By David Nuttall ( Courtesy of Culinaire Magazine — www.culinairemagazine.ca )
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca (1942).
Gin had its beginnings as a medieval medicinal remedy in several cultures that had established distilling practices and had access to juniper berries. Eventually, it reached northern Europe where “Genever” became popularized by the Dutch in the 13th century.
The word itself is an English shortening of the Dutch word for juniper.
Through the late 1500s, British troops fighting against the Spanish in the Dutch War of Independence found the juniper-flavoured spirit they drank gave them what was called "Dutch courage" in battle.
In 1688, Dutch Protestant William of Orange and his English wife Mary became co-rulers of England after the "Glorious Revolution" drove James II from the throne, and he proceeded to inhibit the importation of brandy and wine from Catholic countries by attaching high tariffs and taxes to the products. To fill this void, he abolished taxes and licensing fees for grain spirits such as gin and, by the early 1700s, London had become the gin producing capital of the world.
With the British Navy exporting gin around the world to help suppress the bitterness of the quinine-containing tonic water they drank to prevent malaria in foreign outposts, one of the earliest and most famous mixed drinks was born. By 1850, the less sweet London Dry had become the most popular style of gin.
In Europe and the Americas, for much of the 18th through to the first half of the 20th centuries, gin was the most consumed spirit (whether produced legitimately or not). Because distilling was not the refined process it is today (and illegal production was close to undrinkable straight up), gin was more palatable than vodka and moonshine because the juniper flavour helped mask the harsh unpleasantness of low-grade grain spirits.
Of course, cheap and plentiful alcohol has a way of creating, shall we say, a less sober population, and gin began to earn its reputation as the drink for "gin-soaked" drunks. Its relative ease of production made it the illegal liquor of choice during Prohibition, leading to the development of "bathtub" gins drunk in "gin-mills" and "gin-joints" or other disreputable bars and speakeasies. It maintained its following legally after the repeal of Prohibition, primarily because it requires no aging, unlike whiskies and rums.
As distillation processes improved, by post World War II, vodka had become the liquor of choice, thanks to its flavourless qualities and versatility in mixed drinks. The next 60 years saw gin sales plummet as vodka and unaged white rum sales soared. However, as the new millennium arrived, craft distilleries brought gin back as the favourite base spirit for experimentations. As the cocktail enjoyed a rebirth in popularity, the exciting options provided by gin saw a resurrection in its sales.
In Alberta, where craft distilleries only arrived in the 2010s, the number of gins available grew from around 120 in 2014 to over 500 today, with more than 50 regular lines produced in Alberta alone (not counting special editions). While vodka is still king of the white spirit category, gin is closing in on white rum for second, and has the largest growth of all three over the past few years. It is a long way from its glory days, but gin’s popularity is trending up.
Gin’s uniqueness comes from the mixture of botanicals and spices introduced into its juniper-infused grain spirit base. Distillers and master blenders can add ingredients based on recipe requirements, price, availability, uniqueness, locality, or even whimsy. Alberta distillers will often highlight native plants, but they will also blend in foreign elements or create a combination of both, allowing for an infinite variety of possibilities. Also, unlike vodka, gin is usually redistilled after being infused with these ingredients, leading to a crisper, higher quality spirit.
Most gin made today is a variant of the London Dry style; clear, less sweet, full of juniper flavour, with a tinge of the botanical additions. However, in the past few years, gin has pushed the boundaries of its own definition, resulting in colourful variants, many of which only hint to the classics of yore, and barely pay a passing nod to its juniper roots.
Here are a few Alberta gins with unique character:
Copper Cork Distillery Rhuby Gin, Vermilion; ochre colour, sweet, with a berry-rhubarb flavour. CSPC +828150, $38
Troubled Monk Epitaph Blue Gin, Red Deer; light, floral violet notes and a dark blue colour. CSPC +819966, $45
Tippa's Wood Duck Oaked Gin, Okotoks; light amber colour, with subtle tannins from French Oak. CSPC +815220, $48
Wild Life Distillery Barrel-aged Gin, Canmore; bourbon meets gin with a light amber colour. CSPC +812647, $56
Strathcona Spirits Pinot Gin, Edmonton; aging in French and American white oak Pinot Noir casks produces pear, apricot, and plum flavours and a pink salmon colour. CSPC +828395, $60
Eau Claire Saskatoon Honey Gin, Turner Valley; yellow colour, sweet, and full of honey aroma and flavour. CSPC +833379, $60
Also look for citrus gins, ones made with local berries, and seasonal releases.
David has worked in liquor since the late 1980s. He is a freelance writer, beer judge, speaker, and since 2014, has run Brew Ed monthly beer education classes in Calgary. Follow @abfbrewed.
Courtesy of Culinaire Magazine