One of the great gin drinks is the simplest: a pink gin. It is gin and bitters. That’s it. Generally water and ice are added, but are still 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 often entertaining book had an unlikely publisher: Coles, generally known in Canada for producing potted (sorry) versions of literary works.
“Coles Notes” has been a student standby in Canada for generations. Somehow it published this book by Martin, a Briton who had long been in the drinks trade in England. The copyright is 1978 but textual clues suggest the book was written some time in the 60s. 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 prosperous merchant classes and gentry, Martin sets out the slow but steady way gin crossed the social barriers. One reason was the following, but let Martin’s words convey it:
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.
(I will stick just to Martin’s dicta on the pink gin, but advise readers to get his book for many other gems, ginny and other. Sample: “…in the veterinary field, a dog breeder has recorded that one of his prize-winning show dogs would not mate until he received a double gin”).
In terms of how to make a pink gin, Martin is, but you probably don’t doubt it by now, 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.
For the gin, Martin plumps for the classic Plymouth brand – the sole surviving example of a style of gin once associated with Devon’s famous port. It was said to be a little more flavourful than London Dry. He avers though that any London gin is likely to be as good. I always liked Beefeater, bone-dry, firm juniper taste, very pure. Never really went for Bombay and Hendricks or the craft ones. I just bought the venerable Gilbey’s which is similar to Beefeater but a touch sweeter and more orange notes I think. And 26 smackers – half, or almost, what you can pay today for many in-demand brands.
On The West Indian Station… Was that a novel? It should be.
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.