Shang­haied to Hair-dyed: A Quick Study of Gin

Sharp - - EDITOR’S LETTER - By Shaugh­nessy Bishop-stall

Shaugh­nessy Bishop-stall be­gins his new drinks col­umn by re­vis­it­ing his least-favourite spirit: gin.

IN AN IRONIC TURN that would make O. Henry proud, my ed­i­tor came to me with the idea of start­ing a drinks col­umn right as I’d de­cided to ease up on my drink­ing. After five years, I was fi­nally fin­ish­ing my book about hang­overs, and it felt like I needed a break from the sauce — for at least a month or so.

“Well, you don’t have to drink to write about it,” he said. “Surely you have enough ex­pe­ri­ence to draw from al­ready.”

I chose to take this as a com­pli­ment. But here’s the thing: al­though it may be true that one doesn’t have to drink while writ­ing about drinks — it sure makes one thirsty. So, to weaken the in­tem­per­ate temp­ta­tion, I de­cided to de­vote my first col­umn to my very least favourite type of booze: gin.

I re­al­ize that other peo­ple seem to re­ally like the stuff, but to me it tastes both acrid and flo­ral, and also du­plic­i­tous, as if gin’s true state is not clear and liq­uid but vi­o­let and gaseous — like some per­fumed medic­i­nal belch that sticks in your nose and starts to burn. I do, how­ever, find most other things about it fas­ci­nat­ing.

The his­tory of Dutch Courage be­gan — of course — in Hol­land. Be it heroin, hash or hootch, the Dutch have long been in the busi­ness of mak­ing nat­u­ral prod­ucts un­nat­u­rally in­tox­i­cat­ing. And while for­eign­ers claim that shitty weather was what made ine­bri­a­tion such an in­te­gral part of low­land life, it was per­haps also some­thing in their in­ven­tive char­ac­ter, and the fact that they had so much crazy stuff ly­ing around, just wait­ing to be ex­per­i­mented with.

They ruled the seven seas, so vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing — the most ex­otic fruits and spices, roots and petals — found its way to Dutch ports ev­ery day. But it was the ju­niper berry that quickly be­came most pop­u­lar as an ad­di­tive to early pot-stilled brews. Not only did it mask the harsh taste of rudi­men­tary al­co­hol but, in an era when health and in­tox­i­ca­tion were not seen as mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive, the ju­niper berry (known to help with di­ges­tion, in­fec­tion, tox­i­c­ity, asthma, pain and in­flam­ma­tion), com­bined with al­co­hol (known to help with dropsy, palsy, the twitches, the jit­ters, the blues, melan­cho­lia and mor­tal­ity) made it the per­fect tonic for all that might ail ye. This early form of gin was known as jen­ever, and the ships of the East and West Indies Com­pa­nies left Hol­land full of the stuff, then re­turned with the wealth of na­tions. Also mon­keys — they re­turned with lots of mon­keys.

I bring this last point up be­cause of In’t Aep­jen, one of my favourite bars. Trans­lated as “In the Mon­keys, it is widely known as Am­s­ter­dam’s old­est gin-joint — or at least the place that’s been serv­ing jen­ever longer than any­where else around. And al­though the stuff still tastes very much like gin, when I’m there it’s what I or­der — which I think has a lot to do with how you’re sup­posed to drink it. Tra­di­tion­ally, jen­ever is served ice-cold in a tulip-shaped glass and filled right up to the brim. You can’t pick it up with­out freez­ing your fin­gers or spilling the stuff. You bend your head down and ei­ther slurp it from the glass like one of those dip­ping bird toys, or shoot it right back with the tulip in your mouth. When fol­lowed by a beer chaser, this is called a kop­stooje, or “lit­tle head kick.” It al­lows some­one like me to rocket it right past my taste­buds, then bury any lin­ger­ing notes with a gulp of Am­s­ter­dam ale.

In the In‘t Aep­jen they’ve been kick­ing them­selves in the head for half a mil­len­nium or so now. It’s still the clos­est inn to the old port, and where — back in the day — sailors bunked down for shore leave. Ap­par­ently when they ran out of money, some of them paid their tabs with mon­keys brought back from South East Asia — which gave the bar its name.

Also, ap­par­ently, peo­ple tended to get shang­haied there — that is, co­erced or kid­napped into work­ing on the ships. One mo­ment you’d be head-kick­ing jen­ever and the next you’d wake up in a room up­stairs, hun­gover, half-de­voured by fleas from all the mon­keys, with a year-long sea­far­ing con­tract pinned to your itchy chest. And thus the pop­u­lar Dutch say­ing, “In de app gel­o­geerd,” or “to stay with the mon­keys.” It can be used for all sorts of trou­ble in which you might find your­self. But, most evoca­tively and pre­cisely, it de­scribes the phe­nom­e­non wherein what looked like a good idea at the time comes back and bites you in the ass — like some kind of gin-soaked mon­key flea.

In a way, this is what hap­pened to jolly old Eng­land when the Brits started drink­ing gin. After tak­ing the Bri­tish throne in 1688, Wil­liam of Or­ange — brim­ming with Dutch courage — looked out on his over-abun­dant corn­fields and passed an act al­low­ing any­one in Eng­land to make hard booze upon ten days no­tice and pay­ment of a small fee.

A rec­og­niz­able swig of gin was a hel­luva lot eas­ier to for­mu­late than, say, Scotch, which is cre­ated through the alchemy of bar­rel ag­ing, or vodka, which de­pends on re­fined dis­til­la­tion to reach a pu­ri­fied state. All you needed for gin was some corn and a hand­ful of berries. And what re­sulted was a tor­rent of blind­ing booze, then decades of mass drunken lu­nacy that al­most top­pled an ado­les­cent em­pire. If you read enough ac­counts of the gin craze in Lon­don, the city ap­pears be­fore you like a mash-up of Vic­to­rian zom­bie apoc­a­lypse, crack epi­demic, and good old godly hell­fire.

Of course none of this has any­thing to do with why I don’t like gin. But nei­ther is it sim­ply a mat­ter of taste — which could very well be an ac­quired one. I’ve known many fine peo­ple, with com­mend­able palates, who straight up love gin — even straight-up. And it’s not like I haven’t tried. I’ve done my best, over the years, to grow up and give gin an­other chance, again and again, in all sorts of con­coc­tions. But still, there re­mains some fun­da­men­tal aver­sion that makes me gag.

Truth be told, I chart this back to my high-school girl­friend, and the night we broke up. Mary was a year younger than me and played the drums and lived in a man­sion. She was cool, funny and very pretty, with large green eyes and fire red hair that tasted not un­like gin. For some rea­son, the punky hair dye of the late 80s and early 90s was made from ju­niper and al­co­hol, and that was fine with me when times were good.

But on what would be our last night as boyfriend and girl­friend we both guz­zled a bot­tle of Gor­don’s Gin like de­bauched Vic­to­ri­ans or Dutch sailors. Which is to say, we drank like id­i­otic ado­les­cents, un­til it came back to us, or rather out of us, with a vengeance. And that wasn’t even the worse thing that hap­pened that night. Though the rest should re­main locked away in some dun­geon of high school mem­ory, let it suf­fice to say that even the most bal­anced gin mar­tini would for­ever taste and smell to me like Mary’s rock’n’roll hair, re­verse-peri­stal­sis and ridicu­lous teenage heart­break.

It is a phe­nom­e­non that my philoso­pher friend and for­mer drinks colum­nist Mark King­well refers to as “heav­ily over-de­ter­mined,” mean­ing that even if gin were ob­jec­tively de­li­cious, I prob­a­bly still wouldn’t be able to swal­low it — ex­cept, per­haps, as a quick cold, kick to the head.

But who doesn’t need one of those ev­ery now and then?

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