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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Home is where the quinine is
An Anglophile journeys to the land of gin and tonic

Halfway through a family vacation in England this summer, my daughter turned to me with one of those clear-eyed, faintly withering looks that girls reserve for their mothers, and asked, "Are you trying to sound English?" I blushed and protested, somewhat disingenuously, that I had no idea what she meant.

Both children instantly found it amusing to demonstrate. As one quaint British-ism after another rolled off their lips in exaggerated faux-English accents, I glared at them.

The truth is, though, that I'm a closet Anglophile of the worst sort.

My frequent transports of delight during our vacation both charmed and embarrassed my family. "Oh look kids, spotted dick!" I'd say, browsing a pub menu. "And bangers and mash! Oh, and treacle tart!" To them, this was simply more incomprehensible British food, but to me it was every English novel and "Masterpiece Theatre" episode I've ever loved, come to life.

But it didn't really hit me until we were in England that the drink I've always considered quintessentially American (after coffee and Coca-Cola) is actually British. Gin and tonics were part of my American childhood - as much a part of summer as the drone of cicadas and the smell of freshly mown grass.

We didn't drink them ourselves, of course. But my sister and I loved watching my father make them. We used to hang over his shoulder as he neatly quartered the limes, counted ice cubes into glasses, got out the little silver hourglass-shaped jigger and measured out the gin, then topped up each glass with with fizzing, frothing tonic water.

Little did I know that our innocent American gin and tonics, redolent of baseball and the Fourth of July and long summer evenings, actually originated in a remarkably depraved and dissolute period of British history.

The Dutch began making gin in the 1600s, from a clear grain spirit flavored with pungent juniper berries. (The word "gin" is derived from "genever," the Dutch word for "juniper.") When the Dutch Protestant William of Orange took the throne of England in 1688, in the so-called Glorious Revolution, he passed some disastrous laws that led to the unlicensed production of cheap gin. The result was mass drunkenness on an astonishing scale.

If you've ever seen William Hogarth's famous engraving Gin Lane, then you have some idea what the London Gin Craze was like. In the background, starving men steal bones from dogs while robbers loot coffins. In the foreground, a nursing mother grins drunkenly as she drops her helpless infant on its head.

Historians think Hogarth may have based his illustration on the actual case of a gin-soaked mother whose two-year-old child was placed in a workhouse. The mother reclaimed the child, strangled it and left its naked body in a ditch so she could sell the clothes to buy more gin. It took that case and five Acts of Parliament to clean up the Gin Craze, but by then, gin was a permanent part of British culture.

Tonic water joined gin in the later 18th century, courtesy of the army of the British East India Company. Army doctors prescribed large doses of quinine, contained in tonic water, as a treatment for malaria. Supposedly, the only way to make the bitter stuff palatable to the soldiers was to mix it with gin. Conditions in India were such that the average British Jack probably would have swallowed anything if it meant extra gin.

Gin has its own colorful American history (Jazz Age cocktails, speakeasies, bathtub gin), but my inner Brit is happy to have added another item to my long list of things to love about England. After all, as I said defensively to my family, how can you not love the culture that produced Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling and gin and tonics?

Which gin?

For people with adventurous palates, this is a great time to try some of the new boutique gins that are getting so much attention. For myself, I see no reason to mess with perfection, so I make my gin and tonics with Tanqueray, one of the smoothest and subtlest gins on the market.

Distillers call the herbs and spices they use to flavor gin "botanicals." Traditionally, London dry gin (the type used in a gin and tonic) is flavored with juniper berries and citrus - lemon and bitter orange rind, for example.

But some of the newer, boutique gins have gotten fancier. Citadelle, from France, is the new favorite of several of my friends. The manufacturer claims it uses more botanical infusions than any other brand - 19, including savory, cumin, violet root, almond and fennel.

Other brands getting good reviews right now include Hendrick's, which is infused with cucumber, coriander, citrus peel and rose petals. The manufacturer insists you use a slice of cucumber as garnish instead of the traditional lime.

G'vine is a new small-batch gin from France, made from pure grape spirit infused with vine flower, ginger roots, liquorice, green cardamom, cassia bark, coriander, nutmeg, lime and a little item called cubeb berries, an Indonesian fruit reportedly once used to treat gonorrhea. Not that you'd have any use for that.

Then there's Whitley Neill, a gin "inspired by Africa, made in England," which contains fruit from the baobab tree - a.k.a. "the Tree of Life." It's hard to see how anyone could top that.

Not all of these are available in Wisconsin right now, but keep your eyes open - the world of premium gins is exploding, and there will be more choices coming soon to your favorite liquor store.

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