I’ve been thinking a lot about gin recently. I seem to have a love-hate relationship with the spirit, and I think it’s because of its recent rise in popularity. There are plenty of great Gins that have been on the market for a long time, but it seems like I stumble across a new one every couple of days. Now SOME of the gins that have launched in the last two or three years are fantastic products that have added a new dimension to the category. The problem is though, that for every one new gin that I like, there seem to be twenty that I just don’t get. Many new Gins, just don’t taste or smell like Gin to me, in fact many of them sit in a broader category of ‘botanically infused spirits’, but not Gin. It used to be simple to think of Gin as that junipery stuff that makes Martinis taste good, it’s now so broad in taste and style that I sometimes don’t know where gin ends and herbal spirits begin.
So with my mind wandering across this brave new world of Gin, and the b&t drinks cabinet bulging at the seams under the weight of new products, I thought maybe now was as good a time as ever to look at what makes Gin so interesting. Hopefully while looking into the facts, stories and of course some of the rules and regulations that define Gin, I might just get my head around what makes some Gins great, and others, quite frankly baffling.
In my blog about the history of the Martinez cocktail, I explored the timeline of a drink that is considered a classic, but is known today by a relatively standard recipe. In searching through old recipes I found that many, including some of the oldest, called for dry vermouth instead of sweet vermouth, and that over the years the recipe had undergone many changes. Since then I’ve been asked by a lot of bartenders which recipe I like the best and if there is a definitive recipe for the classic Martinez. The answer to the latter question is of course that there is no definitive recipe, but my thought is that the Martinez is more of a style of drink than a single drink with only one recipe.
If we look at other classics that developed around the same time such as the Manhattan and the Martini, we see striking similarities. They are cocktails that feature a spirit combined with vermouth and bitters, they are simple stirred drinks and of course they have stood the test of time to become classics. The one difference between our understanding of the Martinez and the others though is that both the Martini and the Manhattan appear as a family of drinks that include different styles of vermouths in different ratios. We’re all familiar with sweet or perfect Manhattans, and the same was originally true of the Martini, but for some unknown reason the Martinez has always been assumed to be a drink made only with sweet vermouth.
On the surface of it, the question of ‘what’s a Martinez’ seems pretty self-explanatory; after all, you can walk into any good bar, order one and be pretty confident about what you’ll get in your glass. The chances are you’ll get a lot of sweet vermouth, a little bit of gin, a splash of maraschino and a dash or two of bitters. Occasionally there might be a bit more gin and a little less vermouth, or you might get Boker’s bitters or orange bitters; you might even get a splash of curacao instead of maraschino, but all in all you’re likely to receive a sweet vermouth and gin cocktail, with a splash of liqueur and a dose of bitters.
Over the years there has been much debate about the intertwined history of the Martinez cocktail and the Martini, with speculation about whether the Martinez might be the forefather of the Martini or, if in fact they were once the same drink, known by similar names but got confused over the years. The truth is we’re never likely to know, but somewhere along the way the two drinks have diverged to become completely different cocktails. It’s now accepted that the Martini is made with dry vermouth and the Martinez with sweet, the former has no liqueur added but the latter is usually enriched with a barspoon of maraschino. The Martini is heavy on gin, with vermouth playing a supporting role, whereas the Martinez is a vermouth-led cocktail. In other words they are only connected in as much as that they are in the broad family of gin and vermouth based drinks.
It’s not every day you get a bottle delivered to your house of a new product that has a note from the brand owner telling you that this is the first bottle outside of his own house. So this past Thursday, when exactly that happened, and I found in my hands a bottle of Hammer & Son Old English Gin, I was pretty excited to say the least. I’ve been waiting for the release of this product for several months, ever since Henrik Hammer (of Geranium Gin) mentioned that he had found a 1783 gin recipe in the safe at a distillery and was going to have a go at recreating it, as closely as possible within the confines of modern production techniques and current regulations.
But what exactly is an Old English Gin? Well essentially it’s the original style of gin produced in England, and is somewhere between the sweet rich flavour of Genever, and the dry style of gin we’re used to today. It differs from London Dry in that it is slightly sweetened, a tradition that goes back to a time when poor quality spirits could have some of their impurities masked by the addition of sugar after distillation. The decision not to refer to this new product as an Old Tom Gin, as some might expect, comes from Henrik’s research into the history of gin in the 1700s, and his desire to produce a spirit that would be true to the origins of English Gin.