I had hoped with today’s column to write the definitive online defense of gin, that most maligned of spirits. It would have been a distillation of its history, an enumeration of the many joys it offers. More than a mere blog post, it would have been a panegyric.
I even considered writing it in heroic couplets.
But I’ve neither time nor talent for such an undertaking. Instead, I’ll relate an anecdote.
Now, as I mentioned in the Thursday Night Loaded on martinis, my current favourite gin is Hendrick’s. It’s marvellous. It tastes predominantly of juniper, as every gin should, but there are also hints of rose petals and cucumber. It’s neither oily nor harsh. It’s bright, refreshing, and floral.
Everything I could hope for.
(And here’s a tip lifted right off the label, in a martini or a gin and tonic, swap out the traditional garnish — olive or lemon twist in the former, lemon wedge in the latter — for a slice or two of cucumber. I kid you not, the effect is kind of magical. Everything that makes Hendrick’s special is made moreso with the addition of cucumber’s subtle aroma.)
Thus, I was gladdened to discover on my first visit to a Regina liquor store shortly after moving here that Hendrick’s was available. I purchased a bottle and returned to my home feeling that this “Saskatchewan” was not such a fearsome and unfamiliar place after all.
You can imagine then my dismay when on my next visit to a Regina liquor store — a span of time having passed between first and second visits numbering in weeks — that there was no Hendrick’s to be had.
Astonished at the prospect that a conscientious seller of liquor would have done something so doltish as to de-list such a quality spirit, I asked one of the SLGA clerks if perhaps they were just out of stock.
No, she informed me after checking a binder of dog-eared papers, they weren’t carrying Hendrick’s anymore because it hadn’t been selling well enough.
“Seriously?” I said. “That’s too bad. It’s a really good gin.”
“Well,” she replied, her mouth curling into a sneer, her glare all condescension, “we have Bombay Sapphire.”
Now, sadly, I can’t as yet claim to be a gin expert. At best, I’m a gin fancier. But to say “We have Bombay Sapphire,” as if to suggest that Bombay Sapphire is the alpha and omega of gins and thus your responsibility as a liquor store is fulfilled simply by carrying it, your job as a liquor-store employee complete just by knowing of its existence — well, that’s just ignorant. It’s alcohol illiteracy. No wonder so many people loathe gin if these are the mental titans we have in charge of its care and handling. Can we expect such as these to stock the shelves with anything other than fair to middling gins?
You see, that was like saying to a Scotch fancier who asks after Glenfiddich, “Well, we have Johnny Walker.” Or to a beer lover who’d like to get their hands on some Waterloo Dark, “Well, we have Rickard’s Red.” Or to a wine snob who’s looking for a ’97 Hornswoggle Shiraz (the lushly fruited one with flavours of marigold, black pepper and plum, the mellow tannins, and just a subtle hint of diaphoresis), “Well, we have the ’92 Swindletrick Valley.”
Look, don’t get me wrong, I like Bombay Sapphire. As gins go, it is entirely drinkable. It’s solid. Versatile. Inoffensive. But it isn’t the only gin. There is an entire world of gins out there but if you want to explore it, Saskatchewan isn’t the place to start.
In fact, Canada isn’t either.
I’ve never been to a liquor store anywhere in the country that has more than a few brands on offer. Oh, they’ll have rack upon rack of vodkas. We’re practically swimming in vodka. (And believe me, I’ve more than a few choice words saved up on the subject of vodka. But they’ll have to wait for a later post.) But gin? Not so much. Perhaps it’s because of gin’s long association with the British Empire that our collective palette is subconsciously suspicious of anything tasting even slightly of the monarchical. We’re content to have the Queen on our money but in our mouths is a step too far.
Or perhaps it’s that we are such a polite people that gin’s perceived harshness offends us. (And if all you’ve ever tasted is Beefeater or Gilbey’s, well then, I can understand you thinking it a coarse and astringent spirit.)
But you’d think that if nothing else, we as Canadians would have fonder feelings for gin for sentimental and historical reasons. You see, they say that the teacups our first prime-minister, Sir John A McDonald, sipped from while in Parliament were filled with gin. No matter the time of day. That means, those dreams of a railway linking this country from sea to sea were very likely gin-soaked. The resolve that made those dreams a reality was very likely gin-stoked.
In other words, the spirit that forged this nation was gin. There is no beverage more patriotic.
And if Harper and crew were serious about showing their support for our country, they’d be blotto on the stuff right now.
Anyway, all this rambling and I’ve yet to get to any actual gin recommendations beyond the obvious two, Bombay Sapphire and Hendrick’s. In the picture above, you can see my current (very sparse) collection. The third bottle there is No. 209, a gin I picked up a long time ago in Ottawa and have been drinking ever so slowly. It’s fantastic. Very smooth and a little spicy, makes an excellent martini, but at over $65 a bottle it does a fair bit of damage to the pocketbook.
One gin I wish was available in Saskatchewan is Broker’s. It’s a relatively new addition to the London Dry scene but has won several awards. It’s a step up from Bombay Sapphire, in my opinion, but priced about the same. It doesn’t have as elaborate a flavour as a Hendrick’s or a 209, but because it isn’t so showy it’s perfect in a gin and tonic.
Currently, the SLGA is carrying Beefeater 24 which is supposed to be a premium, small-cask version of the vile, victory-brand they brew for Airstrip One. Now, I’ve read that Beefeater is a gin with a long and noble history that has in its past many fine reviews. I can only hope that Beefeater 24 can live up to that reputation but frankly, I’m skeptical and thus have yet to shell out the extra dollars to give it a try.
You can also purchase here Tanqueray and Tanqueray No. 10. The former is priced about the same as Bombay Sapphire and considered to be about the same quality. Personally, I’ve never much cared for Tanqueray and don’t buy it very often. And because I’m so disappointed with it I’ve never tried out No. 10 — it’s premium version — because it is considerably more expensive and if all it promises is a gin that’s like Tanqueray but moreso, then, well, I’m not intrigued in the slightest.
With all that said, the happy ending to this whole long post is that at some point in the last year, the SLGA decided to start stocking Hendrick’s again. I no longer have to get it smuggled in from Alberta (where it’s about $6 cheaper a bottle, mind you).
I’ll end off with a quick recipe for another of my favourite gin cocktails….
Bronx with Bitters
1 1/2 oz gin
1/2 oz dry vermouth
1/2 oz sweet vermouth
1/2 oz orange juice
1 dash Angostura bitters
Stir well with ice. Strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass.