Gin = Vodka?

Bartender at Birch Street Uptown Lounge

The Bar

It was a late Saturday afternoon when I wandered into the Birch Street Uptown Lounge -a downtown bar I’ve never visited before. It was the kind of classy old-school bar that you’d see in 1930’s movies – secret passage to an exclusive, high-stakes gambling room, and pricey bootleg liquor quickly wheeled in through the basement back door, before the cops bust the joint and pistol-whip everyone in sight.

The kind of bar that celebrates the era when beauty and bliss were conceived in a cocktail shaker, and born in a martini glass.

The Man

I sat at the counter, where I could observe the mixology magic. The bartender was busy shaking up a delicious concoction for some lucky customer. He was a dapper older gentleman in his late 60’s, wearing a white uniform and tie. I looked around to see if Nick Charles was working his way through a line of martinis.

Two-Martinis

The cocktail choices were impressive; the slim, black leather-bound menu showcased several pages of classic cocktails, their ingredients, plus the years and places of their origins. The bartender and I briefly played a game of “name that cocktail”, where he’d start to make a customer’s cocktail and I’d try to guess its name. I also noted the selection of high-end liquor behind the bar, including one of my favorites, The Botanist, a lovely gin from Scotland that tastes like a revelation (22 botanicals!). I still get wistful thinking about my first shot.

TheBotanistGin

After finishing my refreshing Moscow mule, I decided on my next cocktail, a Prohibition-era cocktail and my absolute favorite, called the Last Word. “Ah yes, the Last Word. Another fine cocktail,” he said approvingly. We chatted about the origins of the Last Word, a gin cocktail, and about the Carthusian monks who created the famous green chartreuse liqueur for medicinal purposes.

chartreusebottle

I watched him neatly arrange his tools, pick up the mixing glass with one hand, and swivel backwards to grab a bottle off the shelf.

The Gin Versus Vodka Lesson

I suddenly froze and stared bug-eyed at him. My voice just short of a hysterical scream as I said, in what I thought was a calm voice but was probably more of a panicky shout, “UUUHHHMMM..is that VODKA you’re about to put in there??!”

When he turned to look at me, he had an impish grin on his face, “Just kidding! Wanted to see if you were paying attention. Although, gin IS vodka.”

“Wait…what?”

Gin IS Vodka?

I had to look that up. It seemed unlikely, I thought, since vodka tastes like…well, nothing…and gin has such depth and variety of flavors. But, that bartender was right. One forbes.com article mentioned that vodka, a neutral spirit, is made from “nothing more than unflavored alcohol and water”. Gin starts out as a neutral spirit, then the gin distillers add a number of other botanicals to their recipes, in addition to the requisite juniper berries. Basically, making gin is like flavoring vodka, according to a foodrepublic.com article, “The most usual production method for gin is to distill botanicals…with neutral grain alcohol.”

juniperberries

However, to know if you’re getting a gin flavored with artificial or natural botanicals, read the label.  A foodandwine.com article explains:

“What all of them have in common is juniper—but gin is also flavored with other so-called botanicals, such as cardamom, orange peel, anise and coriander seed. As long as you have juniper, then pretty much anything goes… If it just says ‘gin’ on the label then the flavors can be artificial. You are basically buying flavored vodka. The next step up is ‘distilled gin,’ where the flavor comes from distilling botanicals, but things like essential oils can still be added afterwards.”

Speaking of flavorings, I personally keep several liqueurs  in my home bar just for mixing with gin, including and especially Green Chartreuse (not shown here, but pictured above in its solo glory). Most of my friends are gin lovers also, so we could chat into the wee hours over fabulous cocktails.

liqueursforgin

The Gins

I recently read an article entitled 5 Styles of Gin, which narrowed the types of gin into five categories:

London Dry – Very dry, light-bodied and pungent.

Plymouth – Clean and bracing, made only in Plymouth, England.

Old Tom – Sweet, full-bodied.

Genever – Malt-spirit base, less botanical, good for sipping straight and chilled.

International – Expanded range of botanicals, ideal for inventing new cocktails.

thegins

These days, there are hundreds of brands of gin to choose from, made all over the world – Italian gins, Australian gins, German gins, French gins, and so forth. Another one of my favorite gins is from France, Citadelle (not shown above because I had finished the bottle before this pic was taken). Delicately fragranced and perfect for making another one of my favorite classic cocktails, the Vesper.

vesper

Whichever gin you roll with, you can celebrate World Gin Day  and lift a glass with the rest of us gin-lovers every second Saturday in June.

Cheers!


The Vesper Cocktail

Vesper is a cocktail where vodka and gin play nicely to create this classic beauty.

2 oz gin
1 oz vodka
1/2 oz Lillet Blanc
1/4 oz simple syrup (because the Lillet is a little bitter)

Stir with ice, serve neat. garnish with a lemon zest.

 

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Dark Matter and Irish Times

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One of my biggest regrets about my visit to Victoria BC was not doing a pub crawl between the British, Scottish and Irish pubs downtown. However, being determined to die with little or no regrets in life, I endeavor to go forth with this worthy cause one way or another. It’s important to have goals, after all. Therefore, even with all the whirlwind of activity involving family gatherings, sightseeing and visits to local hot spots, I was able to fit in a few stops at various watering holes.

