Jacques Bezuidenhout hails from South Africa, but has been working in San Francisco since 1988. While at The Irish Bank, Jacques created what many believe to be the most extensive Scotch Whisky selection in the Bay Area. He has been the opening consultant for multiple bars and restaurants, and has also served as Brand Ambassador for Plymouth Gin. He has been instrumental in organizing the San Francisco chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild, and is the current chairman. He is also the bar manager at Tres Agaves and Harry Denton's Starlight Room.
Gin, that great English tipple that either makes your mouth water thinking of a dry martini, or makes you shiver thinking of your old man's liquor cabinet. However you feel about gin, it has a rich history steeped in war, an epidemic, and royalty. And yes, it's making a comeback.
Gin, or genever as it was first known, came about in Holland as a medicine in the mid-1500s. Juniper berries were used to cure kidney ailments by infusing the berries with alcohol. Soon people discovered that this was not only an effective cure, but it had some very special side effects when consumed! They soon developed a taste for this fiery spirit and genever started to be commercially produced. It was nothing like the gin we know today, and like other spirits produced during this era, it was fiery and harsh.
English soldiers fighting in the 30-Year War in the Low Countries soon developed a taste for this genever, or gin as they called it. Learning from the Dutch, the English soldiers would have a little gin before going into battle to give them courage, so that's how we got the term "Dutch Courage."
It wasn't until England appointed a Dutch king to the throne that gin finally started to become popular. King William of Orange encouraged local distillation, and so the gin craze took off. Around the mid-1700s, England was in the midst of what you could call a gin epidemic. At the height of the epidemic, 11 million gallons of gin were being produced per year, and a lot of it was being consumed, to say the least. Finally, legislation brought the whole drunken mess to a sober halt. Slowly, the producers with a taste for quality started focusing on making drinkable gin, and at this time was the birth of gin as we know it today.
Gin is basically a neutral grain spirit (vodka) that is infused with juniper berries and various other botanicals, like lemon and orange peel, coriander, Angelica root and some more obscure ones, like cucumber and saffron. There aren't any restrictions on the selection of botanicals, except that the juniper berry has to be the predominant botanical.
There are four different styles of gin today: Dutch Gin, London Dry, Plymouth, and the new style gins. London Dry is the style that we are all most familiar with, and the brands we recognize with that style are Tanqueray, Bombay, and Beefeater. They tend to have a predominant juniper and citrusy flavor. Plymouth is a style in its own right—it has to be made in the town of Plymouth, England. It has a style that isn't so juniper-dominant and has some lovely citrus, spice, and floral characters. The new style gins are the ones with those funky characters coming into play, like cucumber and pear. The brands you may have seen in this style are Hendrick's and Beefeater Wet.
So where is gin today? It has certainly taken a back seat to vodka for the last 60-odd years. In its glory days, gin was the tipple of choice before, during, and after Prohibition. It was the heart and lifeblood of one of the most popular cocktails of all time, the martini. We even drank it in our Bloody Marys before vodka came along. (Vodka didn't get popular until the late fifties.) Thankfully today more bartenders are focusing on gin for their cocktails of choice. The consumer's palate is growing up, and they are looking for a little more flavor and complexity in their cocktails.
All this talk of gin has made me thirsty. The martini is still one of the best cocktails that has stood the test of time. Try it at home since it really is quite simple to make:
Chill down a cocktail glass in your freezer. Take a pitcher or a mixing glass and add about 2-1/2 oz. of dry vermouth. (This is a little more than usual, but trust me, it works and it's delicious.) Then add about 2-1/2 oz. to 3 oz. of gin, depending upon the size of your cocktail glass. Fill with ice and stir for a good 30 seconds. Strain into the chilled cocktail glass. Take a lemon and peel a strip of the peel with a lemon peeler. Twist that lemon peel over the martini and watch those flavorful oils coat the top of your briskly cold martini. Enjoy a plate of olives on the side and watch your day become a whole lot better.
If you're a creative type, you can go to your local grocer or the farmer's market and pick up some seasonal fruit like watermelon, peaches, berries, mint, or whatever captures your fancy. Try integrating it with your gin of choice—you may be surprised at the delicious and refreshing outcome.