In case it's escaped your notice today is World Gin Day - a rather bizarre notion but then every food and drink seems to have its own day these days. However it does provide an excuse to re-run this article on how to make the perfect gin and tonic, under the guidance of the great Salvatore Calabrese:
"Salvatore Calabrese puts two ice cubes in a tumbler, pours over half a measure of gin, adds a dash of tonic and gives it a stir. “Try that”, he says. I take a tentative sip. “Right, that’s NOT the way to make a gin and tonic. It’s too warm and too oily. Because there isn’t enough ice it dilutes the drink. Now here’s what you should do . . .”
He fills a tall glass full of ice cubes - I count about 8. Twice the amount of gin goes in - a full 50ml measure. He tops it up with a small, freshly-opened can of tonic right up to the rim, drops in a half slice of lemon, stirs and offers it to me again. It’s just gorgeous. Cold, citrussy, fragrant, refreshing. “THAT’S what a gin and tonic should taste like.” London’s most legendary barman allows a small smile of satisfaction to pass his lips.
I have come to pick Salvatore’s brains on the subject of gin in his eponymous bar at the exclusive Fifty club in Mayfair (he's now at the members' only Salvatore's at the Playboy Club at 14 Park Lane FB). It is, he says, the first bottle he would pick for any home bar. “You simply can’t make cocktails without it.” So how do you know which to choose I ask, eyeing the large selection behind the bar.
For a barman it’s a question of the type of cocktail you’re going to make, Salvatore explains. “Many barman would use Beefeater or Bombay Sapphire for a G & T and a more powerful gin like Tanqueray for a classic dry martini. But at home you should simply choose the brand you enjoy most.”
The quality of the other ingredients are important too. For a gin and tonic for instance the tonic should be standard not slimline and - most important - freshly opened. The ice should be made with still mineral water. Lemon is preferable for the garnish even though some producers recommend lime. “A wedge gives more of the essence of the skin but a slice is more elegant” says Salvatore who has obviously given a great deal of thought to such matters.
As one of Britain’s oldest spirits gin has had its ups and downs. Brought to England in the early 17th century by the Dutch who were the first to flavour a spirit with juniper, by the 18th century gin drinking had become a virtual epidemic. “By 1730 in London alone there were over 7000 dram shops. Gin was sold everywhere: in taverns, alehouses and squalid gin shops, in chandler’s merchants and corner stores, tobacconists, barbers, as well as by street hawkers and pedlars” writes Geraldine Coates in Discovering Gin. In 1733, it was calculated that London produced 11 million gallons of gin, 14 gallons for every adult in the city. It was only when the government succeeded in restricting sales to licensed premises and raising taxes that the rot was stopped. By contrast the ‘gin palaces’, the elaborately decorated bars of the Victorian era were perceived as highly glamourous as were the cocktail bars of the 1920s and 30s when gin-drinking was the height of chic.
Over the years the style of gin changed too from being a comparatively sweet drink, distilled, like vodka, from grain to a bone dry one, the style now described as ‘London Gin’ (London always having been the centre of gin production in this country). It relies for its character on the so-called botanicals (plants and spices) that are used to flavour it. Apart from juniper the essential flavouring ingredient of all gins, the most common are coriander, angelica and orange and lemon peel but some producers use more exotic ingredients like Javan cubeb berries, grains of paradise from West Africa and Orris root (the root of irises).
More recently there has been a fashion for adding distillations of fresh ingredients such as rose petals, cucumber and lemon grass, a development that has revived interest in gin in fashionable style bars. Sales of premium gins have increased by 12% in the past year. “It’s similar to what was happening with vodka 10 years ago” says Geraldine Coates. “Bartenders are becoming bored with vodka because it doesn’t have much flavour and are turning to gin instead”.
They also like the high strength of many contemporary gins which makes the spirit hold its character well in a cocktail. Plymouth for example, is 41.2%; Tanqueray an even higher43.1%. Gordon’s was much criticised a few years ago for reducing its strength to 37.5% but it still shows up well in blind tastings, says Coates.
Salvatore Calabrese agrees that it’s a matter of taste. “You should try different gins until you find the one you like.” And what does he like? “I like them all” he says diplomatically, glancing at his line-up of bottles. “Otherwise they wouldn’t be here.”
This article was first published in Sainsbury's magazine. Salvatore Calabrese is the author of Classic Cocktails (Prion 9.99) For more information about gin and cocktail recipes visit www.gintime.com