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   Aug 08

A brief history of gin, from herbal medicine to spirited hipster tipple beloved from Britain to Japan

  • Despite gaining popularity in recent years, the distilled spirit has been around in various forms for millennia
  • As well as the predominant juniper flavour, infusions can include other botanicals, spices and herbs

Although gin seems like a modern-day hipster tipple, it was supped back in 16th century Holland, when the Dutch began producing a medicinal liquid called genever.

The rough-tasting drink was based on malt wine, and juniper berries were included to mask the harsh flavour. By the 1700s, it had become known as gin. Its first recorded appearance was in a 1714 book called The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, by Bernard Mandeville, who pithily wrote: “The infamous liquor, the name of which deriv’d from juniper berries in Dutch, is now, by frequent use […] shrunk into a Monosyllable, intoxicating Gin.”

The origins of gin stretch back even further, to AD70, when Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides published De Materia Medica, an encyclopaedia on herbal medicine, in which he described the use of wine-soaked juniper berries to cure chest ailments. Going forward a millennium, to 1055, Benedictine monks in Salerno, Italy, wrote about a juniper-infused tonic made of wine in the Compendium Solernita.

Today, gin can be defined as a dis­tilled spirit flavoured predomi­nantly with juniper, and including infusions of other botanicals, spices and herbs, such as cardamom, licorice, cinnamon, savory and citrus fruits such as lemon, lime and orange.

“Gin is like a great perfume. You walk past a series of perfumes, some are repulsive and some are exactly what you’re looking for,” says Krystal Hart, ambassador for the Diageo Reserve World Class Bartending Competition.

London Dry is a style of gin with an alcohol content of about 40 per cent. It has a citrusy nose with a bit of spice and contains less than 0.1 gram of sugar per litre. And with just 97 calories in a 30ml pour, it is an almost guilt-free indulgence. Examples include Tanqueray, Boodles and Bombay Sapphire, all of which are reasonably priced.

Genever, or Holland, gin is sweeter than London Dry and lower in alcoholic strength, at 35 per cent. It has a creamy, waxy citrus flavour. It is not easy to find. Look for Boomsma, which is made in Holland.

Plymouth is a full-bodied gin that is very aromatic (heavy on the juniper berries) and has a much higher alcohol content, up to 57 per cent. Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength (45 per cent) and Plymouth Gin Naval Strength (57 per cent) are tipples that should be consumed in moderation as they pack quite a wallop.

Gin is different from other spirits in that it doesn’t have any congeners or by-products, such as methanol, which may turn into formaldehyde in the body. This means gin is less likely to cause hangovers. In addition, juniper is considered to be a super berry, as it is high in vitamin C and catechins, which are reputed to aid circulation and digestion.

Britain is the largest exporter of gin, with most of it produced in Scotland, home to many famous distilleries that make the expensive single malt whiskies enjoyed around the world. Because single malts need to age in the barrel for a minimum of 10 years, distilleries have found a way to make a quick buck in the meantime. Gin is made relatively quickly – as a fresh distillate, it requires no ageing and is ready for sale after a short rest period.

Other countries, such as Australia and Japan, have joined the gin express. The former is making its mark with interesting versions using native flora. Four Pillars is one to watch, and its Bloody Shiraz Gin, distilled from Yarra Valley shiraz grapes, is particularly delicious.

Roku gin is made by Japan’s Suntory, which is famous for its beers and whisky. Roku incorporates Japanese botanicals such as sakura flowers and leaves, yuzu peel, sencha tea, gyokuro tea and sansho pepper, in addition to the traditional ingredients.

One of my favourite gins is Hendrick’s, which is cucumber based. The Scottish gin requires a clever production process to extract the flavours of the cucumber without the fruit going rancid.

To me, a good gin is one that is perfumey without being cloying. It should taste great on its own with a couple of ice cubes, a wedge of cucumber and a sprig of fresh mint and thyme. If I’m craving a cocktail, a negroni always hits the spot with its equal parts of gin, Campari and red vermouth.

Source: SCMP

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