Gin Season: A Love Story
My first experience with gin was in the London Heathrow Airport. I was twenty years old and on my way back to college in Providence, RI after visiting a friend that was studying abroad. We drank mostly beer while we were in England, but something about being at the airport on the Queen's soil made me feel like I should buy some gin. It also could have been that once I arrived back in the US I would not have been able to buy any alcohol at all, so I figured I had better get it while I could.
When I arrived back to my college dorm with my two liters of Bombay Sapphire and Beefeater, we declared it Gin Season. Gin and tonics, gin gimlets, and gin over ice with lemon for everyone! It was a happy time, it was winter, we had gin.
When Gin Season ended it would be twelve years before we saw each other again. There was no particular reason for the departure, it just never made its way into the rotation of beverages after our supply was exhausted. It, however, would not be our last encounter.
Like many spirits, gin uses the roots, flowers, seeds and leaves of plants to create its unique flavor and aroma. It is made by redistilling a high-proof neutral base spirit with botanicals, one of which is almost always juniper, and may also include orris root, angelica root, cassia, lemon grass, lemon peel, orange peel, bitter almonds, cocoa, coriander, and cardamom. The recipe varies depending on the brand. After redistillation, the spirit is cut with water to the final proof.
Gin is a great base spirit for mixing because it can interact well with many other flavors. It can be gentle enough allow the pretty aromas of violet and lemon to express themselves in an Aviation, while at the same time have the gusto to hold down the fort in a Negroni. I prefer gin to vodka in cocktails because it brings with it character that complements its fellow ingredients, where vodka tends to only bring a sense of alcohol presence without much flavor. (Vodka is the perfect hit man if you are looking for something that is not going to bring much in terms of flavor, but still pack a punch.) In a cocktail, as opposed to just a mixed drink, one looks for balance. Gin has the complexity to play well with others.
We met again while I was working at No. 9 Park in Boston. It was a very exciting time as I was about to rediscover, not only gin, but cocktails all together. Former No. 9 bar manager, Ted Kilpatrick, made a cocktail for me called the Last Word. Bottoms Up (1951) by Ted Saucier, says that the cocktail originated in the 1920’s by bartender Frank Fogarty at the Detroit Athletic Club. The cocktail was rediscovered by Seattle bartender Murray Stenson of Zig Zag Café, and it became one of Seattle’s favorite cocktails in the 2000’s. The Last Word caught my attention right away. It is bright green, has no garnish, and can be incredibly aromatic. The recipe calls for equal parts gin (tanqueray works great here), Luxardo maraschino liqueur, Green Chartreuse (another spirit that takes its flavor from 130 secret roots, herbs, seeds, and spices), and fresh lime juice.
It was in this drink that I discovered for the first time the beautiful intricacies of a well balanced cocktail. Not because equal portions of each ingredient are used, this is just a coincidence here, but because the sum of its parts came together in a way that acknowledged aroma, acid, bitterness, roundness, and sweetness, letting each spirit make their presence known without overshadowing one another.
This became the root of my philosophy on making cocktails, the core of that being balance. Of course there are times when you want one element of a drink to stand out more than others; in the summer we want bright and fresh drinks with lots of bright acidity. In the fall and winter we want darker and more bitter cocktails with comforting roundness. All of these cocktails have supporting characters however, and it is the varying degrees of these supporting roles that bring it all together into a balanced glass of satisfaction.