In social history terms gin probably offers the greatest interest among the spirits, and maybe too the wines and beers, save Champagne, or maybe porter.
A lot has been written on it, which saves us the trouble of outlining the history. So we will move to palate.
While most spirits at their best require no additive except maybe a little water, I think gin requires mixing in principle. It was never drunk neat before recent years (I exclude cases of clear abuse), and there’s a good reason for it. It blends to perfection with tonic, soda, and good water, meaning not too saline and not chlorinated.
Canadians used to use “bitter lemon” with it as well. To this day I’m not sure if this was an English thing or where it came from. This arch, early 1960s advertisement in the Montreal Gazette claims it was invented in the 20th century and only lately conquered the market as a mix for gin. It notes even “hardened British palates” were swayed, um, by the concoction. Could it have come from some lab in Delaware maybe?
Bitter lemon is a sweet-sour soda pop really. It contains quinine though, the advertised bitter part, to which lemon contributes as well. But there is a shed-load of sugar in it too. I think it may have been a commercial way to produce a quick Gin Twist which is gin, water or seltzer, lemon, and sugar or syrup.
Tonic water needs no explanation, I trust, to anyone who has gotten this far in this post.
I exclude the Martini from this discussion, not because gin is not relevant to it, but Martini is almost a separate subject given its strength, Byzantine history, singular taste, and take-no-prisoners approach (if you have more than one, which seems mandatory).
The aromatic, not to say romantic, Pink Gin – the romance is from its naval history – sort of falls in the Martini class, at least if you drink it straight, which I do. So it’s ultramontane this post.
And so with gin, what to leaven it with/bring out its best qualities? Water. Not the dew on the rose thing with malt whisky, but enough to knock it down to half bottling proof or less. Lately I like 20% abv, it seems to let the gin flavour have full flower while retaining a definite kick.
I have tried many gins at all price points. The English London Dry type is still the best I think, and this discussion is about the English style of gin, not Dutch geneva from which London gin derived.
And the classic brands, apart from offering good price, seem about the best to buy: Gordon’s, Beefeater, Hayman, Bombay Saphire, Plymouth Gin, Boodles among others.
I like a decided orange note in gin, which all these have I think. I don’t like cucumber, celery, anise, or something too flowery. Lemon is good but not too much. Juniper is good but not too much.
The old U.K. or imperial proof (57% abv) Hayman’s, its Royal Dock brand, is about the best I’ve had. It’s got a touch of sweetness too, which I like in gin. 2:1 water to gin in this case delivers the right taste: soft and flowing, lots of flavours, the orange on top, but nothing obtrudes.
Gin used to be called white wine by the genteel, to disguise the reference to something whose slightly disreputable aura had not been shed. That came from the bad days in the 1700s and early 1800s, the societal chaos evoked by Hogarth’s Gin Lane, and all that. This is all in the past, and while no one needs the nod of the bon ton to appraise something’s worth – indeed that factor is often inimical to good value – there is some satisfaction in knowing that good things out finally.