A literary man named Theodore Geisel once said, “If I were invited to a dinner party with my characters, I wouldn’t show up.” Yet one fateful night in 1925 during Prohibition, Mr. Geisel was quite the character himself, throwing a party in his Dartmouth dorm room and getting caught with his nine friends drinking gin. The resulting violation of campus prohibition laws resulted in Mr. Geisel being suspended in his extracurricular activities, including writing for the campus magazine. Not to be deterred from his calling, he shifted characters and took up the pseudonym Seuss (his middle name) to continue writing on the sly, later adding the title of “Dr.” in later publications. Forty-six books and countless nonsensical hours of rhyming fun later Dr. Seuss’ gin-inspired persona has become one of the most imaginative and impactful children’s authors of all time.
Gin, with its surprising array of botanical properties and perfume-like nuances, has a varied set of famous characters in its fan base. Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca preferred the deep mystery of Gordon’s Gin, whereas the witty and inspiring statesman Winston Churchill picked first the mellow, earthy notes of Plymouth. A lot of people unfamiliar with gin have a misconception that all gin is “bathtub gin” in its flavor profile – harsh and grainy and hot with so much alcohol one could go blind. I was one of those people, only drinking cheap Gin & Tonics on a beach with a bonfire up until I had my first Plymouth & Tonic at 27, and then a Bombay Sapphire Martini thereafter, and was opened up to a whole new realm of thinking. The profile of gin and its myriad of botanical elements make pairing it in a cocktail truly a science, filled with as many character drink profiles as there are characters who imbibe it.
Though it has more base variations extending all the way back into the Middle Ages, modern gin’s ancestor, genever, was credited to be originally developed by physician Franciscus de la Boe (aka Dr. Silvius) in Holland in the 1600s. After studying the diuretic effects of juniper berries on the digestive tract, tonics from the juniper berries and other botanical elements were created in order to treat stomach ailments. Later coined as “Dutch Courage,” genever became a popular spirit during the Dutch War of Independence in the 1580s. English soldiers stationed in Holland enthusiastically received the juniper-infused spirit, and the Navy especially found it more palatable to add it to the lime juice they drank to prevent scurvy. Genever and other varied distillations of “gin” as it became called spread quickly throughout Europe. Interestingly, in harmony with its roots in medicinal qualities, one of the most common ways that modern gin is consumed, as a Gin & Tonic, was originally brought about in colonial India as a treatment for malaria, because it was more palatable to add the malaria-killing quinine to carbonated water.
What makes gin a fun science is its spectrum of botanicals. Because the base spirit is made from either molasses or grain, it has a virtually neutral flavor until the infusion of juniper and other botanicals are added. Typically fine gins have between six to ten different botanical components in addition to the juniper, and the recipes are closely guarded secrets by the producers. Some of the botanicals used in gin are coriander, lemon peel, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange peel, angelica and cardamom, licorice, and even essences of rose and citrus. It is because of these variances that some gins work better than others when it comes to cocktail recipes. I find it fascinating, for instance, that virtually any type of gin will work well with tonic, and whether you take it with a lime or a lemon, or even a cucumber (which I like when drinking Hendricks), it will have a nice and touchable flavor profile and each gin will make a very different drink. In a more complicated cocktail, however, some styles of gin work better than others. A more bright and floral gin profile (like Plymouth or Bombay Sapphire) does not tend to be as good in a cocktail that has a lot of heavy elements in it because the subtle nuances and perfumes can tend to get lost. Even Hendricks, with its cucumber and rose essence notes, is hard to integrate overly well with cocktails like the Negroni, which incorporates the somewhat bitter Italian Campari with gin and sweet vermouth. However, where they might be less desirable in a cocktail, these styles of gin make fabulous martinis because the aromatics are well served by the simple ingredients in gin martini recipes.
Another fun aspect to gin as a spirit is the sheer number of near-alchemical concoctions that can be created simply by switching one brand of gin for another. And really, like its ingredients, gin can be spicy and sultry or bright and mischievous, such as in the case of the legendary Tom Collins drink. With a recipe attributed to the famous “father of American mixology,” Jerry Thomas, this drink actually developed from a hoax, aptly named the “Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874.” In this hoax, a random speaker would start weaving great stories about the fictitious Tom Collins and his defamation of a chosen target, usually some poor hapless sucker giving a listening ear. The target in question would become so riled and roused by the stories he was hearing, he would demand to know where this Tom Collins could be found. Upon being pointed to another drinking establishment, the offended party would call out for Tom Collins, after which he would be served a refreshing gin concoction to assuage his ire. Aptly, with legends such as these, gin has proven that not only does it have sophistication, but also humor and character to boot. If you’re still hesitant to delve into how delightful different gins can be, or afraid that you just may not like them, just remember the words of the indomitable Dr. Seuss: “Try them, try them, and you may! Try them and you may, I say.”