Gin revival: How gin bars are making a comeback

by Lisa Scott / 12 March, 2017

Of all the gin joints in all the towns, in all the world… Lisa Scott walked into these.

Have you noticed high-ball glasses, frosted and aloof, appearing amidst the wheezy foam-specked pint congregations? The maraca of a cocktail shaker supplanting the popping of corks? You will, because we’re in the middle of a gin renaissance. That’s right, not since Daisy’s voice sounded like money and Gatsby looked gloomily across the sound has so much of this quicksilver spirit been imbibed.

Climbing out of the gutter, where the flappers left it for craft beer, gin’s had a hard road back to popularity. Plenty of shade has been thrown over the past 300 years: growing up in Holland, gin took a gap year to London, where it became legal to manufacture the stuff in a bathtub. It was cheaper than beer and safer than water, which led to a rise in binge drinking and the label “mother’s ruin”. William Hogarth’s 18th-century etching “Gin Lane”, littered with those ruined mothers, sealed gin’s sordid reputation. It took another hit during America’s Prohibition.

Now, no longer restricted to Victorian holes-in-the-wall or dodgy speakeasies, gin bars are multiplying as the juniper juice rejuvenation gains some serious street cred, thanks to the rise of craft distilleries – more than a thousand globally.

Did you know gin has a history of being used “for medicinal purposes”? The Royal Navy mixed gin with lime cordial to stop scurvy, and discovered tonic water with quinine was anti-malarial – the G&T is practically a health drink. This would make the Philippines one of the healthiest nations on earth. They drink more gin each year than anyone: 1.4 litres per person.

Gin is a very arts-and-culture tipple, as opposed to, say, poteen, which is more peat bogs and falling over. Famous gin drinkers include Noel Coward, Ernest Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart. Of all the gin joints in all the world, Bogey would probably feel most at home in Mr Fogg’s Gin Parlour, Covent Garden, which stocks more than 300 gins to choose from in its Encyclopaedia Gintonica, as well as a constantly changing menu of Seven Deadly Gins.

 

William Hogarth’s 1751 print “Gin Lane” created to depict the evils of the consumption of gin .

Of course the moment something becomes trendy, you’re going to get haters. Psychology researchers at Innsbruck University in Austria recently declared that people who like gin and other bitter flavours such as dark chocolate and black coffee are more likely to be psychopaths. Like that was a bad thing.

In primal days, liking the sour flavours – those that risked being poisonous – was the caveman equivalent of living on the edge. Everyone knows Kiwis are the thrilliest of thrill seekers, but do we make good gin in this land of hops and grapes? Yes, we do. Lighthouse Gin, made in Martinborough and sold all over New Zealand, Australia and Britain, has been making a splash on the international spirit market, winning silver at the International Wines and Spirits Awards in London last year.

One of New Zealand’s 12 distilleries, Lighthouse’s twice-distilled batches contain a blend of botanicals including kawakawa, coriander, almond, cinnamon, cassia bark, New Zealand navel oranges and Yen Ben lemons, hand-zested by distiller Rachel Hall, who says, as far as she knows, gin hasn’t made her a psycho yet.

Because you can make it in a day or two, says Hall, and you don’t have to wait for it to mature (a fact as admired in Prohibition days as now), gin is always a youthful tipple, receptive to flavour improvements. Actually, this ready-to-drinkability is the reason the label began in the first place.

It was while making brandy in an old and unassuming apple-juicing shed in Greytown that Lighthouse founder Neil Catherall and his partners James Graham and Andrew Wright realised – knocking on retirement – they might see one batch if they were lucky. Gin, they could be sipping by the weekend.

Even a tartan town like Dunedin has fallen under gin’s gimlet gaze. A new ginstitute, Zanzibar, promises to take you around the world in 80 gins, selling the largest selection in the southern hemisphere.

Run by Swedish gin enthusiast Jonas Hjertquist, the bar was once the legendary Huntsman Steakhouse. After a total refit, Zanzibar is now well on its way to fulfilling Hjertquist’s dream of becoming a portal for his own distillery. It’s named after an island off the coast of Tanzania, most famous for the world’s shortest war: 38 minutes. After which both sides sensibly decided to lay down arms and have a gin instead.

Whether it was a white lady, pink gin, an espresso martini or a gin slap (like a mojito but gin-ier) is lost to the fog of history. But however you like it (quick and dirty, shaken, stirred, on the rocks or at sea), here’s looking at you – grown-up person drinking responsibly.

 

This was published in the February 2017 issue of North & South.
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