Blog Archives

Notes From the Gin Mills: Brands, Botanicals, and Bond

That gin was highly illogical....

That gin…was…highly…illogical….

Last time we talked about distilled spirits in general, ending with a brief definition of gin.  Now let’s look a little bit at gin in particular–its history and a bit about my exploration of different brands in the craft of martini-making.  As we saw, gin is a neutral grain spirit (actually, since neutral spirits are essentially identical, it wouldn’t have to be a grain spirit, but I’m unaware of any non-grain gins).  Gin is flavored with various botanicals, that is, flavorings derived from herbs and plants either by infusion or distillation.  These vary, and may include angelica, coriander, orris root, lemon peel, and many other things; but the one essential which makes gin distinct is juniper berries.  This is what gives gin its bright, piney odor–or its medicinal smell, depending on one’s perceptions.  It also gives it its name–gin is a shortened and modified form of jenever, the Dutch for “juniper”; for gin was first devised in the Netherlands.

As with most distilled beverages, gin was originally a tonic or cure-all.  The herbals were medicinal and more concentrated.  Moreover, in the 17th Century when gin was first devised, the distillation processes were more primitive, and the base spirit was less neutral (that is, more congeners, more distinct taste) than is now the case.  In the Netherlands, alongside modern gin the older version, jenever, is still produced.  In the 18th Century, jenever, Anglicized as “genever” and then just “gin”, became popular in England.  Because of its cheapness it became the favorite beverage of the urban poor, and for awhile this caused social problems analogous to the crack epidemic of 80’s American inner cities.  Eventually, legal restrictions and greater control of the production process reduced the bad social effects of gin and the poor, and it came to be a respectable spirit alongside whiskey and brandy.  By the late 19th Century, gin had become a sort of national liquor of Britain, and the classic gin and tonic, originally developed as a way to make anti-malarial quinine palatable, had become a popular cocktail.

Read the rest of this entry

Notes From the Gin Mills: The Science of Booze

I believe the adjustments I have made to this sensor will enable precise determination of proof and congeners....

I believe the adjustments I have made to this sensor will enable precise determination of proof and congeners….

In my periodic series on cocktails, I’ve written more about the Manhattan than I have about the martini.  In fact, it is from the Manhattan post that the one-off riff on Mirror Spock became the ongoing theme of these posts.  In any case, though Manhattans are best made with rye whiskey, pretty much any whiskey is used nowadays, resulting in a wider range of different flavors.  On the other hand, gin and/or vodka are the spirits used for martinis, and these vary less in taste than, say, rye, bourbon, and Canadian whiskey.  Thus, I have mainly explored the variants of the Manhattan.  However, this Christmas past I received a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin.  This inspired some more experimentation with the martini form.

In my mis-spent college days, my bible for liquors and cocktails was The Signet Encyclopedia of Whiskey, Brandy, and All Other Spirits, by E. Frank Henriques.  This excellent book is out of print, alas, but still available used.  In any case, Henriques argued for economy in buying spirits.  According to him, most types of spirit (bourbon, rye, rum, gin, etc.) are, in modern times, much more uniform than people think (or ad departments want us to believe).  In blind tastings by non-experts, few can distinguish one bourbon from another, or different brands of gin, and so on.  Thus,  he argued, the consumer does well to go for the most economical brand.  With this in mind, I have almost always bought the least expensive brands of gin and vodka available.   However, the aforementioned gift has caused me to change my mind, partially, at least.  In order to lay the groundwork for my change of view, I’d like to talk a little about the basics of distilled spirits.

Read the rest of this entry

The Manhattan Project: Index

Not this kind…


…but this kind:


Now that that’s clear, let me explain:

Read the rest of this entry

Manhattans Revisited

Doctor, you did not use enough bitters, and you used bourbon instead of rye. Your bartending skills leave much to be desired.

A little while ago, I discussed the Manhattan cocktail.  Rather than updating the  original post, I decided to discuss some news on that front here.

In the original post, I didn’t give a formal recipe, so here I give the International Bartenders Association recipe, as given in Wikipedia:

Some further elaboration from the same article:

Traditional views insist that a Manhattan be made with rye whiskey. However, nowadays, it is more often than not made with bourbon or Canadian whisky (both of which may contain no rye at all.).

The Manhattan is subject to considerable variation and innovation, and is often a way for the best bartenders to show off their creativity.  Some shake the ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker instead of stirring it, creating a froth on the surface of the drink. Angostura are the classic bitters, but orange bitters, Peychaud’s Bitters, and even the lack of any bitters, may be used; using Fernet-Branca yields what is called a Fanciulli cocktail. Some make their own bitters and syrups, substitute comparable digestifs in place of vermouth, specialize in local or rare whiskeys, or use other exotic ingredients.  A lemon peel may be used as garnish. Some add juice from the cherry jar or Maraschino liqueur to the cocktail for additional sweetness and color.

