Sin & Gin

 

I have a friend and colleague in Austin who has a few ‘truths’ he lives by when drinking.

1. You can drink them cute, but you will never drink them skinny. (For the sake of my wife’s liver, I need to get back in the gym.)

2. Never attend events with open bars. Always pay for drinks. It’s much safer. (I understand this, you understand this. Remember your cousin’s wedding reception last fall? No? Point made.)

3. Gin, gin, it’ll make you sin. (I’m a sinner.)

We are awash with gin these days. Plymouth has returned, Genever is back behind the bar, and New Westerns keep introducing botanical potpourris. It’s goddamn Sodom & Gomorrah behind the stick.

You think you hate gin. Your wrong. What you really hate is the college memory of mixing cheap gin (that was barely better than the bathtub variety of Prohibition past) with purple KoolAid and the deserved reaction of your body expelling it. You hate it because, besides the KoolAid incident, the only time you’ve had gin is in a Gin & Tonic and it was made with cheap gin and artificial tonic water out of the bar gun. And you think you hate gin because your local bartender’s only skill set is opening bottles of beer (my seven year old can do this, he’s not a ‘bartender’) and has no idea on how to mix a proper cocktail. Find a real bartender.

Ok, a quick primer and history of gin.

1. It’s flavored predominantly with juniper berries (you knew that) usually harvested in Tuscany where Italian monks first began infusing spirits with it to combat the Black Plague during the Middle Ages. Didn’t work, but patients probably were less concerned about their erupting boils and bleeding orifices if they drank enough.

2. The Dutch rule the seas and spice trade in the middle of the last millennium. They have lots of spice in storage. Plant based items go bad if in storage too long. If you store such items in high proof spirits, they don’t go bad. If you store juniper, cassia, cardamon, and citrus fruit peel in spirits you’ve made gin.

3. The English hate the French. They start taxing imported spirits (Cognac) heavily. They allow any citizen to distill their own booze. Juniper covers up bad kitchen distillates, so does turpentine and it kinda tastes like juniper. Everybody does it. Everybody is drunk and poisoned. England rethinks its position on unlicensed distilling.

4. Guy in Scotland invents column still that produces very clean spirits. Guy in Ireland patents it. Guy in England starts using column still and distilling traditional gin botanicals in the third pass through the still. He invents London Dry gin.

5. The cocktail is invented in the US. Bartenders use malty Dutch gin and sweetened Old Tom in recipes. England doesn’t understand cocktails, or ice in drinks. But, they have a lot of people ‘civilizing’ India. It’s hot in the jungle, they keep getting malaria, and their teeth fall out from scurvy. Copious amounts of gin lets them forget about hot jungle filled with tigers, tonic water contains quinine which helps with the malaria, lime contains vitamin C which keeps their teeth in their head. The Gin & Tonic is born.

6. Prohibition declared. Poor distillates abound on the Black Market. Sears & Roebuck sells juniper oil in their catalog. Juniper covers up bad taste of poor spirits. The bathtub has a new use.

7. Three Martini lunches. Everybody is very sophisticated.

8. The rise of Vodka nearly kills gin and whiskey in the US. Vodka begins to infuse flavors. Unfortunately its with Bubble Gum and Whipped Cream artificial flavors.

9. Bartenders around the world start teaching people to drink better. Gin is saved.

10. Dave Rigo & Greg Lehman release their bourbon barrel aged gin from Watershed Distillery.

Ok, so maybe that last one won’t go down in all of the history books. But it’s great gin. Myself and a few bartenders on the North Coast got a sneak peak of it before its release into the wild next month. The Cliff Notes on it is that they are aging their signature Four Peel gin for one year in used Wild Turkey barrels. They will be using their own bourbon barrels once… Oops, thats still a secret. Anyways, I was truly impressed their aged gin. The botanical’s edges round out and the florals on the nose are accentuated. We mixed some up as a variation on the Martinez and it showed wonderfully. I’ve always liked using their gin in the Rosewood Snapper and look forward to trying it with the aged version. Now, fair warning, only two cases a month are coming to Cleveland for a while and it may be hard to find. You might want to book a tour of Dave and Greg’s distillery in Columbus and try to talk them into selling you a bottle.

Now go sin.

 

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Home distilled Arak from Lebanon

Anise. You either love it or you hate it. I happen to love it in ardent spirits. I’m as happy with Ouzo as I am Sambuca. This summer I’ve had the pleasure of  a few nips of home distilled Arak from Lebanon. Simply a stunning distillate; bright, floral, and a very clean 125(?) proof.

Arak is a catch all term in many eastern & South Pacific countries for any spirit. A derivative of Arabic for ‘sweat’ or ‘juice’, Arak in Lebanon, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries is a grape distillate flavored with anise seed. When drinking it is traditionally mixed in a 1:2 ratio of spirit to water and then poured over ice. The extra step of premixing before cooling produces a beautiful louche; if you just add the spirit to ice and then water you get an ugly precipitate that separates out from solution (I know, I did it wrong).

So back to this particular bottling. It came served in a 1 liter plastic Pepsi bottle sealed with masking tape brought over in luggage from Beirut. That alone got my heart rate up in anticipation. The Arak was distilled in a garage in a 10 liter alembic still used by the house wife to ensure that none of her grapes go to waste after harvest and wine making (she also distills an incredible rose water). It is double distilled with anise seed added to the second pass after maceration. Frankly, its one of the best things I’ve drank this year. The heart of the distillate is clean with nothing lingering from the heads or tales as I usually encounter in ‘non taxed’ spirits. The anise itself is deep, so deep it takes on haunting and fleeting notes of geranium, orchid, and lilac that pass in and out of taste threshold.

I live in a city with a rich and developed Lebanese community and our liquor store stocks several Araks. I suppose it’s time to add a couple of bottles to my cabinet and see how they stack up to the home made. I hope I’m not disappointed.