brave new potable didn’t really boom until after 1688, when Dutch prince William III of Orange invaded England, deposing James II and (with his wife, Mary) ascending to the English throne, an event remembered as the Glorious Revolution. The Gin Craze was soon in full, lunatic swing, with London slum dwellers reveling in an endless gin-soaked bash—if, that is, one believes moralizing artist and anti-gin propagandist William Hogarth, whose print Gin Lane is the era’s indelible image. Certainly, moral panic erupts whenever the underclass misbehaves. And gin still hasn’t entirely lost the taint of turpitude.

William Hogarth  (1697–1764 | English artist and satirist)
to  Casablanca  (Michael Curtiz (dir.) | film | 1942)

You must remember this: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” The speaker is Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart); the gin joint is Rick’s Café Américain; the town is Casablanca, Morocco. And “she” is the gal who threw Rick over, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman).

The famous line’s punch derives partly from its irony. A kiss may be a kiss, but Rick’s café, with its potted palms, roulette tables and tony expatriate clientele (most of them desperately fleeing war-torn Europe), is hardly a gin joint. The slangy term, like the related gin mill, is usually reserved for a seedier sort of establishment—the latter-day equivalent of the tawdry gin shops William Hogarth battled in the 1700s. When gin drinking was revived in England during the 19th century, it was swilled in fancy “gin palaces,” the ancestors of today’s pubs. But a whiff of the disreputable seems always to hover around gin’s imbibers. The refugee swells at Rick’s café don’t drink gin; their poisons of choice are champagne, Cointreau and cognac. Even Rick doesn’t touch the stuff. When he utters that “gin joint” line he’s hunkered down with a bottle of Kentucky bourbon.

Casablanca  (Michael Curtiz (dir.) | film | 1942)
to  Ramos Fizz

Many bartenders are mere yeomen and -women, dispensing shots and beers and cocking a sympathetic ear when needed. Casablanca’s barkeep, the sentimental Russian scalawag Sascha (Leonid Kinskey), belongs in that camp. (Kinskey’s enviable real-life role as Bogart’s drinking buddy got him the part.) A few bartenders, however, are wizards of the mixological arts. The names of such geniuses are often lost in the hangover-befogged mists of time, but a few survive. Among the most praiseworthy is Henry C. Ramos, who in New Orleans in 1888 invented what, after the martini, may be the greatest gin-based mixed drink of all, the ramos fizz (a.k.a. the new orleans fizz). It’s also among the hardest to make, not only because of its extensive ingredients list (which, besides gin, includes heavy cream, simple syrup, lemon and lime juice, egg white, orange-flower water and seltzer), but because it must be vigorously shaken, with ice, for a long time—up to 12 minutes, depending on the recipe. Don’t attempt to replicate the sublime result in a blender, and make sure you swaddle your cocktail shaker in a towel, since it will quickly grow painfully icy.

William Hogarth  (1697–1764 | English artist and satirist)
to  Bathtub Gin

In William Hogarth’s day, sellers of gin sometimes dosed it with turpentine. They didn’t intend to poison their customers—turpentine had been used in purportedly curative elixirs since ancient times, and its piney taste was thought to enhance gin’s flavor. The same excuses can’t be made for certain Prohibition-era purveyors of “bathtub gin” who were out to make a black-market buck off the desperately drink deprived. These malefactors sometimes used denatured alcohol (ethyl alcohol rendered nonpotable through the addition of methanol and other compounds) when concocting their homemade hooch, often flavoring it with turpentine because the solvent was cheaper than juniper berries. Besides being toxic, bad bathtub gin was also often foul tasting, a result with one happy effect: Clever bartenders at the speakeasies that served it created an array of cocktails to disguise its repellent flavor. But bathtub gin—so called because the jugs in which it was typically made were too large to fit under a sink faucet and had to be topped off under a bathtub spigot—doesn’t have to be lethal or unpalatable: You can make your own safe and (possibly) drinkable version by macerating (i.e., steeping) juniper berries and other botanicals in your favorite vodka.

to  London Gin

“I’m feeling supersonic / Give me gin and tonic.” So go the lyrics of the 1994 U.K. chart topper “Supersonic” by Oasis. But if the British rockers had been living in one of the hotter climes of the erstwhile empire a century or so earlier, they would have ordered gin and tonic because they were feeling wretched. The drink came into being as a malaria therapy. The gin didn’t help colonials combat the parasitic disease; it was the tonic (a.k.a. quinine water), which contained the antimalarial compound quinine, derived from the bark of the South American cinchona tree. Nineteenth-century tonic had a lot more quinine than today’s brands, making it very bitter, so sufferers stirred in a bit of gin to help the medicine go down. They didn’t, however, pour the mix over ice—an American innovation that stiff-upper-lipped imbibers have long disparaged. Nowadays probably the most popular gin-based libation worldwide, the drink is virtually always a well-iced highball garnished with lime. If you like a drier drink, use a distilled London gin; if your taste runs in the other direction, try the somewhat sweeter Plymouth gin or the nearly candy-like Old Tom variety.

Tom Collins
to  London Gin

Many Americans associate the tom collins with summertime cocktail parties on flagstone-paved backyard patios in 1950s and ’60s subdivisions. Even the tall, narrow, sleek collins glass in which the drink is traditionally served has a midcentury look and appeal. But the drink’s origin dates much further back: It was introduced in the 1876 edition of The Bar-Tender’s Guide by America’s high priest of mixology, Jerry Thomas. Some early recipes (though not Thomas’s) specified the use of “Tom” gin, a sweet English version more commonly called Old Tom. The drink’s name, however, has nothing to do with the gin, referring instead to the so-called Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874—a widespread practical joke in which people disingenuously informed neighbors and friends that a (nonexistent) person called Tom Collins had been spreading rumors about them.

Long out of favor, Old Tom–style gin is once again being produced by a number of distillers (Hayman’s brand is fairly widely available). But a tom collins—basically a fizzy, gin-spiked lemonade—doesn’t really need that extra dash of sweetness; if you prefer a tart thirst quencher, use a good (and easier to find) London dry gin instead.

Tom Collins
to  Ramos Fizz

Gin is probably used in a greater variety of mixed drinks—from the creamy alexander to the austere martini, the bittersweet negroni to the superfruity singapore sling—than any other kind of liquor. That it combines so nicely with so many other tastes is sort of surprising, given gin’s distinctive, sometimes profound, juniper-berry flavor. Different kinds of gin do differ markedly: For example, Dutch jenever, unlike English gins, can have a malty taste, and even within the category of London dry gins there’s great diversity, due mostly to the differing mixes of botanicals—herbs, spices, citrus, etc.—used in different makers’ recipes. Juniper, however, always predominates.

Of all the other stuff gin plays well with, its best playmate may be carbonation. Gin loves bubbles, whether they’re delivered by tonic water, champagne (as in the french 75 cocktail, named for a howitzer and guaranteed to blow you away) or just plain seltzer (or club soda). Gin drinks topped with seltzer are legion, ranging from simple fizzes, rickeys and slings, to the lemony, crisp tom collins, to the sybaritically luscious ramos fizz. It’s that bit of spritz, added after shaking and pouring, that really makes a ramos fizz go pop.