A cocktail handy in fighting malaria and the Texas heat
Truly, is there any adult beverage that so embraces the smothering, wet heat of a Texas summer — or any Southern summer, for that matter — than the herbal sophistication of good gin?
Is there any more quintessential summer cocktail than a gin and tonic? Is there anything more mentally cooling than a sweating martini glass standing proudly on its narrow stem?
Make note on the calendar, as a matter of fact, that the second Saturday of each June is World Gin Day.
Gin’s arsenal includes some of the most recognizable cocktails behind the bar, including the Negroni, Tom Collins, Gimlet, Gibson, Gin Rickey, Gin Fizz and the Singapore Sling.
The history of gin is almost as fuzzy as the mind after several glasses of it. Many books still credit a Dutch doctor named Franciscus Sylvius for inventing a medicinal distilled drink called genever, or jenever, in the mid-1600s. Scholars have since found references to it in a play written in 1623, when the good doctor would have been only 9 years old. Another older reference was discovered dating to about 1585. According to that reference, English soldiers unsuccessfully defending Antwerp, Belgium against Spanish conquerors were provided genever before battle. It became known by a name still used today — Dutch courage.
Considering that gin and vodka are two of the most popular alcohols in the world, a lot of people think gin is simply flavored vodka and that vodka is a “pure’” drink while gin is not. Gin people and vodka people can easily be divided in the same fashion as cat and dog people.
Purists will be outraged that one should even hint that a martini can be made of vodka. Vodka drinkers consider themselves progressive. Famed English playwright Noël Coward would have been in the former group, disdaining even drops of vermouth in his martini.
“A perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy,” he once wrote.
Vodka actually is nothing but alcohol distilled to the extent it has lost almost all flavor. Variances in quality revolve around the grains or potatoes used in the distillation process and the aging.
Gin is distilled from grains like barley and rye, as can be vodka, but that’s where the similarities end. Gin makers create a mixture of herbs and spices, usually juniper, cardamom, coriander, aniseed and citrus zest, which they add to the distilled grains. These “botanicals” individualize each gin. Gin is generally 76-90 proof with 80 proof gin being what martini lovers refer to as dry gin and/or London gin.
Of course, if anything goes with gin as much as tonic, it’s gin and the English.
That great marriage goes back to 1690, when the Dutch-born William of Orange became William III, the king of England. On the throne, he brought a lot of change and security to England, but more importantly, he brought gin.
In the next 50 years, gin became so popular in England, the first half of the 18th century became known as the “Gin Craze.” In this short time, more than 7,500 gin bars opened in London. Grains too inferior to make beer, the main drink of the day, were quickly tossed into making gin. When juniper berries, the essential ingredient for making gin, became too expensive or in short supply, makers substituted turpentine. All of this would see a repeat some 200 years later in the United States when Prohibition brought about the infamous “bathtub gin,” which became linked to cases of blindness, liver damage and death. Needless to say, the medicinal benefits of gin got a little chancy, forcing the government time and time again to bring everything under control. Some such attempts resulted in what historians called gin riots.
Gin found its way to the Americas and almost every other area of the world by way of the British, who had discovered the most effective way to fight malaria was the intake of quinine powder. Unfortunately, quinine is a most unpleasant tasting thing, and to make it palatable, it was dissolved in carbonated water and sugar, thus the name tonic water. At some point, and there are doubts it took very long, someone found the preventative drink could be made more palatable with quantities of gin. Not only was the famed gin and tonic invented, but it proved genius in the quote: “Whomever thinks laughter is the best medicine clearly has not discovered gin.”
Here in 2017, there’s another gin craze going on, but fortunately a more positive one than in 18th century England. Coincidentally, England is having its own craft gin boom now, too.
“I think it’s another cocktail phase we see from time to time,” said Steve Ratier, food and beverage manager at The Tremont House, a hotel in Galveston’s downtown. “I think there’s been an interest in herbs and those kind of flavors, which fit right in with gin.”
Ratier and his staff have been creating drinks for the hotel’s bar menus, and one that has become among the most popular is the Rosemary Gin Gimlet. It’s a new take on the classic Gimlet, a cold sipper made with two ingredients, gin and preserved lime juice. The Tremont House version creates a simple syrup made with fresh rosemary, a prolific herb in these parts, and shakes it with gin and fresh lime juice. The Tremont House also is coming out with a Bikini Martini, made with gin and peach schnapps.
There’s no question gin is in, Ratier said.
“People come to the bar and they ask for a specific gin,” he said. “We have certainly added to the call brands we carry. I’m just hoping it’s not like vodka was, and we end up needing to stock 70 or 80 different kinds.”
Gin distilleries are on the rise in Texas. One of the first, Roxor Artisan Gin, distilled by the San Luis Spirits, the makers of Dripping Springs Vodka near Austin, debuted in 2011. Its creators are Don Short, former Coca-Cola executive, and Robert Del Grande, Houston’s famed Café Annie chef and owner. Almost simultaneously, another Austin-based firm, Treaty Oak Distilling Co., came out with Waterloo Gin (the name refers to what Austin was called when it was first settled, but it’s also a nice bond to England).
Others include Texas Drought Gin, made in Denison; Moody June American Dry Gin from Smithville; Austin Reserve Gin; Austin’s Genius Gin; Brazos Gin from Carrollton; Lonespur Texas Gin, which is also from Carrollton; and 1835 Lone Star Gin from Lewisville.
Which brings everything back to the grueling months ahead.
The cure, fortunately, is at hand. When the humidity rises, when the night air remains stifling, when temperatures seem cemented above the 90-degree mark, sit back, stock up on ice, and then just gin and bear it.
The Tremont House Rosemary Gimlet
This is a new take on the classic Gimlet, which would have only gin and preserved lime juice such as Rose’s or Angostura. The recipe is from the Rooftop Bar at The Tremont House, a Wyndham Grand Hotel.
1 ¼ ounces Bombay Gin
½ ounce of Rosemary Simple Syrup (recipe follows)
Splash of fresh lime juice
Topped off with soda water
For the Rosemary Simple Syrup:
1 cup white sugar
1 cup water
¼ cup fresh rosemary leaves
For the simple syrup, combine water, sugar and rosemary leaves in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Simmer for 1 minute. Remove from heat and let syrup steep, about 30 minutes. Strain into a sterilized glass jar through a mesh strainer to remove rosemary leaves; let cool. Store in the refrigerator.
For the cocktail, add gin, simple syrup and lime juice to a shaker with ice, and then strain over ice in a chilled old-fashioned glass. Top off with club soda.