Ginerations of Juniper Juice
By Terry Sullivan, Very Special to Tastings
Gin, gin, gin, makes you want to sin...or so college students were wont to sing a couple of generations ago, and it did, although students then and now hardly needed encouragement. Gin, however, has always had that reputation, however unfairly.
The Brits called it the charlady’s drink and Mother’s Ruin, based largely on the unfortunate gin craze in the 18th century, brought about by English tariffs on French brandy (things were touch-and-go between the two for a few centuries) among other things. Resulted in more London gin shops than Seattle has Starbucks, but with really cheap prices, perhaps because the flavors often included turpentine. Think Gin Mill, and for further elucidation do a search for William Hogarth’s prints Beer Street and Gin Lane. The beer drinkers are happy burghers going about their business while the gin drinkers hock their tools and drop babies.
You can blame the lack of aging for all of this degradation of a noble spirit. When nobody has to wait years for wood to do its work, corners will be cut. This was likewise the cause of gin’s reputation in the U.S. following the passing of the Volstead Act. Good whiskey took time, and a boat. Even bad whiskey took a fast car, but anyone who could get their hands on ethyl alcohol and juniper juice extract could make gin in the proverbial bathtub, although reliable sources tell us kitchen sinks and soup pots were the more common vessels.
We can probably thank a generation of mad ad-men for gin’s rehabilitation. The Brits have a tradition of pink gin (rinse the glass with bitters) and the military breakfast tradition of gin & bitters formations, but it’s the martini that rescued gin in the first place and then saved its reputation during the dark ages of the wine spritzer and the Harvey Wallbanger. For extra credit, read Bernard DeVoto’s devotional text The Hour and remember that Franklin Roosevelt served them every evening during what he called The Children’s Hour.
All of this took centuries, of course. Gin’s origin is murky (speaking of which, the aforementioned FDR may have invented the dirty martini when he took to splashing a little olive juice in his martinis) but was certainly in Holland, where there are mentions of genever, the Dutch word for juniper, from the 16th century and earlier. Most sources, however, will credit Dr. Franciscus Silvius (no relation to the silver bullet, sadly) a Dutchman who, in the mid-17th century, created an alcohol-based elixir with juniper berries to cure kidney diseases. Turned into a nostrum, recommended for pretty much whatever ailed you, and found its way to the UK when William of Orange landed on the English throne in 1689 after the perhaps overstated Glorious Revolution. Not much later, of course, you could put a penny in a doorway slot and a get a shot of gin from a pipe in every lane in the country.
Fast forward 300 years or so and gin is available world-wide in a number of incarnations, here’s a few for your consideration: