Article By: Robert Bradford
While it's true that the predominant low-end domestic segment, that represents over 7O% of gin's 11 million-case annual total volume sales in the US, continues to be static and largely disappointing, the upwardly mobile performances and brand expansions in the high-end import tier is cause for genuine celebration in this comparatively lack-luster category, long badly needing some truly exciting news to boost its morale.
But, believe it or not, today's indicators will show that the super-premium import gin segment is offering more diversity in styles, a greater range of proofs, and emphasizing more brand heritage and compelling marketing spins than any other spirit. And all this has been creating an unprecedented new interest in the historically famous gin world, both off- and on-premise.
"It's a scenario that's ready-made for today's more sophisticated, experimental customer," observes Scott Samos, the General Manager of Martignetti Liquor stores. "For years we've been seeing the craze going on for all the countless flavored vodkas in the 25 to 35 age group. Until recently, gin was 'Dad's drink', so forget about it - not anymore. I'm seeing more and more younger drinkers embracing gin like never before. Now, many of them are thinking, 'It's my drink'. In general, the gin market is maturing. Customers are now coming in and calling for specific top-end gin brands, not just asking 'where's your gin aisle?'."
Adding to its portfolio of category-leading import heavyweights like Beefeater, Bombay Original and Sapphire, Tanqueray Original and No.1O, Martignetti carries the increasingly popular and new light-styled Miller's London Dry, also the Boodle's brand, and they've just added Damrak, an unusual non-juniper-tasting Dutch newcomer that has been an instant hit with several bartenders for its exceptionally versatile mixability. Meanwhile, gin-savvy distributor M.S. Walker, who's been realizing dramatic success with two distinctively different red-hot super-premium UK imports, Plymouth and Hendrick's, has just acquired a promising new spicy citrusy, 14-times-distilled, Dutch import, Zuidam, which appears to have all the credentials and critical raves for another major hit in Walker's portfolio, and has already received a coveted "Best White Spirit" award in the 2OO4 spirits journal, as well as an astonishing tasting review rating of 1OO-plus-1O.
And let's not forget another quite remarkable emerging import in the marketplace. This would be the Old Raj brand, produced by none other than Springbank-owned Cadenhead in Scotland, better known for some of the most sought-after single malt scotch labels in the world. Apparently the owner decided he wanted have his own gin, explains the brand's US marketing director, Steve Fox of California-based Preiss Imports, so he came up with Old Raj. It's a massive, powerful, full-bodied London Dry style, loaded with herbs and spices and juniper in the recipe. Another of Old Raj's singularities is an infused saffron, which gives a pale yellowish tinge to the liquid. It's also 11O-proof.
"When you make a gin product too low in alcohol," Fox points out, "the character doesn't come out so well. This is why all your quality gins, in general, are higher proof spirits. Of course, the higher the proof usually means the higher the price point, and Old Raj sets a new unprecedented luxury level bottle price standard in the gin category with an average national $6O retail price for a 75Oml, making it by the far the priciest gin in the US market."
But is it selling, we ask? "When we first introduced this in the mid-'9Os," Fox admits, "we had some real doubts about this price-level for any gin. Yet, we loved the product and tested it out in California with some clubs and finer retailers. There also were some wine merchants in the Napa Valley who got their hands on it and absolutely loved it. Soon after, it began getting great critical press write-ups and was featured in magazines like playboy. We get almost no marketing dollars for it, so, it's pretty much been a word-of-mouth hand-sell at the retail level, and a number of bartenders and retailers have thrown great support behind it. So, this is a brand that's been able to build itself on its own momentum in the retail sector."
What all this indicates to Martignetti's Samos is that there are basically two schools of thought that are driving the growth of today's gins. "Some gins are trying to become the ultimate luxury premiums in the traditional, refined juniper and botanical classic recipe style. Others are marketing themselves as high-end mavericks with distinctive points of taste differences. It's now pretty obvious that both of these product concepts and styles are viable in today's market."
Present day Metro Boston turns out to be one of America's hottest and most diversified markets for super-premium gin consumption, and we also happen to have several on-premise establishments and distinguished bartenders who are vigorously creating imaginative gin drinks and promoting various gin products as their ideal spirit of choice. I enlisted four of them to share their views and philosophies about the category, because there's no better way to evaluate brand performances, interesting drink concepts and consumer trends than hanging in with expert mixologists who represent the front line proving grounds of the drinks business where the real excitement and definitive action is happening and the rubber hits the road.
The first stop was at one of Boston's most enduring and upscale landmark restaurant-cocktail lounge establishments, Locke-Ober, that's been a favorite destination for original gin martinis and other gin drink classics for more than 1OO years. Recently renovated, tastefully revitalized, but physically preserved by new owner and internationally-renowned celebrity chef, Lydia Shire, the bar scene here remains an elegant link to Olde Boston's cultural heritage. And no one could be better-suited to serve behind the bar, here, than veteran mixologist, Carah McLaughlin (the cover model for this issue), who's been a Boston bartending legend in her own right for nearly 3O years. She calls this her "ultimate dream job, a position anyone who's serious about the bartending profession would die for."
