The New Wave of Gin
By Eric Danville
Imagine a plant so versatile that it can be used to treat ailments affecting your skin, heart and immune system. Imagine that it’s also a popular intoxicant, used recreationally for hundreds of years by millions of people around the world. Then imagine a massive, class-based smear campaign launched by companies whose bottom line it threatens, labelling that plant the drug of choice for low-lifes, degenerates and criminal minorities. Then imagine it’s the rising star in a multi-billion-dollar industry with an ever-growing and increasingly positive public profile.
The plant is, of course, canna— Oh, no, wait. It’s juniper.
The small, round berries from the juniper tree — which are actually classified as a spice and not a fruit — that give gin its distinctive and dominant piney flavor have a lot in common with the flowering buds of the cannabis plant. Just ask Mark Tafoya, co-owner of The Winslow, a British-themed bar in the East Village of Manhattan. “Beer companies paid for that,” he says, pointing to a small print entitled Gin Lane, which hangs in a corner of the bar’s spacious back room. Created by William Hogarth in 1751, the morbid engraving shows Londoners living in poverty and squalor. On one side, a drunken woman is being carried away in a wheelbarrow, while in another a child fights a dog for a bone in the street — all the result of their penchant for gin.
Tafoya explains that Gin Lane was created in tandem with another print called Beer Street, which shows happy Londoners lifting steins of beer with smiles on their faces, relaxing with their lovers and enjoying life. “Gin Lane was basically propaganda,” he says, commissioned by beer companies losing money during an epidemic of British gin drinking that was so rampant — estimates claim that the English drank over two gallons per person annually — that it became known as the Gin Craze. “There was a political movement to get rid of gin in London. There was a massive stigma against it. Gin’s been so demonized… it’s a lot like cannabis in that way.”
The similarities don’t end there. Juniper, like cannabis, has a history of medical applications as well. The first juniper-derived drink, jenever, was created in sixteenth-century Holland as a curative for the digestive and immune system problems. Soon enough, gin was adopted by the English, who used it for other health issues. “The gimlet [gin and lime juice] was created to treat scurvy in British sailors,” Tafoya notes. “Gin also masked the taste of quinine in the tonic used to fight malaria. It’s been a medicine for as long as anyone can remember, again, just like cannabis.”
Tafoya attributes today’s resurgence in gin’s popularity to several factors. It’s easily and quickly produced; whiskey distillers have to wait three to five years for their product to mature, but one gin distillery he’s visited has its product bottled and ready for market in just four days. The craft beer crowd has also inspired people to order something a little unusual or adventurous. He also credits the rise of Hendrick’s a few years ago. Hendrick’s shook up American palates by getting its trademark flavor (and biggest selling point) from cucumber. “A lot of companies have dropped down the piney taste to get rid of that London Dry style,” Tafoya says of the astringent quality that can be a dealbreaker for those on the fence about drinking gin.
Flipping the script on traditional gin taste is part of the strategy behind The Winslow as well. “There are so many more aspects to the drink. We wanted to reintroduce that wave of gin companies that have emerged over the past few years.“ The success of introducing cucumber into gin demonstrates a versatile nature on a par with wine. The neutral grain spirit that serves as gin’s base can be distilled and/or infused with a myriad of botanicals, herbs, spices, fruits and even vegetables that can make the finished product spicy, sweet, bitter or dry — something you can’t do quite as successfully with other liquors.
One way The Winslow opens people up to the possibilities of gin is through its gin club: a 90-minute social event during which patrons receive a cocktail made from a sponsor distiller’s stock, learn some gin history, get some hands-on bartending experience by mixing two or more cocktails themselves, share hors d’oeuvres that complement the drinks and answer trivia questions for the chance to win a bottle from the evening’s sponsor. The gin clubs are only held on select Tuesday nights, so if you’re looking for a more immediate way to up your gin game you can do one of the bar’s gin flights anytime you visit.
The Winslow’s gin flight provides 1 oz. pours of four different gins served on ice in 5 oz. glasses and can be sampled with or without tonic at the customer’s request. Looking over the bar’s Ginventory — an impressive list of 40 gins bound inside upcycled hardcover book jackets — I consulted the menu’s Flavor Notes Key and went outside my comfort zone to choose ESP Smoked, distilled in Manhattan, and Brooklyn’s own Dorothy Parker brand. Asked to offer her own insight, the bartender Emma immediately poured Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin, a Tuscan inspired California gin, and Gin Mare from Spain. Emma also chose the tonic, 1714, from Argentina.
Flavor Notes | Bitter and citrus
Botanical Pairing | Orange slice, black pepper
Result | My instinct was right with this one. Dark and very enjoyable, its applewood smoke flavor comes through nicely before a peppery finish. If you shy away from gin because of its Christmas tree taste, you’ll be surprised what the bold, stimulating ESP Smoked has to offer.
Flavor Notes | Citrus, fruity and herbal
Botanical Pairing | Dehydrated orange slice, hibiscus, cinnamon stick
Result | I chose this one on the strength of its name. It was enjoyable, bright, fruity and slightly sweet. It picked up a nice, contrasting wave of heat from the cinnamon.
Flavor Notes | Citrus and herbal
Botanical Pairing | Cucumber, lemon juice, black pepper
Result | I associate cucumbers more with salad and borscht than with gin, so it just didn’t work. This also didn’t play nicely with the tonic, but I’d definitely try it on the rocks or in a martini in a pinch.
Flavor Notes | Herbal and strong
Botanical Pairing | Spanish olive stuffed with a rosemary sprig
Result | The most pleasant surprise of the flight. The juniper competes with olive and rosemary for a rich, briny earthiness, and it has an intriguing mouthfeel like a dirty martini. I joked with Emma that this was like drinking a slice of focaccia. She laughed and agreed.
Whether gin is your drink of choice or not, a treat reserved for a special occasion or merely holding a place on your booze bucket list, it can — like the many strains of cannabis we have today — take you to new heights of flavor and sensation. Buckle up, and enjoy the ride!
For more information on The Winslow, visit thewinslownyc.com.