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The story of gin: A spirited interview

December 26, 2012|By Jasmine Elist

By the mid-'80s liquor manufacturing was in a dire state, with gin sales falling fast and many of the traditional techniques and recipes abandoned in favor of mass-industrial production and a bland, homogeneous product. The turning-point came in 1988 with the launch of Bombay Sapphire -- the first new premium gin for decades, and one with a marketing campaign built around heritage, quality and character. Around the same time, the Swing Revival and Cocktail Nation trends -- remember "Swingers"? -- helped to give younger drinkers a new taste for gin. More recently, the success of "Mad Men" and the cult of James Bond certainly hasn’t harmed the mystique of the martini. In the last decade craft distilling has become hip, with dozens of small companies across Europe and the U.S. producing their own distinctive and delicious gins. Many of the bigger corporate brands have returned to an older, artisanal style of distilling. So, thanks to the gin renaissance, this is the best time in the last 500 years to be drinking gin.
 
What are some gin cocktails you would recommend our readers making?

For the holiday season there’s nothing better than an old-fashioned hot gin punch -- Charles Dickens’ favorite Christmas drink, and one he puts in the hands of his characters in stories like "A Christmas Carol". Traditionally this could be made by plunging a hot poker into a mixture of gin, Madeira, lemon juice, honey, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, but a saucepan and a stove will do just as well. For something more refreshing but equally festive, try a gin fizz (gin, lemon juice, sugar, egg white and soda water) made with damson or sloe gin.
 
Is there any way to drink gin and avoid a hangover?

Moderation is the only sure method, I’m afraid. As someone once wrote in Punch magazine, life is mostly a question of the liver.
 
How do you prefer your gin? What is your favorite gin-based cocktail?

Oddly enough I wasn’t a big gin-drinker before I began this book, but I’ve acquired something of a taste for that great American contribution to world culture -- the martini. As an aperitif I like it very cold and very dry, with a zesty gin like Tanqueray Rangpur or Greenall’s Berkeley Square. For more summery occasions, a long Negroni with Hendrick’s or Martin Miller is just the thing. As a British writer I should also fly the flag for a classic gin and tonic with Plymouth, a gin that is very nearly as old as the United States.
 
Do you have plans to write “The Book of” any other types of alcohol?

The time I’ve spent learning and writing about gin has been an absolute joy, but for my next books I’ll be moving on to different kinds of spirit -- the history of the unconscious mind before Freud, and the ways in which digital culture is transforming the concept of the sublime. But I’ll always have a soft spot for the scent of juniper, and if you want to know more about gin and its remarkable global history, point your smartphone or tablet toward my Sick City Walks web app and my Sick City Project, an ongoing exploration of life and death in London’s history.

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