From Juniper to James Bond: A Gin Primer

Jun 18th, 2012 | By | Category: In the Glass, Recipes
Classic Martini

Classic Martini (recipe below).

Personal Disclaimer: I feel a debt of gratitude to gin.

The early 1980s were the tail end of the Three-Martini Lunch, but the book
publishing industry, like the advertising industry, was still fully involved in a romance with gin (do you watch Mad Men?). I was working at a New York book publishing house and by happenstance, most of my colleagues were from an older generation of publishers who were still committed to the occasional Three-Martini Lunch. (When I had lunch with my contemporaries, we had Perrier, maybe a glass of wine, and a light one-course meal.) The routine for the Three-Martini Lunch was gathering at a slow-paced midtown club or restaurant around 12:30. We drank martinis or the like and ate hors d’oeuvres for an hour and a half or so, and then had a three-course meal with wine or beer. We talked and talked and laughed and laughed. We returned to the office around three o’clock for a lot of coffee or a sleepy afternoon before heading home for a pre-prandial cocktail or a quick drink at a book party.

We live in more censorious times so I feel obliged to defend the Three-Martini Lunch. Was it healthy or productive? No. But it was how my admired colleagues, those aging publishing war horses, cemented their business relationships, shared the sometimes
difficult stories of their work and lives, and laughed a lot in a very tough business.

I remember those times with amazement and fondness.

Thank you, gin.

As the previous anecdote illustrates, gin has been a lot of things to a lot of people.

Gin is named after the French word for juniper, genevrier, whose berries are the primary flavoring ingredient in the grain neutral spirits. The invention of gin as we know it is attributed to the 17th century Dutch physician Francis Sylvius, who promoted it for medicinal purposes. (And not just medicinal purposes as in the Three-Martini Lunch.) It was said to be good for a variety of ailments from gallstones to lumbago.

When gin crossed the Channel to England in the mid-18th century, it lost its salubrious associations and became synonymous with drunkenness. Gin was regarded as one of London’s great social problems. It was cheap—cheaper than beer—and was typically adulterated with turpentine. It was so harsh that drinkers sweetened it with their own sugar. It took national legislation to bring the “gin mills” under control and roll back the tide of gin-soaked drunkenness.

A perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy. — Noel Coward

In the 19th century, gin returned to its medicinal roots as the accompaniment for quinine, the malaria preventative that was used throughout the British tropical colonies. The quinine was dissolved in carbonated water and became known as quinine water or “tonic.” The gin and tonic was born.

“Bathtub gin” was popular during American prohibition. It was simple to make—even at home. Gin was no longer the drink of destructive inebriation or cloaked in medicinal virtues; it was the drink of speakeasies and good times. It was the party drink.

The rehabilitation of gin continued through the 20th century.

It became associated with sophisticated drinkers in the form of the martini (and the aforementioned Three-Martini Lunch). Martini aficionados became famously precise in their demands: not just the brand of the gin, but the temperature of the distinctive glass; the amount of dry vermouth from a tablespoon to a drop (a drop giving a “very dry” martini); olives, onions, or “no fruit;” on the rocks or straight up; shaken or stirred were all of passionate concern.

James Bond’s Martini from Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

“Bond looked carefully at the barman.
‘A dry martini,’ he said. ‘One. In a deep champagne goblet.’
‘Oui, monsieur.’
‘Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet* Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?’
‘Certainly, monsieur.’ The barman seemed pleased with the idea . . .
He watched carefully as the deep glass became frosted with the pale golden drink, slightly aerated by the bruising of the shaker. He reached for it and took a long sip.
‘Excellent,’ he said to the barman, ‘but if you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better.’ “

*Kina Lillet was an early name for Lillet, the French aperitif made from wine and citrus.

One martini lover had cards printed up with exact instructions—it saved time-consuming explanations to the bartender. There began to be a backlash against martini-fussiness, however. One drinker of my acquaintance discovered that if he ordered “gin in a glass” he got a bigger drink than if he ordered a martini.

Ironically, gin is losing its dominant place in the martini. Vodka martinis are increasing in popularity. The very word “martini” no longer always refers to Martini & Rossi, the vermouth maker, but is used for a host of gin-less and vermouth-less mixed drinks. In Europe, outside of the U.K., if you ask for a martini, you will probably get a glass of vermouth, dry white or sweet red.

