One of our favorite people of Madison, Tom Givnish, wrote up a great history on the Gin & Tonic for the Botany page on Facebook. I'm not sure if it is published elsewhere and for those folks that aren't on Facebook, I thought I would post it here. I can't wait to read about the next cocktail!
The Botany of Cocktails, Part I
It's mid-August, and one of the most pleasant experiences of the summer – a nice, tall, icy gin and tonic – is nearly ubiquitous. How did we come by this delicious concoction?
Genever or jenever (Dutch), genièvre (French), and ginepro (Italian), all meaning "juniper", are the antecedents of modern gin, derived from malt wine spirits, flavored with juniper berries and using alcohol derived from the fermentation of a mash of various grains, especially barley. Jenever emerged in Belgium starting in the 13th century, and became very popular in The Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries. The initial use of pot stills led to rather impure alcohol, and it's thought that juniper berries were initially used to mask the harsh flavor of the crude distillate. In time, the use of reflux stills and fractionating columns produced distilled spirits of essentially neutral taste ... but by then, the habits of several centuries had already settled in. The flavoring of gin by redistilling alcohol with a charge of juniper berries and other "botanicals" (various herbs and plant materials) in the fractionating column remains the most common form of gin production today.
Gin appears to have first become popular in England following the exposure of English troops to jenever while helping defend Antwerp against the Spanish in 1585 during the Eighty Years War. The troops used jenever for its calming effects before battle ... hence the name "Dutch courage". When the leader of the revolt against the Spanish – William of Orange, king of the new Dutch Republic – ascended the English throne to form the House of Nassau, gin became enormously popular, especially in London. The English government permitted unlicensed gin production at the same time that it imposed a heavy duty on imported spirits. This created demand for low-grade grain unfit for making beer, and thousands of gin mills and shops opened in London during the Gin Craze of the early 18th century. The price per unit of alcohol were so low that gin became the preferred beverage of the poor, turpentine was often used instead of juniper to flavor the gin (!), and large amounts of sugar were added to soften the flavor of the gin in the infamous "Old Tom". Ultimately, alcoholism and public drunkenness – to say nothing of widespread methanol poisoning and blindness resulting from poor distillation practices – became so widespread that Parliament had to pass several Gin Acts in order to bring the use of gin under control. Illegal distillation following the Gin Act of 1736, however, led to even more widespread poisoning.
Troops sent to India by the British East India Company in the early 19th century were inevitably exposed to malaria in that tropical country. Much earlier, in Peru the Incans discovered that a decoction from the bark of cloud-forest trees in the genus Cinchona (family Rubiaceae) yielded an anti-malarial drug, known as quinine, with an intensely bitter taste. In India, British officers took to drinking their weekly ration of gin with a mixture of quinine and carbonated water, adding sugar and lime to make the combination palatable (with the lime also helping to ward off scurvy in people eating diets otherwise poor in Vitamin C) – and thus was born the gin and tonic, which remains today a favorite drink with which to cool off at the end of a warm summer day. Recommended ratios of gin to tonic vary from 1:3 to 1:1, and the use of ice varies from country to country. Ian Fleming, in his James Bond novel Dr. No, provided a recipe for a gin and tonic that included, unusually, the juice of one entire lime per drink.
While Juniperus "berries" (actually, fleshy cones), by definition, provide the strongest taste in gin, a wide range of other plant materials are also used to flavor gin during the redistillation process. Bombay Sapphire, one of the most expensive and popular brands today, uses 10 botanicals for flavoring, including juniper berries, orris root (Iris germanica), angelica (a member of the Apiaceae), coriander seeds (reproductive structures of Coriandrum sativum, another Apiaceae whose leaves provide cilantro), almonds, lemon peel, licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra of the legume family Fabaceae), cassia (bark of another legume widely used as a substitute for cinnamon), cubeb (Piper cubeba, a pepper from the Indian subcontinent), and grains of paradise (ground seeds of Aframomum melegueta in the tropical ginger family, Zingiberaceae, which imparts a peppery flavor with notes of citrus). Thus, counting the grasses or grapes or sugar beets used to produce the alcohol in the first place, a Bombay Sapphire and Tonic contains members of ten to eleven plant families. But even this remarkably fragrant and complex drink has eight fewer families represented than a G&T made with The Botanist Gin from the Burichladdich Distillery on the Island of Islay. I've yet to sample The Botanist, which includes a total of 31 botanicals. Perhaps next summer!