“On the West India Station”
One of the great gin drinks is the simplest: pink gin, or gin and bitters. Generally water and ice are added, but are optional and not additional ingredients anyway, they are dilutions.
I will let Frederick Martin speak, who wrote the essential An Encyclopedia Of Drinks And Drinking. This very useful and entertaining book had an unlikely publisher, Coles, generally known in Canada for producing resumes of literary works.
“Coles Notes” has been a student standby in Canada for generations. Somehow this house published the book by Martin, an ex- British Army officer who had long been in the wine and spirits trade. The copyright is 1978 but internal clues suggest the text was written in the late 1960s. A left field choice for Coles, but one I’m glad it made.
After first explaining that gin was a proletarian drink disdained by the merchant classes and gentry, Martin sets out the slow but steady way gin crossed social barriers. One reason was the following:
Gin was taken up by the Royal Navy, whose prestige was colossal. We do not know quite when officers started drinking pink gin. “Bitters” were originally a medicine, a specific for sundry fevers such as the Royal Navy might encounter on the West Indian station. Since Plymouth was, and is, a distilling centre, it is reasonable to assume that a puncheon of gin found its way aboard a man-of-war and that an officer of an experimental turn of mind tried taking his bitters with gin, thus inventing a drink destined to go far outside service circles.
As to how to make the pink gin Martin is authoritative:
The correct way to make it is to put four or five dashes of Angostura bitters in a suitable glass and shake out all but that which clings to the surface (unless you wish the drink to be specially aromatic). Using ice cubes, or not, to taste, pour in the gin, adding soda or plain water to individual liking. There is a gimmick version in which the bitters are fired.
As an ideal brand Martin specifies the classic Plymouth gin – the sole surviving example of a regional English style that was associated with Devon’s famous port. “Plymouth” was said to be a little more flavourful than London Dry. Martin assures us though that any London gin is likely to be as good.
I always liked Beefeater: bone-dry, good juniper notes, very pure. Never really went for Bombay and Hendricks. Some brands, especially the cheapest, seem to stint on the “botanical” flavourings and also their alcohol base sometimes is too harsh for me.
I just bought the venerable Gilbey’s which is similar to Beefeater but a touch sweeter with more orange notes I think. Of course there has been a gin boom in recent years with many craft and newer big-company iterations, so the choice is enviable. However, the gin should not be too forward in taste as this can clash with the bitters.
Note re second image above: The painting shown is in the public domain, a fine 18th century work by English marine painter Peter Monamy. For source and further details, see here. Believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.