“Gin! Gin! A glass of gin! What magnified monsters encircle therein!” That—and the many lines that followed—come from a temperance ditty of 1843. Read in its entirety, the poem is enough to make any self-respecting Martini drinker choke on her olive. While rum and whiskey have gotten their fair share of opprobrium, gin has long been the poster spirit for the evil that is alcohol. In 1714, the Oxford English Dictionary referred to it as an “Infamous liquor.”
Introduced to England in the 16th century, by the 1730s this Low Countries quaff became the Oxycontin of its day. More a people’s drink that a posh man’s tipple, its consumption (and fallout) reached epidemic proportions among the poor, a situation captured in William Hogarth’s over-the-top etching, Gin Lane. The artist’s rendering of the rowdy and wasted proved effective in the campaign to control production and distribution, which culminated in the Gin Act of 1751.
More than a century later, gin and tonic became the refresher of choice for Englishmen braving the midday sun of empire. Cider, beer, and rum were the beverages of choice in Colonial America, but gin’s shady reputation got a boost with Prohibition, when bootleggers combined a bit of alcohol, juniper, and glycerine, then stuck the concoction under bathtub taps (bottles wouldn’t fit in a sink) to quickly produce a gin-like hooch. These days, of course, gin has gone premium, with an ever-wdiening array of bottles to chose from. “While the overall gin category has seen annual declines of around 1%, the premium-plus price sector for gin is growing at double digits,” notes Andy Mansinne, Vice President of Brands at MGP, whose proprietary Green Hat gins come from New Columbia Distillers of Washington D.C.
Nonetheless, for many folks—especially those of the “well-just-a-little” persuasion—gin retains a sort of outlaw image, akin to absinthe in its imagined soul-destroying potential. “I give praise to the few connoisseurs that order a Martini the original way—equal parts London dry gin to dry vermouth,” says Devin Colloton, who oversees the cocktail and wine program at Chicago’s Bar Roma. And while that classic cocktail isn’t the only way to enjoy the booze that once gave demon rum a run for its money in the bad rep department, it sure is one of the best. “Given the silly fillip of a scant driblet of vermouth,” wrote author and epicure, M.F. K. Fisher, “icy-cold gin can make a private and soul-satisfying drink…one not to be indulged in lightly, too long, or oftener than the stars dictate.”