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Monday, March 5, 2007

More stuff Americans hate

Following proudly in the footsteps of my mentor and roll model Punxsutawney Phil, Your Doctor once again is making his presence known.

Initially let me say, drinking is getting constantly more exciting and if you’ve been considering taking it on as a hobby, the market is primed. There is an exquisite new Elderflower liqueur named St. Germain from the classy, cocktail-historic folks at Jacquin et Cie. From the freethinking mind of friend and co-conspirator Ted Breaux, there is a– no kidding – tobacco liqueur; Perique, flavored with the so-named leaf variety peculiar to Louisiana. Fee Brothers, the scrappy bitters magnates of Rochester, New York, have placed a tiny selection of their Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters on the market, in a special bottling of the cinnamony stuff substantially aged in charred oak Bourbon casks. I’ll review these products soon enough, but they all deserve mention here and now because they are excellent, all of them, simply excellent.

Now, though, at Joe Mailander’s request, I want to talk about genever: Dutch gin. Hey, it wasn’t a hard sell. I was always a proud iconoclast. When other kids were reading Superman, I was dreaming about Captain Marvel…the similar hero DC sued out of existence in the 1950s. When all of the cocktail elite were tooling around in Rolls Royces, I wanted a Bentley. And when I read about a kind of gin that Americans generally hated for just being what it was…well!

I won’t belabor you with but so much history of genever but what follows are the basics necessary to grasp this really interesting spirit. It was the first gin. It was made in pot stills, a type of distillation largely reserved for brown spirits in the current day, and proudly touted by Cognacs and Armagnacs to flash a little bibulous bling.

Pot stills are what one pictures when one pictures one’s own mental image of a still. Even if the image in your head is of a moonshiner, it is still a pot still you are picturing.

For just a sec, let’s quickly go over the TYPES of gin that there are (or were.) Genever, Old Tom, Plymouth, London Dry, and the new Hendricks model – which would include Aviation Gin. So here is the 30-second history: 1st gin: genever. Low temperature, inefficient distillation that emphasized both the juniper and the maltiness. (Think of a kind of a wine character. Think of a Martini with quite a bit of vermouth.) Add a certain vague smokiness. Think 3 parts gin, 1 part blended Scotch, 1 part vermouth. This is a horrible way to characterize the original genever but, like Latin, we must start somewhere because nobody we know speaks it anymore. So far we are residing in the late 17th century heading into the 1700s. Cut to 1832 and a clever guy named Coffey developed the eponymously named Coffey Still AKA the continuous column rectifying still. You’d lynch me if I made the slightest attempt to explain this still to you, but suffice to say, all the vodka you heathens love (gin too) is made today in such stills. It’s very efficient and it produces extremely clean spirits.

Too clean.

As of the 1830s, the drinking public was used to the slightly sweet, malty-charactered genever (the name of which was a bowdlerization of the French word for juniper) but as of the Coffey still, they could instantly have what we now know as London Dry Gin…and that was just all too strange for them. So then, as now, what do you, Mr. Liquor Producer, do to dumb down the new spirit? Of course. You sweeten it. Thus was born Old Tom Gin. Eventually the public trended into the flavor and feel of dry London gin. The Plymouth differentiation was a difference in technique that originally created a powerful, differently flavored gin. It is now certainly a London Dry. It is still excellent. The newest gin type is what I call the Hendricks model. London Dry gin is supposed to emphasize the juniper as gin lovers and haters all expect it to do, but though they have skated on this point so far, Hendricks does NOT emphasize juniper. Nor does the excellent Aviation Gin made by my buddy Ryan Magarian. Hendricks has a rose petal frontal approach, which itself is astounding since thanks to 20th century “advances” all early hand lotions were scented with rose and most alcohols flavored with rose taste, in a Pavlovian sense, soapy or like lotion. Hendricks (and Aviation – which is superbly flavored with lavender) really create a new and inspired gin category. Oh, before vodka made its late American entry in the early 20th century, the gin guys did do flavored gins. Orange gin. Lemon gin, Mint gin. Sound familiar? They weren’t all that good – much like many of their vodka counterparts, so I am ignoring them.

But in the early days of the cocktail, early to mid 1800s, genever is all there was.

Modern genever is divided into two types: jonge (young) and oulde (I’m sure you can figure it out). Most are in the jonge category. These, these days, are clean, crisp, and quite junipery. They are both dry and weirdly richer than London Dry and they can be as abrupt in a cocktail as Rhum Agricole in a Mai Tai. The oulde is quite mild and a little caramelly – both in flavor and color. It is very pleasant simply sipped neat or on ice. If you’ve ever tried Linie Aquavit, it has a similar character, minus the caraway. If you’ve ever had marc, that sort of flavor, but not as sweet, not as thick. Both varieties are lovely, really. You may have seen them (especially the jonge) in the past: a tall smokestack-like terra cotta bottle. That would be the Bols product, and they’ve been doing it since the beginning, which is to say, hundreds of years.

What of the original genever? Is it still the same as in those pre-column still days? Well, yes and no. If you want to taste gin as gin was originally, the product (and it is Bols) is now called Corenwyn. I asked quite specifically this question of Piet Schreuders, the longtime master distiller for Bols-Netherlands. I proposed this theory of genever and he utterly agreed. So…up for something different? Genever. As far as Corenwyn (which, Bols allows, is made generically in the Netherlands as “korenwyn”) is concerned, if any of you ever entertained asking Dr.Cocktail what his favorite spirit is, that is the answer; the original gin: Corenwyn.