The hallowed digestive of colonial Britain, if only because it helped to mask the bite of malaria prophylaxis quinine (rethinking your gin and tonic yet?), gin is a complex spirit with a complex history. Distilled from grains like barley, rye and wheat and filtered until transparent and bone dry, traditional gin's pungency and flavor are derived from a lengthy list of botanicals. Juniper, the oily berry of an evergreen in the Cypress Pine family, predominates, though coriander, fennel, angelica, anise, citrus peel and other aromatics are also employed. The precise formula is known only to the distiller.
History considers gin to be of Dutch invention. Political machinations in 1600s London resulted in its eager adoption by the British, never those to refuse a drink. Warring Britons called the spirit "Dutch courage" and adapted the recipe to their taste. The triple (or more) distilled London Dry style remains the world standard--think Boodles and Bombay Sapphire. Dutch Jenever gin like Bols' Damrak arrives on American shores at a milder proof and expressing a sweeter, malty note.
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Despite gin's resurgence as the palliative of choice in the nouveau speakeasy districts that fringe Hollywood and Downtown, you won't find Cadenhead's Old Raj Dry Gin in your English Afterthought or Tar Pit Fashionista. You would be wise to call for it in your martini, and then request the barman just hold the bottle of Vermouth and glance in the general direction of your cocktail, but you'll pay for the privilege. At roughly $60 a bottle retail, Cadenhead's is one of the most expensive gins on the market, and also one of the best. It's yellow pallor comes from the addition of saffron. Sipping Old Raj neat or opened up with a drizzle of clean water reveals the spirit's diaphanous profile. Instantly more complex than the typical London Dry but never overpowering, it's not unlike an herbal poultice for the palate, a feminine gauze of liquid that never betrays its 110 proof.
Other lauded small-batch gins are Hendrick's, the cucumber and rose-infused decoction that's a stalwart of The Hungry Cat's seasonal martini list, and Desert Juniper Dry Gin from Bend, Oregon, so resinous and syrupy you half expect to discover a fossil held in amber at the bottom of the bottle, gin's answer to tequila's notorious worm.
Squid Ink imbibes the monastic elixir Chartreuse in the next Drink Me.
Find Old Raj, Hendrick's and Desert Juniper gins at The Winehouse: 2311 Cotner Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90064; 800-626-9463.