So the other day I was helping a food stylist friend of mine check items for an upcoming shoot off her shopping list, and we came to Old Tom gin. I initially assumed this was just a brand of gin I hadn’t heard of before, but as I scanned the shelves looking for it, I learned it’s actually a style of gin. Yup, gin comes in different styles—news to me! News to you, too? If so, you’ll be an expert in a matter of minutes (even less if you’re a speed reader). And just in time for Shaker & Spoon’s upcoming box, too. How about that?
First let’s cover what gin actually is: a juniper berry–flavored grain spirit. Its name derives from juniperus, Latin for juniper, an evergreen bush that produces blue-green berries. Unlike many other spirits, gin is classified as “gin” according to its predominant flavor (juniper berry), rather than by a particular method of production, origin, or standard ingredients. And since there’s no governing body to determine whether a batch of gin tastes more like juniper than anything else, the definition of what is and isn’t gin can get pretty subjective. Different producers infuse their gin with varying combinations of aromatics, including (but not limited to) coriander, cardamom, citrus peel, and angelica root.
Gin’s Dutch predecessor, genever, a white spirit (usually wheat or rye) infused with botanicals, came about in the Middle Ages as an herbal medicine. It was first produced by distilling malt wine, but because of unrefined distilling techniques (involving the pot still), herbs had to be added to mask the flavor of an otherwise unpalatable beverage. Today, there’s old and new genever—er, oude and jonge. Oude genever has a smooth aromatic taste with malty flavors, and is sometimes aged in wood. Its malty-grain base yields a light Scotch-like flavor. Jonge genever contains more grain instead of malt and has a neutral taste with a slight smell of juniper. Depending on who you talk to (because of that somewhat fuzzy means of defining), genever can still be classified as gin, even though it’s very different from other kinds that exist today.
Remember Old Tom from my first sentence? He’s the evolutionary link between genever and London dry gin (which I’ll fully describe in a sec)—drier than genever, but sweeter than London dry. This style was most popular in eighteenth-century England, but faded in popularity by the early twentieth century. If my recent shopping trip is any indication, though, Old Tom is seeing a bit of a resurgence today with the increased popularity of craft cocktails. As for Old Tom’s name? English pubs in the eighteenth century would have a black cat (“Old Tom”) –shaped wooden plaque mounted outside to indicate that they served gin. Passersby would put a penny in the cat’s mouth, and their lips around a tube between the cat’s paws, before the bartender inside poured a shot of gin through the tube, into the customer’s waiting mouth . . . kinda like a less hygienic, old-timey vending machine.
Old Tom gin is a key ingredient in the Tom Collins, a cocktail whose origins are debated, like so many other classic tipples. There was The Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874 (yep, you read that right), a popular prank in which one tavern patron would tell another that a man by the name of Tom Collins was slanderously talking about him at another bar, but when the angry person in search of this “Tom” would go asking for him, he’d be presented with the sour cocktail of the same name by the bartender instead. Alternatively, it’s believed that the Tom Collins began as a John Collins, whose namesake was a waiter at Limmer’s Hotel in London, the inventor of a gin punch whose name was changed when its recipe was modified to include Old Tom gin.
Gin was first embraced in England in the early seventeenth century, after King William III—aka William of Orange and the ruler of the Dutch Republic—occupied the British throne during the Glorious Revolution. At this time of his arrival in 1688, genever was known somewhat disparagingly as Dutch courage, a liquor that contributed to bravery in Dutch soldiers because, ya know, they were drunk. Between 1689 and 1697, the British government gave the okay on unlicensed gin production and imposed a heavy duty on imported spirits. Combined with the dissolution of the London Guild of Distillers’ monopoly in 1690, production and consumption of gin increased significantly, leading to a “gin craze” in the first half of the eighteenth century.
This craze eventually took a negative turn, as gin was blamed for social ills and drunken debauchery, thus developing a negative reputation. “Gin joints” described disreputable establishments that served “mother’s ruin.” The Gin Act of 1736 imposed high taxes on gin retailers that led to riots, but the more successful Gin Act of 1751 brought gin shops under local jurisdiction and redirected gin onto a future path of respectability.
The invention of the column still in 1826 made neutral spirits distillation much more practical and enabled the development of London dry gin in the late nineteenth century. London dry gin is cleaner, sharper, and lighter in flavor than genever, making it a great mixer; Tanqueray, Beefeater, and Bombay all fall into this category. London dry gin became so closely identified with the city of London that “London dry” is now a term for the style, no matter where it’s actually produced.
However, Plymouth gin, another version of the spirit with English origins, can only be made in Plymouth, England. Plymouth gin dates back to 1793, but the Black Friars Distillery is the only place that produces it today. Any gin distilled in Plymouth would earn this moniker, though, so if you wanna give ’em some competition, that may not be the worst idea. Plymouth gin isn’t as dry as the London style, and has an earthier flavor from a higher proportion of root ingredients.
Gin production in the ole’ US of A dates back to colonial times, but was greatly boosted by Prohibition in 1920. Gin, unlike whiskey, doesn’t require any aging, so raw alcohol was mixed with juniper berry extract and other flavors and spices in large containers, including bathtubs. As you can imagine, these gins weren’t of the highest quality, so cocktails whose other ingredients masked the base gin’s not-so-great flavor increased in popularity. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, gin remained a part of the scene, and so did craft cocktails.
Gin’s flavors work well with citrus and vermouth. The spirit commonly appears in the classic martini, as well as the gin and tonic. The martini’s origins are disputed, but some believe it evolved from the late-nineteenth-century Martinez cocktail, a mix of Old Tom and sweet vermouth; others say it was created at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York in the early twentieth century.
The gin and tonic’s origin story is a bit clearer: in tropical British colonies, gin was mixed with quinine, an effective anti-malarial compound, to mask the quinine’s bitter flavor. The quinine was dissolved in carbonated water to make, yup, tonic. Tonic water today only contains trace amounts of quinine for flavoring purposes, instead of medicinal ones.
I don’t need to ward off malaria for now, but anyone wanna join me for a three-martini lunch? I’ll be at the Knickerbocker . . . fact checking, of course 😉
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I didn’t know the Old Tom origin story, though I do recall seeing several black cats on the signs of old pubs around Ireland and the UK. They must’ve been newer, though, because I don’t recall seeing a slot for money or a drinking tube. Alas. 🙂
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