In these difficult days, I must confess to a certain confusion: not about politics, where the lines seem as clearly and ominously drawn as soldiers’ ranks on a battlefield, but about gin. I have always held firm views on the subject, most of them relating to fraternising with tonic water. If it doesn’t work in a G&T, however pleasant the flavour, it doesn’t work for me.
However, as gin brands proliferate like mushrooms, their deceptively transparent contents hiding every conceivable flavour from mint to yes, mushrooms, I find my brain turning cloudy long before I ingest any alcohol. How to choose? Most of us are on intimate terms with Tanqueray, Sipsmith or Plymouth; Beefeater and Gordon’s are familiar, although their shareholders must hanker for the days when the unfamiliar was a little harder to find.
At The Other Palace theatre in London, en route upstairs to the excellent Other Naughty Piglet restaurant, I am waylaid by glinting bottles and find myself, lothario-like, tasting a dozen in search of one so beguiling it induces me to abandon the theoretical delights available elsewhere. Bad Frankie – a Melbourne bar named for Governor John Franklin, who banned small distilleries – has more than 130 small-batch gins, all Aussie-made. “Our shelves are groaning,” says the barman, and while I enjoy Brookies (which tastes powerfully of plums) and the pleasingly creamy Sheep Whey gin, and admire the harsh citrus kick of Green Ant gin (which, yes, does contain green ants), I am tempted to reply: I know how those shelves feel.
Berry Bros No 3, Fifty Pounds and Portobello Road are all fine gins; however, I wish Warner Edwards and Four Pillars would stick to their excellent original gins, and lay off the rhubarb and Shiraz grapes and other such tastebud-taxing gimmicks. Gin is essentially flavoured vodka: you can steep or vapour-infuse almost anything to make it, but that doesn’t mean you should.
My recent favourites are Mistral (coloured pale salmon by pink grapefruit, and as aromatic and savoury as the herbs of its native Provence, some of which it contains), and the pine and lemon Georgian Bay (made in Ontario, and impossible to get anywhere else). Both have a citrus buzz, because who would want a G&T without that? Which brings us back to tonic, which should be both excellent and sparingly applied. Generosity, in a G&T, is an attribute only welcome in two things: the gin and the ice cubes, which should be as large as possible so they don’t melt. If I want to drink water, I’ll use the tap.
I’m currently reading a beautifully illustrated book, Just the Tonic, by two botanical researchers at Kew Gardens, who point out that gin was originally used to palliate the bitterness of the anti-malarial quinine in the tonic; I bet the proportions, then, were similar to mine, if for more virtuous reasons.
Gin as an antidote makes perfect sense to me, whether the disease in question is malaria or political malaise. And too much choice of antidote (or, indeed, too much tonic in the chosen antidote) may be vexing, but it’s hardly a catastrophe. Let’s all cultivate a sense of proportion, in our drinks if nowhere else.
Next week: Felicity Cloake on food
This article appears in the 09 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain