Gin Fever: Part I

Someone asked me the other day: "David, you've done week long reports on tequila, rum, whiskey, etc. When are going to do a series on gin?"

To tell you the truth, I'd never really thought about it. I love gin. I personally drink more gin than I do all other spirits combined. My mother drinks gin every day. Her mother still drinks gin every day (at 94 years of age -- maybe that's the secret?). Gin is simply something I take for granted. I don't really think too much about where it comes from or how it's made. Gin is essentially just flavored vodka--neutral grain spirit with juniper and a number of other botanicals and spices. There's a lot of room for creativity and exploration when it comes to gin production (see our Faultline series with St. George for examples, along with our Rusty Blade barrel-aged gins from Old World Spirits), but is it a process that will interest drinkers and engage them in the same way that other spirits do?

Let's find out. I'll fill you in on the details and you tell me whether or not you think it's worth knowing.

If we're going to get technical, no tongue in cheek allowed, then let's get technical. The European Union breaks gin down into four categories. I could type them all up, or I could just copy the definitions off of their webpage:

Juniper-Flavoured Spirit Drinks - This includes the earliest class of gin, which is produced by pot distillinga fermented grain mash to moderate strength (e.g. 68% ABV), and then redistilling it with botanicals to extract the aromatic compounds. It must be bottled at a minimum of 30% ABV. Juniper-Flavoured Spirit Drinks may also be sold under the names Wacholder or Genebra.

Gin- This is a juniper flavoured spirit made not via the redistillation of botanicals, but by simply adding approved natural flavouring substances to a neutral spirit of agricultural origin. The predominant flavour must be juniper.

Distilled gin- Distilled gin is produced exclusively by redistilling ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin with an initial strength of 96% ABV (the azeotrope of water and ethanol) in stills traditionally used for gin, in the presence of juniper berries and of other natural botanicals, provided that the juniper taste is predominant. Gin obtained simply by adding essences or flavourings to ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin is not distilled gin.

London gin- London gin is obtained exclusively from ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin with a maximum methanol content of 5 grams per hectolitre of 100% ABV equivalent, whose flavour is introduced exclusively through the re-distillation in traditional stills of ethyl alcohol in the presence of all the natural plant materials used, the resultant distillate of which is at least 70% ABV. London gin may not contain added sweetening exceeding 0.1 gram of sugars per litre of the final product, nor colorants, nor any added ingredients other than water. The term London gin may be supplemented by the term "dry".

In the EU, the minimum bottled alcoholic strength for gin, distilled gin, and London gin is 37.5% ABV.

In the United States, gin is defined as an alcoholic beverage of no less than 40% ABV (80 proof) that possesses the characteristic flavour of juniper berries. Gin produced only through distillation or redistillation of aromatics with an alcoholic wash can be further distinguished and marketed as "distilled gin".

Some legal classifications of gin are defined only as originating from specific geographical areas without any further restrictions (e.g. Plymouth gin, Ostfriesischer Korngenever, Slovenská borovička, Kraški Brinjevec, etc.), while other common descriptors refer to classic styles that are culturally recognized, but not legally defined (e.g., sloe gin, Wacholder and Old Tom gin).

Let's get less technical now. If you'll notice, the EU distinguishes between gin and distilled gin. Both are neutral grain spirits with juniper as the dominate flavor, but one is simply macerated with juniper (i.e. simply soaking vodka with juniper and other botanicals like tea) while the other is "distilled" with the botanicals. However, this does not mean that the wheat or corn is fermented and distilled with juniper in the mash. It means that the GNS is essentially re-distilled and the vapors pass through a basket of botanicals placed in the still that add the flavor before the alcohol is condensed back into a liquid. This is how most producers I am familiar with do it (although with Faultline Batch #2 we did soak the orange peels and leaves in the liquid, giving it a slight greenish tint). They buy neutral grain spirit from the bulk market, put it into their still, and then re-distill that spirit with botanicals of their choosing. There are some producers who actually distill their own GNS, but I personally haven't found that the extra work and expense has helped to create a better gin. I know it doesn't seem very romantic or "hand-crafted" to buy bulk GNS for agricultural producers and then flavor it, but that's what gin is. Why we think it's cooler and more "authentic" than vodka is beyond me, but it sure does taste good.

While the production of gin may not thrill our geeky inhibitions, the history of gin is fascinating. Iain Gately's tome of alcohol's longstanding past, Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, has an entire chapter on the subject. While the story of gin probably should begin in Holland, for the sake of this blog post it begins in London in the 1700s. Imagine it. A huge metropolis brimming with 600,000 people living in cramped quarters, side-by-side, the rich and poor alike. Gately writes:

The British prided themselves on their drinking. Foreigners marveled at their consumption. A Swiss traveler wrote home: "Would you believe it, though water is to be had in abundance in London, and of fairly good quality, absolutely none of it is drunk? The lower classes, even the paupers, do not know what it is to quench their thirst with water. In this country nothing but beer is drunk.

While beer was the drink of choice for London, gin would take over by the year 1720. Gin, just the English word for Dutch genever, was about to get a boost from the royal crown. Due to a huge surplus of grain in England, King William was bound to help growers and landowners maintain their wealth even with the price of the commodity dropping quickly. As Gately writes:

William had witnessed the phenomenal demand Genever could create for grain in his native Holland and hoped the same might occur in his new kingdom. An "Act for the Encouraging or the Distillation of Brandy and Spirits from Corn" was passed, which allowed anyone in England to distill alcohol using English cereals, upon ten day's notice to HM Excise and payment of a small fee. The act was a great success and stills sprang up all over the country. ("corn" being a generic term for wheat, barley, rye, and oats)

The increased production of gin lowered the price of the juniper-flavored spirit across the country, which spiked consumption. The demand helped to stabilize the price of corn, making the landowners very happy. The spirits boom mirrored many of the same trends we see today in the American craft spirits movement. People with little knowledge of distillation began jumping into the industry, hoping to find success in this budding market. They used anything from professional copper stills to converted bathtubs. Gately adds:

Among them they produced a torrent of gin, which was sold from shops, houses, the crypts of churches and inside prisons from kiosks, boats, wheelbarrows, baskets and bottles, and from stalls at public executions. Gin was cheap, and above all a quick way of getting drunk. Why work your way through porter at three pence a pot when the same money would buy a pint of gin?

This is the same logic the National Geographic special I watched last night made comparing methamphetamine to crack. Cheap white crystal on the street is angering the cartels in control of the cocaine trade. Much in the same vein, the brewers in England were not pleased. Tales of "scorch gut" from gin consumption were spread, and a link was quickly drawn between London's rising crime rate and gin usage. It wasn't until 1929, however, that Parliament acted, declaring a new gin act that restricted sales to licensed retailers, putting a high price on those licenses (much like we have in the U.S. today). The act didn't do much, however. Illicit gin distillation and sales were still a problem. The issue was revisited in 1933 with "a more liberal attitude" towards the issue. Gately states:

The '33 Act stimulated supply, and Londoners debased themselves with fresh abandon.

But we'll save all that for Part II.

-David Driscoll


Where Can I Get Barton Bourbon?

Are you wondering where to find Barton Bourbon in California? Yes, I too had read often online about how there was an incredibly tasty, value-priced brand of Bourbon out there called Very Old Barton that whiskey enthusiasts liked to site as an example of pricing stability. I read about, looked around for it, and then realized like everyone else that you can only get it in and around the state of Kentucky. Needless to say, I bought a flask of VOB 100 proof for about $8 when we visited a few weeks ago to see what the fuss was about. And I got what the fuss was about. The whiskey is mellow, round, easy to drink, and quite rich for what you're paying. You won't find a bottle of VOB in California, but you're not out of luck completely.

Very Old Barton is indeed a Sazerac brand, but it's not made at Buffalo Trace -- it's made at Barton Distillery down the road from Heaven Hill in Bardstown. Sazerac owns two different Kentucky distilleries and this is the one that often gets overlooked because there's not much Barton whiskey available out west.

You can get Barton-distilled Bourbon whiskey in California, however. It's just not called Barton, but rather 1792 Ridgemont Reserve. We've had it in stock for ages. We've done single casks before and we've got another one on the way that we found while in Kentucky. Having stowed my flask of Very Old Barton away in my suitcase, I was looking forward to comparing it against the open bottle of 1792 Ridgemont sitting on my bar at home. They're very similar. That same rounded, mild-mannered creaminess is the key characteristic, lacking the force of spicy wood tannins or big rye character. It drinks like a richer version of Four Roses Yellow much of the time -- and it's well-priced for an eight year old Bourbon of said quality.

If you've been wondering what Barton whiskey tastes like, but don't want to fly out to Kentucky to find out, you can get it here. Just under a different name.

1792 Ridgemont Reserve Kentucky Bourbon $25.99

-David Driscoll


Played Out II

That last post came at the end of a busy day last night right as we were closing the store, so there wasn't much time to expand on the idea of booze trends and how certain drinks go in and out of style. One point I did want to make that I could only allude to was how the idea of fun plays a role in what's popular and what isn't. Part of what defined the music of the 1980s was the free-spirited party-centric theme at the core of it all. Rap music was about having a house party. Rock music was about hittin' the Sunset Strip and looking for chicks. Pop music was about dancing the night away. As the 1990s approached, however, the trend swung completely the other way. Suddenly life was serious. Kids were being killed in the ghetto. The police were oppressing the African American youth. White suburban kids were using heroin to suppress the pain of their existence. Angst, suffering, and disillusion replaced the carefree attitude of the previous generation. How could you have fun when life was so depressing?

But it always comes back around. It became cool to enjoy yourself again. Fashion became more colorful, the looks more playful and edgy, and people stopped taking themselves so seriously, but that's starting to change once more. If you look at the cocktail culture of the past five years it's also centered around the conflict between fun and seriousness. The pre-Prohibition movement to get more serious about one's "craft" stood in complete contrast to the sugary shooters a la mode. Why would any one want to mask the flavors of alcohol, bartenders asked, when they could be highlighted to make a more complex drink (much like the grunge era rockers asked about the hardships of modern living)? All of sudden you had people telling you to sip rather than shoot, to take your time and enjoy the complexity within the glass. Drinking became a studious activity rather than an escape. Fun is definitely not at the root of today's booze culture as stuffy rules about appreciation become points of contention between online enthusiasts.

It will swing back the other way, however. People who take their booze too seriously will become a mockery in the eyes of the next generation that will rebel against these constraints. The war on fun will continue for now, until its time to remember to start having it again. And then we'll likely fight it once more.

-David Driscoll


Played Out Booze Trends

I was driving to the store during my lunch shift today when I heard a Radiohead song come on the radio. I absolutely was not feeling it. Funny, because at one point during the late 1990s I was totally in love with the band. I remember getting a ticket to the sold out OK Computer show at the Warfield in 1996 and it being the best thing that had ever happened to me. I drove over from Modesto on a school night, my friend Jenny Kramer being the only person who would go with me. Today, however, I've got no emotional attachment to their music. It simply doesn't hold up over time for me. There are many other bands I feel the same way about (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction, etc) -- music that meant everything to me at one point in the past, yet today seems rather lackluster.

On the other hand, there are bands that we tried to forget about, that we were embarrassed to admit we liked, whose music is catching on once again. Vanilla Ice is now retro gold, rather than cheesy white rap. Warrant's "Cherry Pie" is today a classic rock anthem, rather than a reminder of another era's downfall (that song was also on the radio as I headed to buy my lunch today). At one point I owned both the Cherry Pie and To The Extreme albums from both artists and before I entered high school I made sure to sell them to the local used record store. Today, I feel the same way about some rock music from the 1990s. Other artists still hold up, however. Why? I'm not really sure. It's just that their style was built to last perhaps. I'll still rock out at full volume when I hear one-hit wonders like Cracker's "Low" or The Toadies "Possum Kingdom." Those songs will never get old.

Fashion can be trendy. It can also be timeless. Military-style trench coats will never look out-of-date. Neon polka dot pants, however, have an expiration date --big in the 80s, out in the 90s, back in again today. Booze works in much the same way. Whisky was unpopular for decades (hence, why we've had so much old stuff to drink for the past ten years), but it's back now and it's in full effect. Cognac, however, is not so popular right now. Lemon Drops were all the rage ten years ago. Today they're the epitome of cocktail unsophistication. Which spirits, however, are the ones that will never go out of fashion? Campari? I don't know. I'm not sure if there's a proper example or analogy, but I do know that booze goes in and out like any other style.

Which one will be the next big thing? Which one will get played out into embarrassment? Remember when absinthe was the "it" spirit? Creme de Violette? Those products seem played out already.

-David Driscoll


More Best-Price-in-USA Shit

Glenmorangie 18 year old is, to me, the perfect single malt whisky for the holiday shopping season. Why? Let me explain:

- It's universally pleasing. It's not the most complex whisky. It's not the most interesting whisky. It's just plain good and everyone seems to like it. It tastes expensive and elegant. It's easy to understand, yet better than what you can usually get. It's like baby bear's porridge: just right.

- It comes in a fancy box, making it perfect for holiday gifts and attractive to people who care about aesthetics. I can just hand it to people who don't know anything about Scotch and they're happy with the presentation immediately. Plus, they're getting a very good whisky.

- It's under $100 (way under $100 at K&L), which makes it something nice, yet within reason.

- Glenmorangie is a recognizable brand that still has insider street cred. People who are less familiar with whisky know of the name, but it's nowhere near the ridiculously bloated price tag of something like Macallan.

- There's a lot of it available so I don't have to tell everyone about how we have it, then apologize to everyone about how we've sold out already.

Take those five facets and then slap on an $84.99 price tag and you've got one great whisky at one hot price. The lowest price actually.

If you're a whisky consumer, then have at it! We've got plenty of bottles on hand if you need one. If you're one of the many retailers who read the blog to find out about all our hot deals, then use it to complain to the vendors about how we're receiving special treatment, then go get your box of Kleenex and start crying. It won't get you anywhere. There's no special treatment here, just a store dedicated to supporting its friends, and vice versa. That's how it should be. Take a stance on a product you believe in and make something happen.

-David Driscoll