Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…21st Nov 2017
Gin is the chameleon of the alcohol world. Musing over his unexpected reunion with Ilsa in the timeless classic Casablanca, Rick calls his establishment a ‘gin joint’. And by that he’s implying that it’s a pretty disreputable place. In fact, gin has a chequered history − most of it disreputable.
The name ‘gin’ comes from the Dutch genever or jenever, and the potent distillation is also the origin of the saying ‘Dutch courage’, which was useful in getting soldiers to go forward in a straight line.
In 18th-century London, badly made gin was so plentiful and so cheap (one penny a pint) that it was responsible for a huge upsurge in alcohol abuse. Known as ‘Mother’s Ruin’, gin was, according to anti-gin campaigners of the time, “the principal cause of all the vice and debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people.”
Then, to prevent what was feared to be the ruin of society, the government slapped a tax on gin. Legislation led to a slightly better class of gin being served to a ‘slightly better class of person’ in establishments that became known as gin palaces. And gin accompanied British colonial officials to every corner of the world – well, every potentially profitable corner. It was here, in the malaria-infested tropics of Asia and Africa, that gin met its soulmate – tonic – in a marriage that has stood the test of time like almost no other. And, yes, while the consumption of quinine in the form of tonic water did certainly save many colonials from malaria, the concomitant mandatory, and generous, consumption of gin gave them the stereotypical red-faced, blustery, bristly-moustached, rheumy-eyed visage so beloved of caricaturists.
But there was another side to gin. Gin was the spirit of choice for a range of cocktails. A martini, for example, was by definition gin and vermouth (and orange bitters). But then, in the 1960s, when besuited businessmen (yes, usually men) habitually indulged in a three-martini lunch, the inspired advertising slogan ‘Smirnoff leaves you breathless’ had them promptly substituting vodka. And then the decline of the cocktail in general relegated gin to something Aunty Mary would drink with tonic before lunch (and after lunch, and before dinner, and after dinner – and maybe even before breakfast).
Well, that’s all changed. But before we get to the present and future of gin, what is it that makes it unique – that sets it apart from, say, vodka or brandy? Gin is a clear alcohol redistilled with botanicals (plant matter) to create a delicately flavoured spirit.
The botanical most commonly used – in fact, the one that defines the spirit as gin – is juniper. But each and every gin manufacturer adds a few other carefully guarded secret ingredients. And, with the resurgence of craft gin, those botanicals are becoming more and more important and more and more interesting.
With this country’s phenomenal botanical biodiversity, it’s not surprising that South African artisanal distillers are making big waves in the craft gin pond. There are at least 15 distillers in South Africa creating craft gin, with the centre of gravity decidedly in Cape Town, which has eight. And Cape Town is also home to more gin bars (as opposed to gin joints or gin palaces) than any other South African city.
Here’s where it gets exciting. Local gins make use of local plants. So, for example, one of the three gins produced by Triple Three Estate Distillery on Blaauwklippen Wine Estate is infused with buchu – and you don’t get much more local than that.
With this country’s truly phenomenal botanical biodiversity, South African artisanal distillers are making big waves in the craft gin pond.
Or maybe you do … the beautiful, deep-red Cape Town Rooibos Red Gin is infused with, of course, rooibos, and also juniper, orange peel and cinnamon. The clean, fresh taste of Jorgenson’s Gin comes from locally grown juniper, the zest of six different local citrus fruits, and grains of paradise (Melegueta pepper or Guinea pepper) from West Africa. And Wilderer Fynbos Gin has honeybush, buchu and wild dagga.
These gins are all smooth, and each has a distinct flavour and aromatic profile, so they are worth sipping carefully − but they’re also awesome in cocktails. So I chatted to master mixologists Owen O’Reilly and David Sandler from Sip Exclusive.
“Different gins have such different characters. For example, Bloedlemoen Gin by Hope on Hopkins − a gin with blood orange as a top note − is light and subtle with hints of cassia bark and nutmeg, and a nice, spicy finish, so it goes well in a G&T with citrus. I usually mix it with Socks grapefruit tonic or Fitch & Leedes,” said Owen.
“But in the end,” he adds, “your gin is only as good as your tonic and vice versa, so with the rise of craft gins we also see a whole new world of craft tonics to match these spectacular products … like Socks, Fitch & Leedes, Fever-Tree and Swaan.
“On the other hand, a spicy gin like Musgrave, with cardamom, African ginger and grains of paradise, needs a stronger mixer. It makes a great cocktail with flavours like pineapple, coconut, coffee, apples and pears, or even nutty or chocolatey flavours. It’s also great just sipped on its own over ice, and they’ve recently launched a pink gin with rose hip and rose water – especially for the ladies.”
These sound amazing, but the traditionalist (and Bond-girl wannabe) in me still thinks that gin is about the martini. “So please,” I ask Owen, “how about the ultimate, perfect martini recipe?”
And he responds with a totally Capetonian martini – stirred, not shaken.
Make your own
You will need:
- 50ml Bloedlemoen gin
- 15ml Caperitif
- 3 dashes of orange bitters
- Orange zest to garnish
- A stirring beaker (like a coffee plunger beaker)
- A chilled martini glass.
To make the martini:
- Put ice in the beaker.
- Pour all ingredients over the ice.
- Stir gently for ten to fifteen seconds.
- Strain into the chilled martini glass.
- Garnish with orange zest.