Juniper branch with berries

Juniper branch with berries.

A Guide to Gin
Our most familiar gins are “London Dry Gin” which means they are made of grain neutral spirits with a number of botanicals, the most prominent of which is juniper berries. Beefeater gin, which has a pronounced juniper nose and palate, is also distilled with coriander, almonds, liquorice, spicy Angelica root and angelica seed from Belgium, lemons and Seville oranges.

Plymouth gin is a style that was developed in the navy port of Plymouth, England. It has a slightly sweeter flavor than London Dry Gin. Plymouth gin is based on a recipe from 1793 and is made at Black Friar’s, the oldest distillery in England. Plymouth gin also makes Plymouth Navy Strength. For more than 200 years, no British navy ship left port without a bottle of 100 proof Plymouth Navy Strength Gin.

Old Tom is an early variety of gin that is now a rarity. It’s a sugar-sweetened, fruity gin that is still produced in England. It is said to be the original gin for a Tom Collins. Hayman’s Old Tom gin is now available in the U.S.

Sloe gin is the most popular of the infused gins—damson plum is another. Sloe berries come from the blackthorn, a relative of the plum, and give the gin a bright red color and sweet taste. Plymouth makes a premium sloe gin, Gordon’s and Bols (founded in 1575) make mid-priced versions.

Genever or Dutch gin is made from malt and/or corn and is aged in barrels. It has flavors of juniper and anise. Old (“oude”) style genever is sweeter and amber in color; new (“jonge”) style is drier and paler. Genever is not found in mixed drinks, it is served chilled, over ice or shaken with ice. Bols is one of the standard brands.

Northeast FLAVOR Editor Jean Kerr found an unusual gin on the island of Minorca, Spain. Xoriguer Gin is an aged, grape-wine based gin, a style initiated on Minorca by 18th century British sailors. The Pons Justo family has been making Minorcan gin for generations and Xoriguer is still a family business. The color is clear, it is slightly viscous and citrusy and the taste is less dry and sharp than a London Dry gin.

Classic Martini

Nick Charles (played by William Powell in The Thin Man movies) says that martinis should be shaken to a waltz beat.

  • Chilled martini glass
  • 4 ounces gin
  • 1 drop up to 1 ounce dry vermouth

Fill a shaker with the gin, vermouth, and ice. Shake for 15 seconds. Strain into glass. Add your choice of either lemon peel, pimento stuffed olive, cocktail onion, or nothing at all.


Tom Collins

Old Tom gin’s sugar content harkens back to when gin was too harsh to drink without adding sugar.

  • Tall glass
  • Ice cubes
  • 2 ounces gin or Old Tom gin
  • 2 ounces fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon superfine sugar, omit if using Old Tom gin
  • Soda water
  • Slice of lemon

Add gin, lemon juice, sugar and ice. Fill with soda water and stir well. Garnish with lemon slice.


Sloe Gin Fizz

For visual effect, splash in the soda water or seltzer so that it foams in the glass

  • Tall glass
  • Ice cubes
  • 2 ounces sloe gin
  • 1/2 ounce lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon superfine sugar
  • Soda water

Fill shaker with sloe gin, lemon juice, ice and sugar. Shake for 15 seconds. Strain into glass. Add soda water.


Classic Genever

A chilled sake set would make a nice, transcultural way to serve genever and also nods to the early Dutch trading relationship with Japan.

  • Shot glass
  • 2 ounces genever

Chill bottle in freezer and chill glass with ice or in refrigerator. Fill shot glass and down.


French 75

Named for the 75 millimeter French cannon known for its big “kick,” and introduced to me in the WWII novel, The Foreign Correspondent, by Alan Furst. He notes that this version of the French 75 with sugar and lemon juice was also known as the Ritz 75 after the Parisian hotel.

  • Ice cubes
  • 2 ounces gin
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon superfine sugar
  • 3 ounces champagne
  • Orange slice

In a cocktail shaker add ice, gin, lemon juice and sugar. Shake and strain into champagne flute. Top with champagne and garnish with orange slice.

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