Winston Churchill said this about the classic summertime cocktail “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”
Winston Churchill said this about the classic summertime cocktail: “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”
Before he became, well, Winston Churchill, he oversaw the British Navy as First Lord of the Admiralty. In those days, as the Navy sailed to-
ward India and Southeast Asia, the sailors’ rations of beer began to spoil in the heat. The longer shelf life of gin made the spirit more attractive.
And with the imposing threat of malaria, sailors carried quinine tablets with them. In an effort to make the bitter quinine more palatable they began to mix it with their gin rations. And, of course, they added limes to stave off scurvy.
In the late 1800s Schweppes came out with “Indian Tonic Water,” and the gin and tonic was born.
Today’s gin and tonic is best enjoyed on the porch at summer twilight, not on the deck of a British naval ship. Still, Churchill might have been right. Gin is, in fact, traditionally a medicine of sorts. Genever, gin’s Dutch cousin, was originally used as a diuretic.
Genever is a malt-wine-based spirit flavored with juniper berries. It was originally distilled in Holland, as early as the 17th century, but became very popular in England after the Dutch-born William III took the throne in 1689.
As a result of the Nine Years’ War, the king placed extremely high tariffs on French spirits. With the sudden disappearance of French brandy, he also passed new laws encouraging citizens to distill and farmers to boost grain production.
After William’s death, Queen Anne took the throne. In 1702, she cancelled the Distillers Company Charter, essentially ending a local monopoly. Overnight hundreds of back-alley gin shops popped up around London.
Her effort to boost gin production resulted in gin being the cheapest alcoholic beverage in England, cheaper than a pint of beer. It also resulted in a market flooded with an inferior and unsafe product, sometimes mixed with turpentine and other chemicals.
Today’s iteration of gin still has juniper berries but instead of a malt-wine base it is a neutral grain spirit redistilled with a proprietary blend of herbs. Typically, distillers will use citrus peel, angelica root, cardamom, fennel, anise, coriander and a variety of other roots and herbs.
And then there is the martini. The traditional recipe calls for two parts gin to one part vermouth. Churchill, as you might imagine, had an opinion on that as well.
“I like to observe my vermouth from across the room, while I enjoy my martini,” he famously said.
While Prohibition raged on in America, the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and his fellow ex-pat artists living in Paris watched from afar while they enjoyed their gin in Montmartre.
Back home, if the fictional Jay Gatsby was any indication, one simply found a speakeasy. And after the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition, the real-life Dorothy Parker enjoyed her martinis at Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel.
Robert Benchley, a member of the writerly group that met there and a pal of Parker’s, once found himself caught in a rainstorm, and when he arrived at the Algonquin is supposed to have said, “I need to get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.”
Today’s world is populated by craft distillers. While the majority of gin is still distilled in the U.K., craft distillers all over the world from Japan, to Portland Maine, even here on Nantucket, are making it. We went through our recipe books and compiled six gin cocktail recipes perfect for the summer. ///
Kevin Stanton is an artist and graduate of MassArt, living and working on Nantucket. A bartender in Boston before he moved back to the island, he writes the “Drink” column for Nantucket Today.