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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.