Gin

Join The Gin & Tonic Revolution!

14 January 2019

A cocktail as basic and familiar as the Gin & Tonic might seem an inappropriate topic for a blog about drinking the unusual and the obscure. But there’s been something of a Gin & Tonic revolution in recent years. I first became aware of it only last summer, when I visited London, and I was reminded of it here, in southern Africa, where a Gin & Tonic is mandatory at sunset.

Distilleries now create all manner of delicious gins made from an array of different botanicals, far beyond simple juniper and spruce. You might encounter rose or lavender notes, green or pink peppercorn, or herbaceous flavors like rosemary or sage. I wrote some time ago about a New Mexico gin, for example, flavored with cholla cactus blossoms, cascade hops, white desert sage and osha root, all sourced from within a 30-mile radius. Creative distillers are experimenting with all sorts of wonderful aromatic combinations.

There has been a similar explosion in fancy tonic waters, ranging from relatively sweet and easy-drinking to bone-dry to floral to bitter. Tonics like Fentimans, Fever Tree, Q Tonic and Jeffrey’s, to name just a few, all have their partisans. And goodness, they can be rather expensive, costing almost as much, per liter, as cheap gin. Fortunately, Schweppes still makes a perfectly respectable mixer with gin.

Gin & Tonic menu from The Enterprise in London

Both in London and near Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls, I’ve seen menus offering a variety of combinations of gins and tonics, garnished with a range of citrus peels and other aromatics.

It turns out that a simple Gin & Tonic can get rather complicated! That gave me an idea for a party.

What fun it would be, to set out a number of different gins, tonics and garnishes, and have a little contest to see which guest could come up with the best combination!

I recommend having three to five different gins — perhaps avoiding the most obvious brands — depending on the size of the group, and a similar number of tonics.

The more “artisanal” gins often list the botanicals used, making it relatively easy to assemble gins with different characters. A good liquor store should have plenty to choose from on the shelf. Binny’s in Chicago, for example, has dozens from which to choose. I also count seven tonic brands.

The author, photographing wildlife with the aid of a G&T

Also be sure to provide an array of garnishes. I suggest some fresh herbs, like rosemary, basil and sage, as well as the zests of orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime. Gin & Tonic may seem like a summer beverage, but now is citrus season. In addition to the obvious fruits, you might be able to get your hands on some Meyer lemons, blood oranges, pink lemons or even Buddha’s hands.

The garnish is important, because its aroma and oils mingle with the botanicals of the gin, changing the experience of the drink. It’s not just for show in this case.

Have fun experimenting, and if you hit on a combination that you love, I would love to hear about it!

Top 10 Spirits And Cocktails Of 2012

19 December 2012

As I assembled this list, paging through a year’s worth of blog posts, I found myself rather startled at the breadth and diversity of the drinks I consumed in the past year. But even more, I felt profoundly grateful to have had the opportunity to sample everything from Nicaraguan rum in Nicaragua to Cognac in Cognac.

I sipped a lot of amazing things in 2012, but there were a number of true standouts. As is the fashion at this time of year, here is my list of the Top 10 Spirits and Cocktails I drank in 2012. The links lead to the original blog posts about the drinks:

10. SPICE TRADE — I consumed this cocktail of genever, vermouth, star anise, galangal syrup and persimmon water at Madame Geneva, an atmospheric bar just off the Bowery in Manhattan. With that intimidating list of ingredients, this is one cocktail I won’t be making at home! The floating star anise garnish provided an aromatic introduction, and I loved its orange, anise and juniper flavors. It would have been easy to make this cocktail too sweet, but it tasted well-balanced and finished dry.

9. SPACE FILLER — The mixologist at Root in New Orleans came up with this cocktail, composed of rye whiskey, loganberry liqueur and lemon juice. It tasted surprisingly complex, with notes of berries, citrus and wood; sweet and sour elements positively danced on my palate.

8. FENTIMAN’S ROSE LEMONADE & GIN — I never came up with a name for this mixture of Fentiman’s delightful rose lemonade soda and gin, but it deserves a moniker as refreshing as its flavor. This combo smells amazing, with aromas of rose and juniper co-mingling beautifully. Aromatic, tart, not too sweet, complex — this was the whole package.

7. XORIGUER GIN — Speaking of gin, a bottle of this Menorcan beauty cost me only 12 euro, a smashing deal considering the flavor it packs. Sipped neat at room temperature, the gin didn’t feel silky smooth, but it tasted wonderfully complex, with notes of juniper, anise, rose, white pepper and even incense. What a shame this gin isn’t yet available in the U.S.! Hopefully that will change in 2013.

6. MIRTO — I found this digestif on another sensationally scenic Mediterranean island, Sardinia. Made from local myrtle berries, the mirto I brought home tasted of ripe cherries, something herbal, like eucalyptus perhaps, and cinnamon on the finish. It was positively delightful, both at room temperature and chilled (how it’s usually served). And it made some thoroughly delicious cocktails.

5.  — I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this cocktail on the menu at the Four Seasons Chicago. It contained Crème Yvette, a violet-based liqueur that hadn’t been produced in the last 50 years. But there it was, coelacanth-like, in the A², a concoction of Journeyman W.R. Whiskey, Crème Yvette, yuzu juice (a small grapefruit-like fruit) and Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur. The cocktail had an aroma of purple grapes, a strong, fruity flavor with some tangy citrus notes, and a dry, floral finish. A well-balanced and elegant drink.

4. FLOR DE CANA 18-YEAR CENTENARIO GOLD — This gorgeous Nicaraguan rum sucked me in with aromas of vanilla cake and brown sugar and sealed the deal with flavors of vanilla, oak and orange peel. Very rich, with a finish that went on and on.

3. BIJOU — Even if it served merely middling cocktails, the Ranstead Room in Philadelphia would still be worth a visit for its speakeasy-like location and sexy decor straight out of a Mad Men episode. But add in spectacular cocktails crafted with meticulous care, and you have a bar that alone makes a journey to Philly worthwhile. My bartender stirred up a Bijou, a wonderfully smooth mix of Beefeater Gin, Green Chartreuse, Dolin Blanc Vermouth and lemon zest. The aromatics of the gin, the herbaceous bitterness of the Chartreuse, the touch of smooth sweetness from the vermouth — it came together like a flavor symphony.

2. HINE TRIOMPHE — So beautiful was this blend of Grande Champagne Cognacs averaging around 50 years old, with extraordinarily velvety caramel and tobacco flavors, that it brought tears to my eyes. Cellar Master Eric Forget, seeing my reaction, quietly remarked, “It’s not a Cognac. It’s just a pleasure.” Indeed.

1. HENNESSY PARADIS IMPERIAL — This remarkable Cognac also reduced me to tears. Only this time, it was in front of the Cognac Summit’s videographer, camera rolling! Embarrassing, yes, but anyone who has tasted this ambrosial liquid can understand my emotional response. It was a sublime moment, tasting something so profoundly exquisite in so lovely a setting as Hennessy’s Château de Bagnolet. I learned later that the Paradis Impérial blend contains Cognacs dating from the 19th century. I drank liquid history! It’s humbling to think about all the work — and all the waiting — that went into producing that glass of Cognac.

Next up: My Top 10 Wines of 2012

The Unusual Gins Of Martin Miller

4 August 2012

Every now and then, a PR company will send me free samples of something or other to review, and by God, who am I to refuse? A few days ago, a little box arrived bearing little bottles of Martin Miller’s Gin, a spirit distilled in England and mixed with water in Iceland. A little Iceland sounded pretty darn great in this heat, so I invited over a gin swilling — I mean, gin loving — friend, and got to work.

Along with the samples, I received all sorts of information about the inspiration and creation of Martin Miller’s Gin. In 1999, Mr. Miller, a “bon viveur and conoisseur of the finer things in life,” was “[l]eft unsatisfied by all other gin on the market,” and he decided to create his own, crafted to his exacting standards. After all, “Gin is the most seductive of drinks… It’s not just history in a glass, it’s romance and adventure too.”

Although I would save the “Most Seductive” award for Cognac, Mr. Miller is on to something. Gin has a whiff of exotic nostalgia to it. In British colonies, it was mixed with quinine to make the malaria prophylactic more palatable, giving rise to today’s gin and tonic. If one can put aside the problematic politics of empire for a moment, a fine gin can evoke the terrace of a glamorous club in Rangoon or Bombay, where gentlemen in white suits relax to the sounds of a phonograph and the occasional distant trumpet of an elephant.

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My New Favorite Bar In The World

21 July 2012

I’ve had a lot of cocktails in my day — a lot. A lot a lot. But I can count on one hand the drinks that make me long to return to the place where I first sipped them. At the very top of that list is not the Pomada in Menorca, nor the Kir Royale in Burgundy, but the Bijou Cocktail in romantic, exotic Philadelphia. This jewel of a drink was served to me in a bar down an unpromising alley, tucked behind a Mexican restaurant. Not even the concierge of the nearby Rittenhouse Hotel had heard of it.

It’s called The Ranstead Room, and though I’ve only had one drink there, it’s currently my favorite bar in the world. To reach this cocktail hideaway, turn west down Ranstead Street from 20th, and look for the black door with the two R’s on your left. The door person may request that you wait a little while, but these cocktails are worth it.

Once inside the atmospherically dim space, you might not feel surprised to see Don Draper with his mistress in one of the intimate red leather booths. In the center of the room, a striking black and amber crystal chandelier illuminates a series of gilt-framed pin-up paintings around the wall, covered in a black and cream damask wallpaper. Faux snakeskin-upholstered chairs line the bar, staffed by true cocktail craftsmen.

The retro cocktail menu had an enticing list of vintage cocktails, all priced at $12. How could I choose among a Roman Highball (amaro, ginger, lime, soda), an Arsenic & Old Lace (gin, vermouth, violette, absinthe) and an Antilles (Cognac, vermouth, orange flower water)? Fortunately, I didn’t have to.

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