Exploring the Evolution of the Gin Cocktail

gin Martinis poured at Old Ebbitt Bar
gin Martinis poured at Old Ebbitt Bar

All photos by Jake Emen. 

What's the best way to trace the evolution of a spirit and the classic cocktails it's used in? By embarking on a night-long mission to bravely explore a city's iconic cocktail destinations, all in the name of firsthand academic study, of course. With vintage vehicles -- a '52 Bentley, '57 Bentley and '64 Rolls-Royce -- providing the transportation for a cohort of bold and battle hardened researchers, the mood was set for a night of sophisticated imbibing. Come along for the ride and a gain a glimpse of the past, present and future of the gin cocktail.

If you were a foreign dignitary visiting in the 1850s, you may have stopped in at one of D.C.’s legendary and historic hotel bars, the Round Robin Bar at the Willard. There, you would have fallen in love with the Mint Julep, introduced to the city by Henry Clay, the U.S. Senator from bourbon-soaked Kentucky.

Meanwhile, if the timing was right you may have also stopped in at the Old Ebbitt Grill, which opened the doors at its original location in 1856. The country was still years out from the Civil War, but its capital was already a hard-drinking town, fueled perhaps by politicians and the stressed out masses who either reported to them or reported on them.

Plymouth Sloe Gin lined up at the Columbia Room
Plymouth Sloe Gin lined up at the Columbia Room

Old Ebbitt remains a politico paradise today, and its iconic Grant's Bar is so named for 18th President and Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant, himself a notorious hard drinker. The establishment is known for its splendorous oyster towers and raw bar selection, and while that Mint Julep across town is fine and good, a crisp martini pairs all the better in this case. Perhaps a Marguerite Cocktail, even.

In 1896, four decades after the bar's debut and two decades past Grant's presidency, Thomas Stuart published Stuart's Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them. While not as acclaimed as Jerry Thomas's 1862 Bartenders Guide How to Mix Drinks or a Bon Vivant's Companion, Stuart's book is nonetheless an invaluable resource to the recipes of his time.

The last section of the book is devoted to "New And Up-To-Date Drinks." Brand names are largely ignored, beyond those of Peychaud's and Angostura bitters. That is, except for one frequent inclusion -- Plymouth gin [Disclaimer: Plymouth hosted this boozy joyride investigative historical expedition]. Drier than the then popular Old Tom style gins which would come to acclaim in the cocktail world for libations such as the Martinez, predecessor to the Martini, Plymouth gin and its Marguerite are a far closer approximation of the modern Martini.

According to Stuart, the drink is made with two parts Plymouth, one part French vermouth and one dash of orange bitters. Plymouth gin is called out again for the Coronation Cocktail, with two parts Plymouth, one part Italian vermouth, four dashes Peychaud's bitters; the Milo Cocktail, with two parts Plymouth, one part Italian vermouth and four dashes pepsin bitters; and the Stewart Cocktail, with two parts sloe gin, one part Plymouth gin, and half a dash of Angostura bitters.

At Old Ebbitt, a round of Martinis is expertly poured for those thirsty, roaming, Rolls Royce transported storytellers. True to the Marguerite, a 2:1 Plymouth gin to dry vermouth ratio is utilized, here with a bright lemon twist.

The specific vermouth put to work is Dolin Dry. "I prefer Dolin Dry as the recommended vermouth for a Plymouth gin Martini, because it has a distinct lighter and drier flavor profile," said Shel Bourdon, brand ambassador for Plymouth. It best matches what she calls "the beautiful and polite profile," of Plymouth, made with only seven botanicals as opposed to the sometimes convoluted palates of gins made with botanicals by the dozens.

Elsewhere in Stuart's book, unspecified dry gin is called for in other cocktails such as the Gin Rickey. Time to hop back in the Bentley and head to the Tabard Inn, the oldest continually running hotel in Washington, D.C., first opened in 1922. Assuredly, if anyplace in town knows its history, it's the Tabard.

Here, D.C. once again takes center stage in drinking's evolutionary journey, as does D.C. politics. Enter Joe Rickey, an army vet and Missouri politician turned D.C. lobbyist and campaigner, and his eponymous Joe Rickey cocktail. The original Joe Rickey actually predates Stuart's guide, and was an iced down, carbonated whiskey drink with lime juice. While gin came to be the favored spirit in the beverage, a Rickey is more rightfully a category of drinks as opposed to a specific concoction, and can be made with the alcohol of the imbiber's or bartender's choosing.

