In my years of bartending, one of the things I've heard the most is this: "I don't like gin."
When I press for details, the story is always the same: They had a bad experience with it years ago (inevitably in college) and haven't been able to touch the stuff ever since. I'm telling you now, gin got a bad rap. Sure, in the wrong hands it's dangerous stuff. But it's easy to set those hands right so you can enjoy some of the finest tipples on the planet.
What Is It? I have a surprise for you: Gin is nothing more than a specifically flavored vodka. So, all of you who go crazy for vodka that tastes like raspberries, whipped cream, or bubble gum (and all of you pretentious mixologists who turn your nose up at the same), gin is a closer step than you think. The main flavor of gin comes by re-distilling neutral spirits with juniper berries, which gives the gin its signature scent and flavor reminiscent of Christmas. Lemon peel and other spices are also often added, making each gin a little different from any other. Common to most gins is a higher proof than vodka; most gins clock in around 90 proof, while your average vodka is only 80 proof.
There Are So Many! The gin selection at your favorite liquor retailer can be daunting at first, especially when you're still wary from that time in college. Above all else, avoid bargain-basement brands. That's probably what you had those many years ago. Its flavor profile is closer to Pine-Sol than real gin. Most gins on the market are London dry. Popular ones include Tanqueray, Beefeater, and Bombay Sapphire. These are more forward with the juniper berries than other styles, and they have no sweetness. Their stronger juniper presence means these are best suited for once you've tried a softer style. Speaking of softer gins, Plymouth style gin is an excellent place to start. The leading brand is (surprise!) Plymouth gin. It's lower in proof than London dry, and has less juniper, both of which make Plymouth much more accessible to vodka drinkers. Hendrick's may or may not be a good one to try. Its unique flavor profile including cucumber and rose makes it a love-it-or-hate-it proposition; personally, I love the stuff.
I have some! Now what? Due to its strength of alcohol and flavor, gin is rarely drunk straight. The botanical flavored mix well with all manner of other ingredients. I don't need to tell you about mixing gin with tonic and a squeeze of lime, except that buying tonic is just like buying gin because the bargain brands are undrinkable. Schweppes is perfectly serviceable, but if I have a couple extra dollars I'll reach for Fever Tree. Of course, an article about gin has to include the quintessential cocktail, the Martini. It's at its best with more vermouth than most bartenders are willing to add; I'm fond of the 1930s proportion of 3 parts gin to 1 part vermouth. (Speaking of vermouth, a quick note about it: Since it's a wine-based spirit, it does go bad. Throw out the one that's been on your shelf for years. Buy the small bottle, keep it in the fridge, and replace it every 6 months or so. Try some over ice in the summer, it's a nice way to keep your cool.) Add a drop of orange bitters if you're so inclined. Then, stir the mixture, and stir it well! Stir until the mixing glass is nice and cold, about 20 or 30 seconds. That's the secret of a really good martini; the melting ice softens the harsher notes in the gin, letting the mellower flavors bloom. If you're still wary of gin, go for James Bond's original drink of choice: the Vesper. It adds a splash of vodka, and uses Lillet, a citrusy aperitif, in place of the vermouth.
Nick & Nora Martini 1 1/2 ounces gin 1/2 ounce French dry vermouth 1 dash orange bitters (optional)
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Stir very well with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an olive or a lemon twist.
Vesper Use Cocchi Americano if you can find it in place of the Lillet; it's closer to the original Kina Lillet that Ian Fleming mentioned in Casino Royale. 1 1/2 ounces London dry gin 1/2 ounce vodka 1/4 ounce Lillet Blanc
Shake with ice until very cold. Strain into a chilled coupe glass (or standard cocktail glass). Garnish with a lemon twist.
Welcome to Last Call, in which JK Grence, a bartender at Shady's, serves up booze advice. Have a question for JK? Leave it in the comments below. Follow Chow Bella on Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest.