Have we reached peak gin yet? Not so long ago, ordering a gin and tonic meant being served a rather bland but perfectly acceptable Gordon’s gin with a slice of lemon and a mainstream mixer.
These days, the picture is a little more complicated. Ask for the same drink and you’ll more than likely be asked to navigate your way around a back bar filled with dozens of bottles of boutique-distilled gin with names like Half Hitch, Opihr and Ransom Old Tom.
Tonic water isn’t what it was, either. It seems that handcrafted gin requires handcrafted tonic, and the sector is booming. Fever-Tree, which was launched in 2005, offering a “lighter, purer taste,” listed on the London Stock Exchange in November and its share price has more than doubled.
Given the number of wines in the world, it feels a little hypocritical to suggest that there may be too many gins on the market. But when I received a copy of a new book, “101 Gins to try before you die,” (Birlinn, September 2015) by renowned whisky writer Ian Buxton, I did wonder if maybe we’ve reached saturation point.
“It’s got a while to run yet,” says Mr. Buxton, who writes in his book that there is a “great energy pulsing through the world of gin.”
“Vodka has peaked and people are turning to gin, because gin has more taste,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to drink than whisky and gives you more flavor than vodka.”
On that point, I agree. I have long been a secret gin fan, and in London it feels like we’re living through the kind of boom the wine industry experienced in the mid-1980s. Mr. Buxton estimates there are more than 500 brands in the world. And while countries such as Canada, France, Holland, the U.S. and Sweden are all producers, the biggest exporter, according to data from the Gin and Vodka Association, is the U.K.
Despite this, the origins of gin can be traced back to Holland. It’s said that it was introduced to Britain by soldiers who had drunk it in the Netherlands during the Eighty Years’ War, hence the expression “Dutch courage.” From there it grew in popularity, reaching a peak with the “gin craze” of the mid-18th century.
It gained a second wind during the European imperial expansion, when it was added, along with soda water, sugar and lemon, to quinine-an antimalarial drug.
Today’s revival can be traced back to the early Noughties, when Scottish whisky firm William Grant & Sons launched Hendrick’s, which had a lighter, more floral taste. The success of Hendricks proved to the drinks industry that you can sell gin at a high price in large quantities.
Hendrick’s was followed into the marketplace by a swath of boutique distillers, most notably Sipsmith in London, which was inspired by the small-batch spirits distillers in New York. Sipsmith’s founders, Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall, and master distiller Jared Brown make a spicy, zesty gin in the “London Dry style.” Others joined the party, and the category is now blessed with examples from Spain to Germany.
At its best, gin is a refreshing drink with a bright, crisp attack and a flavor strongly influenced by juniper, citrus and herbal botanicals. Nowadays, if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with a slice of grapefruit or cucumber in your gin, but I don’t find these flourishes an improvement on lemon.
The gins themselves taste different, too. Stick your nose into a glass of small-batch gin and you may detect notes of anything from angelica or cardamom to cinnamon and even rose petal.
The different styles of gin can be divided into two main categories. The classic, strong, earthy, juniper styles with a powerful, pine-resin character are best represented by Boxer, Beefeater, Martin Miller, No. 3 London Dry, Plymouth and Tanqueray. The second style is perhaps more floral, the most famous example of which is Bombay Sapphire-but I would also look to Bloom, Greenall’s and Hendrick’s.
Both styles thrive with tonic water but don’t overlook them as a base for cocktails. As Mr. Buxton observes, having become the staple drink of the British Empire, it was the cocktail boom of the Roaring Twenties that saw gin cross the Atlantic to conquer America, where it was used as the base spirit in classics such as the martini and negroni.