And weren't the old days great? Joe Rickey likes to drink this. Let's call it the Joe Rickey. Forever.

The Gin Rickey, though, is so central and ingrained to the District that the city council named it "the native cocktail" of Washington in 2011. July is "Rickey Month" in D.C., the cool cocktail helping pass those humid summer days, and assorted competitions and events centered on the drink are held across the city each year.

With cocktail competitions on the brain, there's no place in the city and few in the country that call to mind the advances of modern mixology more than the newly reopened Columbia Room. There are many components to the Columbia Room experience which make it a such a special and rewarding one. That includes the powerfully strong affinity for, and knowledge of, the history of cocktails that the staff showcases, including co-owner Derek Brown and head bartender JP Fetherston. The resplendent mosaic in the back Tasting Room is in fact lined with names representing a Mount Rushmore of cocktail influencers, now forevermore further immortalized with a stunning, artful homage.

One current offering at the Columbia Room is the Steady Cocktail. At its heart, it's a simple 50/50 ratio of Plymouth gin and dry vermouth, not all too different in concept from the 2:1 ratio of the Marguerite. The bitters are gone though, here replaced by a tandem of concentrated Élixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse, along with bubbly drops of extra virgin olive oil as a savory adornment. It's similar in stature to its predecessor, yet it's also strikingly different, a showcase of restrained innovation with a nod to its roots, and therefore in some ways it's representative of the past, present and future in a single glass.

The Steady cocktail at the Columbia Room
The Steady cocktail at the Columbia Room

Next came a riff on a new wave classic, the Bramble, here using Plymouth Sloe gin in place of crème de mure. "The [Bramble's] creator Dick Bradsell once described it as 'a British drink, with British ingredients', so I think the Plymouth Sloe Gin works as a perfect riff on the original," explains Bourdon. The sweet, icy libation goes down in what would be an alarming hurry if there wasn't prearranged transportation awaiting outside.

Brown soon joined our gallivanting group, and the discussion turned to preferred ratios of gin and vermouth in Martinis. He backs the 2:1, an obvious gentleman's standard that wouldn't steer anyone wrong, yet, I'm known for my antiestablishment ways.

"Mine is four to one," I said, thinking the whole time, you're lucky I'm not pulling a Hemingway and asking for a 15:1 Montgomery Martini, so-named by that author for British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's apparent preference for only going to battle when holding that much of a troop advantage on the field.

At this point, Brown and Bourdon goaded me into a Martini taste test. As many drinks deep as has been described, with a few unnamed accomplice beverages who snuck in along the way, the challenge was levied -- four visual-replica cocktails were placed in a row, tasking me with choosing a favorite.

That was the official mission, but to avoid utter imbibing embarrassment, I knew that the selected favorite had best be that 4:1 martini. A diabolical trap had surely been laid by Brown and Fetherston, that much was certain. What was their devious ploy? It would later be discovered that in one glass was a 2:1 Martini, in another, the touted 4:1, in the third, a Shochu martini, and in the fourth, a Vesper.

The imbibing gods were good on this day, because dulled palate and all, the Shochu martini and Vesper were quickly tossed aside. Still unaware of what the actual choices were before me, I selected a favorite.

...It was the 2:1 Martini.

Sometimes you should just listen to Derek Brown. At least I didn't choose the Shochu, because I could only imagine that then for all eternity it would have been mockingly dubbed the Emen Martini.

Take Home Recipes for the Hands-on Imbiber

As told by Shel Bourdon:

Gin Rickey 

  • 1.5 parts Plymouth Gin
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Top with club soda

Build in a highball glass over ice. Garnish with a lime wedge. 

Jake Emen poses with his ride, a 1957 Bentley
Jake Emen poses with his ride, a 1957 Bentley

Sloe Gin Fizz 

  • 1 part Plymouth Gin
  • 1 part Plymouth Sloe Gin
  • 1 part lemon juice
  • 3/4 parts simple syrup

Add all ingredients into a shaker tin with ice. Shake and strain into a highball glass. Top with club soda. Garnish with lemon wheel. 

Sloe Gin Bramble 

  • 1.5 parts Plymouth Sloe gin
  • 3/4 parts lemon juice
  • 1/2 parts simple syrup

Add all ingredients into a shaker tin with crushed ice. Whip shake and strain into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice.  Top with a float of Plymouth Sloe Gin. Garnish with fresh blackberries and a lemon twist.