During a wander downtown, I suddenly stopped in my tracks. An Irish pub sat just to the right of the Scottish pub, which sat next to the British pub. Seeing them all lined up in a row like that, all just a stagger away from each other…well, that just put a smile on my face and made my eyes go all sparkly! Lovers of good beer, you know what I’m talking about! Unfortunately, I had dinner reservations soon, plus some freshening up to do beforehand (I am a girl, after all), so I could only pick one pub this time. My boyfriend, being Irish, recommended we try the Irish Times pub first, of course.

Irish Times

Unlike many Irish pubs I’ve been to in the U.S., the Irish Times pub doesn’t have the charmingly rustic feel of old neighborhood pubs in Dublin. High cream-colored ceilings, dark wood arches, crimson walls, gold etching and immense windows made this possibly the most stylish Irish pub I’ve ever tarried in. Still, they tried to make it feel less “uppity” with prominent displays of random, antique pub accessories, growlers and small kegs.


But enough about the ambience – let’s get to the beers! The Irish Times boasts an impressive array of domestic and imported beers (the picture only shows one section of the bar). As a bonus (and my boyfriend certainly thought it was), they get served to you by ladies with small kilts and big smiles. Looking around at the happy crowd around me, I’d say many would agree that this is a fine way to spend a gray, cold wintery afternoon.


I ordered a delicious pint of “Dark Matter”, a fills-your-mouth, sigh-inducing, dark-colored beauty of a beer that is part stout, part lager. Made with mild hops and roasted malt, the richness of this lovely brunette is balanced and smooth, with no trace of bitterness. I decided I must have this splendid craft beer.

Sadly, “Dark Matter” is made by Hoyne Brewing Company, which only distributes in Canada. Their “sin tax” would likely make it cost a small fortune to purchase a case online, assuming it was even possible. And so I’m back home reminiscing about that wondrous beer and the cozy Irish Times pub, and telling friends about it. Victoria BC has given me a few more reasons to visit again soon. In the meantime, I’m off to my comparative study of Irish/Scottish/British pubs.

 


All photos taken by JE Alexandria Julaton

Bengal Lounge: Pussycat with Big Attitude

 bengallounge3

The beauty of downtown Victoria BC’s shopping scene is that all the fun, eclectic shops are right next to, or walking distance from, each other. Within one or two blocks, I could pop into several different shops for fine crystal, Irish wool jackets, Mediterranean tapas, carved chocolates, soaps that look good enough to eat, and a number of pubs.

It was a few hours before I had to meet up with family for dinner, so perhaps I could treat myself to a Victorian martini experience. The very distinguished-looking Empress Hotel sat across from the Parliament building in downtown Victoria’s inner harbor. I headed over, wondering if it was every bit as hoity on the inside.  It was. Which meant a fancy martini bar was waiting just for me.

The Bengal Lounge

The immense doorway to the lounge was guarded by uniformed hosts. From the entrance, I took note of the expansive room’s large potted palms and sectional seating areas of plush leather sofas, with wide pillars of dark wood that rose and connected in a trellis-like design on its high ceiling. As I was escorted to my table, I observed the lounge had the genteel ambiance of a drinking establishment built for British gentlemen after a long, hard day of colonizing provinces throughout India. The fireplace was fronted by sofas and animal-print throw pillows, no doubt to complement the full-sized Bengal tiger skin hanging above the mantel. The tiger’s head was still attached, with a fight-to-the-death, “You’re taking my fur?! Oh, I don’t THINK so!” snarl forever frozen on its face.

Some ladies were playing a loud, exciting dice game at a table nearby. I was more interested in the idea of sipping cocktails in front of a roaring fireplace. I ordered the Empress 1908 Martini. Since it was the hotel’s signature cocktail, it had to be delicious and strong, right? Right? I posed the question to my server, an older gentleman from India (an ironic coincidence). He smiled politely and said nothing.

The Empress 1908 Martini was both confusing and disappointing. Made with Empress Blend tea-infused vodka, lightly sweetened fresh lime juice and frothy egg whites, its flavor was too subtle (okay, bland), its texture nog-like. As I drank it, I couldn’t make up my mind if I liked what I was tasting, or not. And I felt no holiday cheer whatsoever up until the last sip. I think the bartender left out the vodka and gave me straight tea.

There is a special place in Hell just for incompetent bartenders. There has to be! I spoke with my cousin, a cocktail connoisseur, later that evening, and he confirmed my suspicions – the Bengal Lounge’s martinis were all pussycat and no tiger. With mixology standards and martinis this weak, I highly recommend you seek your holiday spirits elsewhere!

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Empress 1908 Martini

1 1/2  ounce(s)  Empress Tea-infused vodka
3/4   ounce(s)  fresh lemon juice
3/4   ounce(s)  Simple Syrup
3/4   ounce(s)  egg white (1/2 of one egg white)

Combine all ingredients and shake vigorously with ice. Strain into martini glass with a half sugar rim.

(Recipe provided by Fairmont Empress in Victoria BC, Canada)