All About Gin

Learning how to make gin drinks like a pro at Detroit's Sugar House

tasting1

All images by Dorothy Hernandez.

“Everybody likes gin — they just don’t know it yet.” — “Old Klingon Proverb”*

*Not really

So it may not be a real Klingon proverb (how could they imbibe on gin when they’re busy with Blood Wine?), but there is some truth to it. After years of drinking gin of poor quality, I became a believer after drinking a Gin Smash at Sugar House in Detroit a couple of years ago. Known for its superb craft cocktails, this popular joint has also started offering cocktail classes for the masses, adapting its introductory class for new employees in a two-hour session. The classes allow craft cocktail fans the chance to mix it up like a pro. The first class offers an overview of the craft, teaching basic methods and tips on stocking the home bar.

More advanced classes delve deeper into the world of spirits. Now veterans of the 101 class, I took a recent Mixology 201 focusing on gin, an extremely versatile spirit that works well in many drinks, including my favorite at the Sugar House, a Gin Smash (check out my recipe below).

Our class began with a short history lesson. The word “gin” is derived from genièvre in French, jenever in Dutch, and ginepro in Italian, all meaning juniper. The spirit is said to have been created in the Netherlands around 1650 by Dr Sylvius, who was a professor of medicine. The earliest printed recipe popped up in the 16th century. Genever was distilled from fermented malt “wine,” and by the mid-18th century, gin was being made all over London in copper pot stills. It gained popularity with the poor because it was cheap and packed a potent alcoholic punch. The spirit further evolved with the invention of the column still, which produced a much cleaner product, paving the way for London Dry style gin. Colonists brought gin to North America, and the rest is history.

Now empowered by our history lesson, it was on to the moment we were waiting for: drinking. Here’s what we tried:

Gin Punch
Gin Punch

London Dry gin: This is the gin you probably know best (think Beefeater, Bombay, and Tanqueray). It’s bone-dry, heavy on the juniper, and a great choice for mixing. The best part is that Beefeater only costs about $17 a bottle, making it a decent choice for mixed drinks without breaking the bank. Sidenote: Plymouth Gin, made by the Black Friar Distillery, is known for being Navy Strength, meaning a ship’s gunpowder can still be fired should booze accidentally get on it. (Editor’s note: for an excellent American craft Navy Strength version, try NY Distilling Perry’s Tot Gin.)

Genever: This Dutch, Belgian, or Scandinavian form of gin is made from malted wine. We tried a Bols Genever, the go-to in this category. It drinks like a whiskey, with its bold, savory flavors and intense aromas.

Old Tom Gin: Historically distilled at a lower proof, this type is sweeter and funkier. London Dry Gin usurped it in popularity but thanks to the craft cocktail trend, it’s made a comeback. Examples of it called for in fizz drinks include Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Ransom’s Old Tom, and Tanqueray Malacca. Because of the sweetness, it’s best to use this in simpler drinks.

Sloe Gin: This liqueur is made by infusing sloe berries – the fruit of the blackthorn plant – in sweetened gin. Damson plums give it a beautiful purple hue and a rich sweetness. It’s not suggested to use it in place of gin – try sipping it on its own. Suggested brands – Plymouth Sloe Gin or for a unique, slightly fruitier boutique style, Greenhook Ginsmiths Beach Plum Gin Liqueur.

Craft Gin: With the rise of artisan distillers, craft/new world gins have burst onto the scene. In Detroit, quite a few have popped up in recent years, such as Valentine Distilling, whose Liberator Gin was a medalist in the 2013 NY International Spirits Competition, opened a few years ago. A new one, Detroit City Distillery, is in the works.

strainingSugar House-Inspired Gin Smash

  • 2 oz (60 ml) Dry Style Gin
  • .75 oz (22 ml) Simple Syrup
  • .75 o (22 ml) Lime Juice
  • Fresh basil (about 4-5 leaves picked off stems, cut into chiffonade, plus one sprig for garnish)
  • Ice for shaking and for the glass
  • Club soda

In a cocktail shaker, pour in the lime juice, simple syrup and basil; muddle together. Add the gin and ice and shake it up till well chilled. Strain and pour over new ice in a Collins glass and top off with club soda. Garnish with the basil sprig.

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