The Australian - Wish Magazine - - DRINKING -

That quintessen­tially Bri­tish drink, the gin and tonic, has come a long way. In the gin lanes and home dis­til­leries of early 18th-cen­tury Lon­don, Mother’s Ruin reeked its havoc. Gin bars were found on ev­ery cor­ner, lu­bri­cat­ing the poor through their daily ex­is­tence, help­ing them fight off the cold.

This was not the gin of mod­ern times – that care­fully blended com­bi­na­tion of sub­tle botan­i­cals to give each gin its unique char­ac­ters: clas­si­cally, co­rian­der, orange peel, car­damom, nut­meg, cin­na­mon and, of course, ju­niper el­e­ments, both for aro­matic and medic­i­nal pur­poses, all wound up in a silky smooth pack­age.

Far from it. Early gins were more about sheer ine­bri­a­tion than flavour and any­thing would do in the search for a cheap high. In the most base ver­sions ju­niper was re­placed with tur­pen­tine to give some woody com­plex­ity. Lime, also used for brick mor­tar, and sul­phuric acid were also added in var­i­ous quan­ti­ties – it is no won­der that be­com­ing lit­er­ally blind drunk on gin, a con­di­tion with­out cure, was not un­com­mon.

In 1736 the rul­ing class had seen enough and im­posed high taxes on the gin. Ri­ots soon gripped the streets of Lon­don as the work­ing class rose up – their cheap gin was not to be toyed with.

Yet it was not long be­fore gin be­gan to throw off its rep­u­ta­tion as the ru­inous in­tox­i­cant of the masses and be­gan its jour­ney to­wards re­spectabil­ity. The start of this jour­ney was in In­dia, far from the spir­i­tual home. Bri­tain was still a global colo­nial power, and the jewel of its em­pire was the sub­con­ti­nent, where malaria was rife.

One ef­fec­tive treat­ment was a reg­u­lar dose of qui­nine pow­der, which in time was mixed with soda and sugar to cre­ate the first tonic wa­ters. The en­ter­pris­ing Sch­weppes com­pany saw an op­por­tu­nity for Bri­tish ex­pats around the globe, and cre­ated Indian Qui­nine Tonic, and it was not long be­fore it was dis­cov­ered that this gen­tly bit­ter and sweet con­coc­tion was ide­ally suited to blend­ing with a dry gin in the late af­ter­noon – no doubt much more en­joy­able than a daily morn­ing ra­tion of straight tonic.

As gin’s so­cial sta­tus slowly rose so too did its qual­ity. While the in­dus­trial mass-prod­uct gins re­mained an ev­ery­day tip­ple for many decades, re­cent years have seen new en­trants burst on to the mar­ket. These moved be­yond the ba­sic recipes, firstly through more ex­otic sourc­ing of stan­dard botan­i­cals. More re­cently the gin flavour rules have been well and truly thrown out the win­dow, ex­per­i­men­ta­tion is rife, and any­thing goes in the search for unique el­e­ments to liven up gins across the globe.

Some of the finest in­ter­na­tional gins now boast Moroc­can co­rian­der seeds, Va­len­cia orange peel and Sri Lankan cin­na­mon, clas­sic but rar­efied in­gre­di­ents, that are now mak­ing way for cu­cum­ber, cape goose­ber­ries, Mex­i­can pi­mento, and green ap­ples, among many more es­o­teric botan­i­cals. Gin has grown from a rel­a­tively uni­form prod­uct to a unique spirit that is not dis­sim­i­lar to a fine wine, in that it starts as a blank can­vas that is then coloured by the cre­ativ­ity of its dis­tiller, and ac­cented by in­gre­di­ents from a num­ber of dis­tinct lo­ca­tions.

In Australia there is a flood of new dis­til­leries dot­ted around the coun­try, of­ten us­ing unique lo­cal in­gre­di­ents: eu­ca­lyp­tus, fin­ger lime, lemon myr­tle and shi­raz all fea­ture in this new breed of lo­cal craft gins. Well es­tab­lished names such as Archie Rose, Four Pil­lars and Four Winds are now joined by Dasher + Fisher, Poor Toms and Young Hen­rys, each bring­ing its own dis­tinct vari­a­tion to a spirit that has been hith­erto fairly pre­dictable. There is now a lo­cal gin for ev­ery taste, sea­son and oc­ca­sion.

And not only are ar­ti­sanal gins the flavour of the month but so too are the hand­crafted ton­ics that match them so well, such as Fever-Tree and Quina Fina. Small-pro­duc­tion, hand­made ton­ics with per­son­al­ity and char­ac­ter are also help­ing to lift the drink out of ob­scu­rity and its mod­est be­gin­nings – the hum­ble gin and tonic will never be the same again.

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