Originally, bitters were considered an integral part of any cocktail, as the ingredient that differentiated a cocktail from a sling.  Over time, those definitions of cocktail and sling have become archaic, as sling has fallen out of general use (other than in certain drink names), and cocktail can mean any drink that resembles a martini, or simply any mixed drink.

Read the rest of this entry

A Drink Recipe for Cold Winter Nights


I have, from time to time, written about cocktails.  It’s not quite winter yet, though it is cooling off, so I thought I’d share a drink recipe appropriate the this time of year.  Never hurts to get a head start!

One of my favorite winter tonics is hot buttered rum.  It does take the edge off a cold on a long winter’s night, and it tastes better than NyQuil!  Keep in mind, proportions may be varied according to taste.

1-2 tbs brown sugar (dark brown is preferable, but any will work)

2-4 whole cloves

2-4 whole allspice

1 cinnamon stick

pinch (no more than 1/4 tsp) ground ginger

pinch nutmeg (freshly grated with a plane grater is best, but any will do)

1 tbsp butter (don’t even think about using margarine!)

1 shot glass of rum (dark Jamaican is ideal, but any dark rum will do in a pinch, and if all else fails, a light rum is acceptable)

boiling water

Add all ingredients except water to a medium-sized cup.  Pour boiling water on top of other ingredients and stir.

Note:  Sometimes I have used powdered allspice, cinnamon (gasp!), and cloves.  This gives a more intense taste, but gives a grainy texture to the drink.  For the version here, you may remove the allspice and cloves before drinking (otherwise they butt up against your lips when you drink).  Moreover, the whole spices can be re-used two or three times if you fish them out, dry them, and let them steep longer in the mixture for later helpings

If you’re interested, give it a try.  Enjoy!

What Martinis are Like in the Mirror Universe

From the composition of the cocktails Captain Kirk drinks, it logically follows that he must be from a different universe….

Having done a post on martinis, I thought I’d do a quick one on the Manhattan. The reason for the title and image is that it is sometimes described as the mirror image, or opposite, of the martini.

A martini is made of gin, vodka, or both (white liquors par excellence), and dry vermouth, and is garnished with a green olive.

The Manhattan is made with rye whiskey traditionally, or nowadays more often with bourbon or Canadian whiskey (pretty much any brown whiskey except Scotch or Irish whiskey), sweet vermouth, and a dash or two of bitters (usually Angostura), and is garnished with a maraschino cherry.

In short, the martini and the Manhattan are inverses of each other:  the one with white liquor, dry vermouth, and a savory garnish, the other with brown liquor, sweet vermouth, and a sweet garnish.

The ingredient with no mirror image is the bitters in a Manhattan.  Of course, as I discussed in my martini post, some versions of the martini, especially those striving to re-create the Vesper, do use bitters.  This is not standard, though.  My suspicion is that the bitters are to cut the sweetness, since the other dis-analogy between the two drinks is the proportions of liquor and vermouth.  For a martini, liquor to vermouth should never be less than about 4:1, though even that is “wet” by today’s standards (as I said in the last post, I go for 8:1, usually no less than 6:1).  For Manhattans, whiskey to sweet vermouth is more often 2:1 or 3:1 (though it can be made in a more martini-like proportion).  Sweet vermouth is very sweet, and in the lower proportions (that, is the ones with less whiskey and more vermouth) used, the vermouth could be nearly overwhelming (to say nothing of any syrup seeping in from the cherry).  Thus, my assumption is that the bitters help even it out a bit.

I drink more martinis than I do Manhattans, but they’re not bad at all, and I’ve had my share of them, too.  Given the amount that Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk are shown drinking in the old Star Trek series, I’m sure that it was through observation of their drinking habits that Mirror Spock first became suspicious!


Martinis! (Updated)

A discussion at one of the blogs I follow wound up in discussions of martinis, so I thought I’d do a post on them, as a sorbet to cleanse the palate after all the theologizing!

Ideally, I go for the original James Bond martini, called the Vesper, as described in the Bond novel Casino Royale:

“Bond insisted on ordering Leither’s Haig-and-Haig ‘on the rocks’ and then he looked carefully at the barman.

‘A dry martini,’ he said. ‘One. In a deep champagne goblet.’

‘Oui, monsieur.’

‘Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet.  Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?’

‘Certainly, monsieur.’ The barman seemed pleasant with the idea.

‘Gosh that’s certainly a drink,’ said Leiter.

Bond laughed. ‘When I’m … er … concentrating.’ he explained, ‘I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.’

He watched carefully as the deep glass became frosted with the pale golden drink, slightly aerated by the bruising of the shaker. He reached for it and took a long sip.

‘Excellent,’ he said to the barman, ‘but if you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better.’

That’s the ideal, but easier said than made.   Read the rest of this entry