Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – The Gin Game

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

The Gin Game  - The mere whiff of gin takes me to England back in the days when I used to cross the Atlantic on the famous Cunard Ocean Liners. Cunard epitomized British refinement and I loved the trips I took as a young companion to my grandmother when she was on her way to join her husband in Europe. My grandma was born a year before the Wright Brothers first successful flight and didn’t trust those flying machines. Cunard’s motto was “getting there is half the fun” and it was. I ordered caviar for breakfast, smoked salmon at lunch and enjoyed a preprandial drink every evening. (I was underage by Canadian law but as the only kid in First Class, I was indulged.) The drink was always a Pimm’s No. 1 Cup; a gin based potation with a mix of herbs said to be good for the digestion. The bartender would stir it up with lemonade in a highball glass decorated with cucumber slices and mint.

Plymouth English GinPimm's No. 1 CupPimm’s I have since found out was first introduced to England’s dandiest gents in 1823 by James Pimm at his famous Oyster Bar restaurant. Oysters and gin were a favourite pairing of the day and Pimm’s flavoured gin served in a small tankard known as a “No. 1 Cup” quickly became all the rage. By 1914 it was “Pimm’s o’clock” all across the Empire. The brand is undergoing a revival of sorts – though a recent attempt to promote it as a winter warmer was met with less than enthusiasm. As a bartender at the Balmoral Bar in Edinburgh told me as he stuffed my Pimm’s glass with strawberry, apple, blueberries and cucumber, “That Pimm’s warm up never really took off. Pimm’s will always be associated with Wimbledon and an English summer.”

Gin itself has had many ups and downs since it first appeared as a medicine in Holland in 1650. The Brits were introduced to it as Dutch Courage during the Thirty Years War. They became completely besotted though not for gin’s so called curative powers but rather for its intoxicating effect. By 1740 London had about 9,000 gin shops and enough gin in a year to pour 20 gallons per adult. Known in the 1820’s as Mother’s Milk (milk and water had become unsanitary), later in the century it was dubbed Mother’s Ruin. Eventually gin was rightly reformed and refined.

Botanicals in GinThe Plymouth Gin Distillery was once a Dominican Order monastery built in 1431 which later became the Black Friars Distillery. Located in Plymouth, the distillery claims Plymouth made the original dry martini citing 1896 documents which list it as a key ingredient. Plymouth English Gin is distilled English wheat flavoured with botanicals. Juniper is at the heart with coriander seeds, lemon peel, orange peel, angelica root, orris root and cardamom pods to give it layers of distinctive lingering tastes. This more refined gin with its subtle elegance of flavours appealed to high society then, and still does now.

During the First Cocktail Age in the 1920’s gin triumphed. The original James Bond martini was based on gin. In more recent decades the spirit languished in the shadows of vodka and other clear spirits until its latest comeback spearheaded by deluxe brands.

Victoria GinTanqueray No. TenThese premium brands have come on stream packaged in fancy bottles and focusing on their unique botanicals. Gins are like vodka with flavour – juniper being the defining classic botanical that differentiates the spirit.  Other botanicals such as roots, spices, dried fruits and herbs give each gin its unique profile. Many of the newest offer a break from the traditional recipe and downplay the juniper. Tanqueray Ten is distilled with whole-fruit fresh botanicals. Oranges, grapefruits and limes give a crisp citrus note to the juniper base made fragrant with chamomile and coriander. Hendrick’s Gin from Scotland has the unorthodox rose petals and cucumbers added to the more standard botanicals. Broker’s has ten botanicals, all fresh, no essences used, including the less common liquorice and nutmeg. Canada’s own Vancouver Island produces the unique Victoria Gin using ten locally sourced organic and wild botanicals. Bombay Sapphire is a ‘beginner’s’ upscale gin with very delicate, muted botanicals that are rounded and so gentle as to be almost bland. London No. 1 Gin made from high quality English grain spirit and 12 botanicals gets its light turquoise colour in part from gardenia flowers and a final infusion of bergamot oil. Different gins are suited for different cocktails depending upon the recipe of botanicals.

For all reviews by Margaret Swaine, click here.


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