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The Bluffer’s Guide to Gin

Everything you need to know before your next G&T, Negroni or dirty Martini.

Not since the abolition era has gin been so hot. No longer the drink of grannies or sticky-floored nightclubs that drown it in postmix, gin has enjoyed a significant resurgence in the past five years. Elly Michelle Clough from gin blog The Ginstress takes us through everything we need to know about the singular spirit.

Let's begin at the beginning, a very good place to start

"I exercise strong self-control. I never drink anything stronger than gin before breakfast." -W.C. Fields

The first thing you need to know about gin is it's not English, it's Dutch. As with most good things, there is a rumour that gin was invented by Italian monks, but the generally accepted theory is that it was created by Dutch professor of medicine Franciscus de la Boe Sylvius in the 1550s. He infused neutral spirit with juniper and prescribed it as a diuretic. (Maybe if Shane Warne's mum had given him gin he wouldn’t have got into so much trouble.) It became a favourite of the Dutch troops and this is where the term Dutch Courage comes from.

Gin arrived in London with William of Orange, the Dutchman who became King of England in 1689, and the gin craze ensued.

Is gin really just juniper-flavoured vodka?

"I'll stick with gin. Champagne is just ginger ale that knows somebody." -Hawkeye from M*A*S*H

Only if you really want to piss off a gin buff! Vodka is an unflavoured neutral spirit mixed with distilled water, which is the basis of pretty much every spirit. So, gin is juniper-flavoured vodka only if you agree that rum is just molasses-flavoured vodka. Plant flavours (or botanicals, if you’re looking to impress) are distilled along with ethanol then mixed with distilled water to about 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) for most gins. For gin to be gin, there must be juniper; anything else is really up to the distiller.

"We use a gorgeous 450L Carl still, handmade in Germany," said Stuart Gregor, co-owner of Four Pillars Gin, which started bottling in Melbourne last year. "All the botanicals go direct into the pot except for the whole oranges, which get cut in half and go into the botanical basket. Our beautiful copper still allows us to make a spirit to a very high proof — around 93 percent ABV and we then cut that back to 41.8 percent ABV."

Can I have a gin and tonic to get through the rest of this?

"I don't know what reception I'm at, but for God's sake give me a gin and tonic." -Denis Thatcher

A classic gin and tonic is a great introduction to gin. When colonial Britain spread its tentacles across the world, the English encountered a whole range of new tropical diseases, including malaria. Troops in India were given rations of the very bitter cinchona bark, which contains quinine, a treatment for malaria. These wily soldiers mixed their rations with sugar, soda water and gin to make it more palatable.

A good London Dry is excellent in a gin and tonic. London Dry is any gin heavy on juniper which is distilled and has nothing nasty (like sugar or artificial flavourings) added. Confusingly, it doesn’t have to be made in London. Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray are easily available and good examples of the style. The perfect ratio is 1:3 gin to tonic water, which is probably stronger than what you're used to drinking in bars, but this way you can really taste the gin. The quality of the tonic water is another important factor. There is no point lashing out on a great bottle of gin then drowning it with whichever supermarket brand tonic water is on sale. Capi is an Australian brand of all-natural mixers. They make excellent tonic water which is available at supermarkets and many bottle shops.

The final critical factor is the garnish. Lime and lemon are both popular. I prefer to use a twist of peel rather than a squeezed slice. The peel contains delicious flavoured oils, which add a more subtle flavour, where the squeezed slice leaves pulp in your drink, which dulls the bubbles. Cucumber is another popular garnish; it works beautiful with softer gin styles like Hendrick's and makes your gin and tonic deliciously buttery.

But how else can I drink gin?

In a cocktail of course! A French 75 is great for a celebration. A Negroni is the aperitif of choice of classy counts. Avoid scurvy with a Gimlet. You might get the Last Word, but you’ll need a Corpse Reviver #2 to back up in the morning.

The James Bond Dilemma

"I like to have a Martini, two at the very most; three, I’m under the table, four I’m under my host!" -Dorothy Parker

The martini is the quintessential gin cocktail; a blend of gin and vermouth mixed to the drinker’s exact specifications. But when you order a martini do you ask for it shaken or stirred?

Many people will tell you there is a definitive answer and call you a philistine if you disagree. Maybe they are right, but tosh to them; drink it how you like! The difference is ice breaks into smaller chips and waters down the martini when you shake the cocktail. Some prefer the strong hit of a stirred martini, but if you prefer a lighter, shaken martini, go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong.

A quick martini glossary:
Dry – very little vermouth
Dirty – add olives and a splash of the brine
Wet – lots of vermouth
Perfect – 50:50 gin and vermouth, usually sweet red vermouth
Twist – lemon peel garnish
Gibson – cocktail onion garnish

The patriotic drinker

Along with the rest of world, Australia is enjoying a veritable plethora of new boutique gins, many featuring native botanicals. West Winds uses pristine Margaret River rainwater and a blend of 12 native botanicals including cinnamon myrtle, wattleseed and bush tomato. Stone Pine makes a dry gin featuring finger lime. The aforementioned Four Pillars and Larks Distillery both feature native pepperberry in their blend, while Mt Tamborine Distillery make a lilly pilly gin. This list of Australian gins is a little out of date, but it's a good start.

An image of the Bar at the End of the Wharf's view over the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Best gin joints in Sydney

"Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine." -Rick from Casablanca

Any good cocktail bar will serve a selection of quality gins. The Bar at the End of the Wharf is worth the walk to the end of the wharf for a good selection of gins, Capi tonic water and water views. The Different Drummer in Glebe has an excellent stock and knowledgeable staff. If you’re a little further west, Blacksheep in Newtown is a great choice.

Four Pillars gin images by Anson Smart.

Published on January 30, 2014 by Elly Michelle Clough

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