City of gins and creative spirits

The dictionary says: "a clear alcoholic spirit distilled from grain or malt and flavored with juniper berries".

Or, of course, "a machine for separating cotton from its seeds". Far be it from me to make claims that the drink is a cleverer invention than the machine: I wear cotton. And if the US's darkest blot (until Rick Santorum, anyway) was the importation of slaves to pick cotton for that kind of gin, the enthusiastic purveying of the liquid to poverty-stricken 18th-century Brits that earned it the sobriquet "Mother's Ruin" was hardly a high point in the history of capitalism, either.

But gin, made properly, is a wonderful drink. It's the creative spirit: no pun intended. Apart from the neutral alcohol (which needs to be at least 96 per cent proof), gin can contain any natural ingredient, or botanical, that can be persuaded into the alcohol by means of steeping, distilling or whispering spells. You're supposed to give the juniper priority, but some don't: Hendrick's, a lovely gin, tastes so cucumbery it doesn't really work with tonic. But that's all right; my tonic is spoilt for other choices. And, frankly, there tends to be so little T in my G&T that it barely deserves a vote anyway. I require good tonic - no aspartame, ideally, although in this country even the full-fat stuff tends to contain some - but good is not the same as plentiful. I once made six G&Ts with one pocket-size can of tonic, an achievement that is on my CV, next to mastering the Screwpull corkscrew at the age of five.

The magic of gin is that it can be whatever its fabricator wants it to be, like a good short story. There is Williams Chase gin, made from distillate of cider apples (by Chase Distillery in Herefordshire) and New Zealand gin that contains manuka honey. Some gins reek of juniper, others are sibilant with cinnamon. Some make me happy while others don't: I've never got on well with Bombay Sapphire. But then, I've always had trouble with Raymond Carver, too, and I'm not implying there's anything wrong with him.

So, you ask, if gin's so great, why was it the scourge of 18th-century London, depicted in William Hogarth's "Gin Lane" as responsible for madness, infanticide and worse? One change is in the quality of the alcohol: anyone could distill spirit in Georgian London, and since the poor had only two sources of recreation and this one didn't lead to babies, most of them partook.

It was also rumoured to ward off the Black Death. This may have helped grain prices but it did little for the sanity of the population, especially when mixed with turpentine. One reason for the modern 96 per cent rule is it kills off most forms of nastiness.

And I'm not talking about the consumers: it then gets diluted back to around 45 per cent.

Death's door

These days, there seem to be nearly as many distilleries as there were 250 years ago - oh, all right, I'm exaggerating: there are now four in London - but they either buy in good alcohol or distill their own, and their use of botanicals is marvellously creative. We take a lead from the Americans, who appear to have shrugged off Prohibition more elegantly than we have turned our backs on our gin craze. James at Chase, who, it's fair to say, is pretty excited about gin, talks about US boutique distilleries such as Death's Door and Aviation (both available at Jason Atherton's London restaurant, Pollen Street Social). #

The global village has a global pub: it is no longer the case that vodka must come from Russia or Poland, gin from London and whisky from Scotland. We can all have our own Gin Lane and none of us needs a prophylactic against the Black Death. Now, that's progress.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar