FROM RAGS TO RICHES
ONCE ASSOCIATED WITH POVERTY AND DISSOLUTION, GIN HAS BECOME A REFINED AND DIVERSE CREATION.
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.