Friday, May 06, 2005

'Tis the season...

Hendrick's Gin
Originally uploaded by ajkinik.

During much of the year here in Montreal, I find it hard to even think about gin. Gin has strong associations with warm temperatures and/or summertime in my mind, and I develop something akin to a mental block with regards to gin during the long winters here. But then the temperatures begin to rise, the trees and plants start to come back to life, and suddenly gin makes sense again.

These associations of mine have a great deal to do with the appeal of the gin and tonic, which was specifically developed as a drink that would help British colonizers deal with tropical climes. But, let’s face it, gin itself is very much a product of Northern Europe—actually northwestern Europe, to be exact, Britain, Holland, and Flanders, quite specifically—hardly a region known for its balminess.

Gin (good gin, that is) is a drink caught between the modern world and the pre-modern world in many ways. Gin’s roots are generally said to lie in the Low Countries, where genever— a spirit whose name comes from the Dutch word for juniper, the ingredient that gives it its unique flavor—has been made for centuries. Gin was “discovered” by the English sometime during the late Middle Ages or Early Renaissance, and it was most likely produced in England not long afterwards, but what is certain is that in the 17th and 18th centuries gin hit the British market with the force of a hammer. Prior to this period, spirits were used mainly for medicinal purposes, and “organic” beverages such as beer and wine, where the alcohol content comes from a natural fermentation process and is at par with the sugar content of the plants from which they are produced, were the only kinds of alcoholic beverages that were enjoyed on a regular, even daily, basis, as a beverage. Things changed at the beginning of the Industrial Age, when liquor quite suddenly became an everyday drink. In his “social history of spices, stimulants, and intoxicants,” Tastes of Paradise, Wolfgang Schivelbusch makes a persuasive argument that the explosion in the liquor market, and indeed the sudden development of a taste for beverages with the impact of liquor, was very much tied to the industrialization of Northern Europe. He writes:

"Distillation raised the alcohol content far beyond the natural limits. To be precise, distilled spirits contained ten times the alcohol of traditional beer—which could not help but have far-reaching consequences. Whereas beer and wine are drunk slowly in long sips, and the inebriation process is gradual, liquor is tossed off [or tossed back, as the case may be], and intoxication is more or less instantaneous. Liquor thus represents a process of acceleration of intoxication, intrinsically related to other processes of acceleration in the modern age. The tenfold intensification of alcohol content over that of traditional beer meant that a person could now get drunk with one-tenth the quantity of liquor, or in one-tenth the time it had formerly taken. The maximized effect, the acceleration, and the reduced price made liquor a true child of the Industrial Revolution. It was to drinking what the mechanical weaver’s loom was to weaving."

Gin was the most commonly produced variety of distilled spirit in Britain at the time, and thus all spirits became known as “gin.” Time and time again, the social world produced by “gin” was depicted as being a wanton inversion of that world as it had existed in earlier times, when beer was king, as well as the diametric opposite of the social world of the developing bourgeoisie, which had recently embraced coffee, and its powerful sobering influence, and rejected the carnivalesque world of alcohol.

At the same time, gin—especially so-called “London gin”—with its essence of juniper berries and its complex combination of aromatics and botanicals, takes us back to the pre-industrial world. So, for instance, Bombay Sapphire may be a readily available, mass-produced brand of gin, but its complex flavor includes hints of everything from coriander, to Grains of Paradise, to cinnamon, to Cubeb Berries, calling to mind the drink’s origins as a Medieval medicine, as well as the premium that was placed on spices, herbs, and strong, exotic flavors in Europe during the Middle Ages (as opposed to Europe from the 17th century on, when such flavors were weaned out of the Northern European diet almost entirely).

Now, much has been made of the emergence of “boutique” vodka and small-batch vodka over the last few years, as the vodka market has continued to expand internationally, but what hasn’t been documented quite so thoroughly has been the revival of small-batch gin. In Britain, Flemish Belgium, and Holland you can find gin and genever specialists stocking dozens, even hundreds (in some cases) of different varieties of the spirit made by producers big and small, young and old. Last fall, we got a particularly nice bottle of Scottish gin—Hendrick’s Gin, “est. 1886”—that some friends of ours picked up on a walking tour of Britain. Hendrick’s Gin has a complexity that leaves even something like Bombay Sapphire in the dust. In addition to “traditional botanicals,” such as juniper, coriander, and citrus peel, Hendrick’s also infuses their gin with everything from cucumber to rose petals, resulting in what they call “a most iconoclastic gin… [that] is not for everyone.” I’m glad. There’ll be more for us.

We tried our bottle of Hendrick’s when we first received it, but it was already November when we got it, and we quickly moved on to Scotch without looking back. This week, when the sun came out and the temperatures suddenly began to rise again, I started thinking about our beautiful bottle of gin again. I haven’t dared to add any tonic to it yet—I think I’ll save the tonic for our next bottle. I’ve just been enjoying this particular gin straight, savoring it one shot glass at a time.


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