Step inside The Curious Bartender’s Gin Palace with the entertaining Tristan Stephenson »
And discover one of the best drinks books of the year!
By Robyn Lewis
That’s a big call and not one I was expecting to make when I first saw the green leafy cover of Gin Palace, looking like absinthe-tinted rococo wallpaper. To me it looked inviting, but an Italian winemaker friend rated the cover dull! Open it however and you’re in an enticing world.
It’s like walking down one of Melbourne’s narrow laneways and stepping through the unmarked door of the real-world Gin Palace, full of dark and inviting corners, comfy plush chairs and a hip crowd. And gin, mixologists and fun! You can spend many happy hours there, and in Gin Palace the book, too.
Boring it is not. British author Tristan Stephenson is a born writer and entertainer, who first fell in love with tonic as a child, and later (so he says) with its alluring botanical dominatrix, gin.
It was a short step from his first sip to becoming a bartender, perfecting gin cocktails, and no doubt spinning great stories to happy imbibers along the way.
Then Stephenson became ‘ginfatuated’ – delivering seminars on gin (only in London! Back then anyway), judging gin competitions, advertising gin, opening two cocktail bars and – of course – finally launching his own gin brand.
Now, having visited over 60 gin distilleries and sampled nearly 500 ‘expressions’ of gin, he’s authored Gin Palace, our entrée into his world.
It’s timely. Gin is having another renaissance, having been dragged out of its 1980’s gloom (its darkest decade since the ‘mother’s ruin’ era of the 1800s) – largely thanks the makers of Bombay Sapphire, who somehow combined the allure of colonial decadence with a touch of the hand-made, wrapped in the genius packaging of a desirable blue bottle.
As Stephenson says “gin has become the highly prized pinup of the craft revolution. Eschewing gin is like sticking a finger up to local, artisan, independent businesses”. And who wants to do that?
The growing range of gin styles, flavours and stories has also helped to garner new consumers, says Stephenson. “Pronounced flavour, credible provenance, botanical terroir and innovating packaging are just some considerations that drive modern gin drinkers to buy one brand over another” (wine, watch out!). “Gin has never been this good” – and he should know.
Stephenson gives us a quick rundown of the “alchemy, magic and origins” of distillation and also of juniper, full of factoids to spark up your next drinks night, plus a few party tricks dating back to 28 BC. Did you know that juniper reputedly has antibiotic properties, and used to be made into a tonic with wine, used for coughs and even gout?!
But it was a Leiden University professor of medicine Dr Sylvius de Boe who took credit for inventing genever (gin), even though it had already boomed in Holland before he was born! (Such mis-attributions are persistent, even today). Whatever the truth, the Netherlands became gin’s epicentre for 200 years, and a Flemish family named Bols starting making spirits in 1575, later adding gin to their portfolio (today, Bols is the oldest spirits brand in the world).
Then along came the Dutch East India Company in 1600 – the world’s first multi-national – which traded gin around the world and even gave gin rations to many of its 30,000 employees!
Not surprisingly gin became fashionable in London when the Dutch-born William of Orange took the English crown in 1688, taking gin with him. Its consumption exploded. We can probably thank William III for our G&Ts even today, and gin for the phrase ‘Dutch courage’ – the name given to the swig of gin taken by Dutch soldiers from a hip flask before heading into battle, alongside their English compatriots, who were also quick to pick it up.
But for every boom there is a bust, which came when gin-making became widespread, and its over consumption became endemic during the early 1700s, especially in the slums of London. (Many will be familiar with the Gin Lane etching by George Cruikshank, depicting an inebriated mother dropping her child down a staircase, and worse).
Parliament finally took notice and brought in a series of ‘Gin Acts’ over 30 years, putting up the price. Poor grain harvests further restricted supply. Gin consumption dropped 80%, the “lower classes turned their attention to the relative safety of beer and porter”, and if gin was to survive, the quality had to go up (sound familiar, wine lovers?).
So along came brands, which spoke of reliability and accountability: Gordon’s and Booth’s were born, the latter the oldest gin brand in production today (dating from 1740, although now made in the USA, and owned by the giant company Diageo).
You can read about gin palaces in the book, and the huge increases in quality with improved distillation of the botanical essences in the 1800s. Technology and meeting the demands of an increasingly sophisticated, aspirational market gave the Brits the upper hand over gin’s Dutch originators, and to a fair degree these brands (which by then included Beefeater and Tanqueray) have retained it, although with the Belgians also producing huge quantities of high-quality gin prior to WWI.
Then came tonic water in 1858, courtesy of Jean Jacob Schweppe, Erasmus Bond and the bark of a tropical tree, the cinchona (still used today). It was a marriage made in heaven. The G&T-led renaissance – fuelled by colonial necessity and nostalgia – led to gin cocktail stardom in the Roaring 20s, and the drink took off in America.
Of course, dark clouds were gathering, and gin entered another dark era. As Stephenson observed “not a single decent gin cocktail was invented between 1935 and 1980”. Vodka leapt past gin post WWII, especially Russian brands which offered something exotic to a new generation of drinkers (history currently repeating itself, in reverse). “Gin was perceived to be old-fashioned and its marketing comprehensively outclassed” by the 1970s and 80s.
Fast forward to today, and the tide is turning yet again. Gin is hot, hot, hot, and winemakers, brewers and even restaurateurs are distilling and labelling their own in an attempt to cash in. One very attractive feature from their point of view is that gin can be made in 28 days – no risky agriculture required, no waiting 5-7 years for the first grape harvest, not as much money tied up in land and equipment…. And, so far no discounting either, or at least not to the same extent as wine.
And from the consumers’ point of view, it’s not as complicated as wine, not yet anyway. For those who want to know, Stephenson runs through how it’s made and the basic ‘botanicals’ required: juniper is a must, plus coriander seeds (which give a lemony aroma), cardamom (gin’s most expensive ingredient), liquorice root, orris (Iris pallida) root for floral notes, cinnamon and/or cassia bark and angelica.
In Australia, gin makers are experimenting with native plants including lemon aspen and pepperberries, plus roses and even a gin made with shiraz grapes.
Two of the most useful pages in Gin Palace are pp 68-69, which provide a ‘flavour map’ of the gins featured in the book, ranging in a matrix from light to heavy, and classic to contemporary. Bombay Sapphire, Gordon’s and Beefeater are all in the ‘light, classic’ corner, so a world of gin exploration awaits you if that’s all you’ve tried so far.
In the opposite ‘heavy, contemporary’ corner lie gins such as Ophir (which apparently smells of cumin and has other curry notes); Nolet’s Reserve (saffron, rose, cardamom, sherbet, raspberry and green tea – and a snip at US$895 per bottle) and Adnam’s First Rate (“spice draw dust and a brooding kind of dark vanilla… florals, citrus, fennel… spicy and zippy).
Only Stephenson could describe a drink as being like “freshly pressed sheets in a tree house”!
Gins from the remaining 50 odd distilleries lie in between, and if gin is becoming your thing, you could spend many happy hours in Gin Palace exploring gins from Scotland, the Lakes District, Spain, Sweden, France (yes, there’s a gin made from young grape buds and flowers, called G’Vine), Germany (including Monkey 47, sought after globally for cocktails), the USA, Philippines, and more. I’m guessing that tasting them could become a very expensive hobby.
And then of course there are cocktails, starting with the classic Martini (stirred in this case, not shaken, with everything icy cold). Others include the Gimlet, Salted Lime Rickey (like a Margarita but made with gin), a warm beer-gin infusion called purl (see recipes below), gin and blood orange juice, and how to make your own sloe gin (which is easy if you can get sloes).
For the really dedicated there’s even a recipe to make your own tonic (or buy one of the 50 or so bespoke alternatives to Schweppes now on the European market; there are fewer in Australia). Stephenson says he’s been making his own tonic syrup for over a decade (buying cinchona bark online, and using a pressure cooker) – then simply mix with soda water and you have the most original drink ever.
For me, I’m so glad I stepped inside Gin Palace – it’s opened the doors to a whole new world of imbibing, and I’m looking forward to trying some examples of contemporary gins around the world. You can absorb as much or as little of the information as you want; all you need for enjoyment is some gin, a mixer, chilled glasses and good company!
A really winner and a perfect gift for any gin or spirits lover that will give years of pleasure.
The Curious Bartender’s Gin Palace by Tristan Stephenson is published by Ryland Peters & Small (London, 2016; hc, 224 pp) and is distributed in Australia by Hardie Grant Books, where it retails for RRP A$45.00
Read more about Gin Palace in the media release here, and in extracts on ‘the basics’ and ‘botanicals’ on the links below.
Plus there are two gin drink recipes for you to enjoy! (All reproduced with permission from the publisher, only available for 3 months from time of publication though).
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