Dave Broom, Gin, ‘A Cocktail’… The Gin-Fuelled Mayhem of London in the Eighteenth Century

My father, he drank whisky; my mother, she drank gin. This may sound like the start of a country and western song, but it was, kind of, the truth – the first bit anyway. My mother didn’t really drink; a small sherry before dinner perhaps.  Once, however, she did confess to me that “the drink I love the most is a gin and tonic, but, you know…” The sentence didn’t need to be finished. Women didn’t drink gin. Its taste may have been wonderful, but people would have tutted. Strangely, though, gin was behind her getting married. Her first date with my father was also the first time she had ever been to a pub. When my dad asked her what she would like to drink, she panicked and said, “Gin and It”. She had heard about it, maybe seen it mentioned in a movie, but had never tried it. My mother’s first drink was the British equivalent of the Martinez, served in a pub in Glasgow’s East End. That gives me a certain sense of pride. The fact that they married soon after and a couple of years later I came along also means that, in some curious way, I have gin to thank for my existence. Her relationship with gin was a throwback to the gin-fuelled mayhem of London in the eighteenth century; it also carries the chill of Scottish Presbyterian disapproval (and, trust me,

there is nothing as fearsome) and the disreputable whiff of the excesses of the Bright Young Things in the twenties and thirties. Gin was flash, too strong, and uncouth. Being assailed by all sides simultaneously has long been part of gin’s burden.

My own love of gin began later. In the Scotland where I grew up, men drank whisky. Gin was also seen as an “English” drink, one for snooty golf clubs and a certain social class; a signifier of status, class, and attitude. This was, of course, in the days of gin’s decline. Years on, I had my first Martini. It was made for me by Desmond Payne at the Beefeater distillery, in those days a lonely, echoing place that seemed only to be

kept warm by one man’s passion. I inhaled the scents of the botanicals, marvelled at the stills, nosed the new make, sipped the drink, and thought, “Where have you

been all my life?”. Gin was still in the doldrums. Distillers were flailing around, lowering strength and adding flavours.  Then along came Bombay Sapphire and people began to become interested in gin once more. Equally significantly, it coincided with the London cocktail revival, when people of my age could drink classics; a small band of sisters and brothers in the wasteland crying, “We love gin”.

Soon after, Charles Rolls flew me to Plymouth in a two-seater plane with two cases of gin in the back (quite why we were taking gin to the distillery I never quite worked out). What followed was the realization that every person worth talking to in Scotch whisky had gin as their first drink. I became a confirmed gin drinker, fascinated by its complexities, revelling in its history, loving its underdog status. Now, at a time when 20 new brands seem to appear every week and new distilleries are on every corner, all of that seems like a weird dream. Was there really a time when gin wasn’t loved, when it was stigmatized, when Martinis were vodka drinks and bartenders thought Negroni was an imported beer? Was there a time when saying you would like to write a gin book would see the publisher politely changing the subject? Here’s to the new world of gin!

Tasting gin requires a recalibration of the senses.  Other spirits – rum or whisky, for example – often work on allusion, as in having an aroma that smells like, for instance, “heather”, “honey”, or “tropical fruit”. There is no such creative latitude in gin. The aromas that you are picking up are coming from the botanicals. It’s on the one hand more analytical and precise, but on the other more immersive because nosing and tasting a gin transports you to a new aromatic landscape. Let’s face it, how many of us really encounter orris or angelica on a daily basis, never mind the more outré botanicals now being pressed into service? What the experience does give you, therefore, is a greater understanding and engagement with the world. These aromas aren’t artificial but natural. The way in which a gin changes on your nose mirrors

exactly the progression of aromas from the still. You pick up the most volatile first, the heaviest last. You are smelling time. Relax and delve into its complexities. Rather than just being “gin”, you now experience that initial burst of citrus: lemon, orange, grapefruit, or a combination. But where are the coriander seeds? How does the juniper express itself? When do the roots and spices emerge? This is a retronasal experience, meaning you detect more aromas when the gin is in your mouth. Now you can notice more clearly how one aroma blends into another, how they rise and fall. The key is balance, not abrupt shifts from one to another. Think of how it’s textured: thick, broad, light? Go back to the glass. Have the aromas changed, or

simply flown off ? (they should have persistence).  Finally, is it juniper, citric, spicy, floral, or herbal? Having an understanding of each gin will give you an idea of how best to enjoy it.

Pictured: Blackberry Gin and Tonic.

Dave Broom’s book ’Gin the Manual’, is Published my Mitchell Beazley £14.99