"I feel traditions are important," Carah offers, "and one of the things that pleases me as a bartender is seeing a resurgence of interest in classic cocktails. Locke-Ober doesn't have a specialty drink menu. When customers ask me about specialty drinks, I always tell them that our specialties are all the classics. We do fresh lime cosmopolitans and margaritas. We have a scotch and port list. We can serve vodka with just about anything, if asked. But gin drinks speak for themselves and are at the heart of the Locke-Ober tradition from its very beginnings."
Her most elaborate gin drink is a Ramos Fizz. To make it the right way, according to Carah, you combine a gin of your choice with a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice, three teaspoons of simple syrup, a good splash of cream, some egg white, and a couple of drops of orange flower water. Vigorously shake it and serve it straight up, topping it off with a little soda.
She has one older gentleman who comes in and claims to have tried Ramos Fizzes all over the world. Locke-Ober's version, he insists, is the best he's ever tasted anywhere. Carah enthuses, "It's just a pleasure to have customers coming in like this. They represent a truly educated class of spirits consumer. I call them high-end customers, who appreciate and are knowledgeable about exactly what they're ordering. These are also the people who really know how to drink, and I'm seeing more and more of them. I might add, that as a spirit of choice, gin happens to have distinct popularity with this kind of genuinely sophisticated drinking audience, which certainly tells you something about relative merits of this historic spirits category. And it also makes the current craze for these so-called martinis, that put everything in the world in a martini glass that are passed off as a martini, seem absolutely absurd. There are generations of Locke-Ober customers rolling around in their graves just thinking about that. At my bar, a real martini is all about gin, pure and simple."
A Gin Blossom is another standard classic she's asked for. It's very simple and straight-forward - gin, orange juice and a splash of orange flower water - and she has one regular customer who drinks it all the time. But the Negroni is perhaps her most popular signature cocktail and the one she takes particular pride in. "My Negroni is equal parts of your choice of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. Some people like it heavier on the Campari or the gin, and this is for the bartender to ask. But the classic way is equal parts, shaken, and served straight up in a martini glass with a burnt orange twist, which you burn right in front of the customer for that little added flair and the incredible citrus essence that can surround the drink. It fills the whole glass and the immediate bar seating area. This is what real flavor is all about. There are such a bewildering number of flavored products of every description out there today, but so many of them are just bastard flavors, flavored pretenders. I can always taste the artificial flavor and just can't drink them. I also can't promote them to customers, which doesn't exactly endear me to a lot of product reps. But I insist on being honest."
Since coming to Locke-Ober seven years ago, one of the nicest things about her job, she says, is that now she has time to take great care with everything she's making at the bar. "I don't have to fluff through anything, and can now give my customers quality time. And it's such a luxury because it creates a better hand-crafted cocktail that does justice to so many of these hand-crafted super-premium spirits that I'm serving.
"Let's face it," she adds with a laugh, "I'll never hold a Guinness Record for bar volume, but this a bar where I can be an artist rather than a machine. I've done my machine days, pumping it out like there's no tomorrow, flying at a 3O-cocktails-every-15-minutes kind of pace. It was all about speed, and the stress could be unbelievable. Yes, it was exciting and fun for awhile, and, yes, I was also young and ready to take on all the challenges. But I'm not that person anymore."
One especially positive trend in bar clientele that Carah sees is the change taking place with younger consumers who are developing more refined tastes. Carah adds, "I think more and more young drinkers today are finding this important. In fact, whether it be a resurgence of interest in classic cocktails, high-end call brands and civilized drinking habits, I'm seeing a lot more class, refinement and maturity in this younger twenties consumer approach to alcohol today than ever before. Now, they're savoring it, rather than slamming it. I find it a very encouraging trend, and it's such a treat for this old bartender here, who's seen it all."
Among Carah's most favorite customers is her old friend, and now boss, Lydia Shire herself. "She's definitely my gin lady," says Carah with a hearty laugh, "and Bombay Original has always been her brand. I've been making martinis for Lydia for 25 years now, going all the way back to my first bartending job at PB Sharon's, which no longer exists. This was about 1979, during the very beginning of the single malt boom. Owner Paul Sharon was such a connoisseur of alcoholic beverages and he had a tremendous drinks menu, unusual wines, and a remarkable inventory of fine scotches. This was also the time when Lydia and her buddy Jasper White were becoming chef celebrities at the nearby Bostonian Hotel. Jasper was also a Bombay martini drinker. They'd frequently stop in at my bar together, and we started a little joke. I'd always ask them, "Are we calling Dr. Bombay, this evening?" The answer was always, "Yeeees! Please call the doctor."
Carah's gin martini business today is huge, and, in fact, Locke-Ober may be the very place where the so-called three-martini lunch originated, she speculates. The martini glass was always served in a chilled colander, and the martini itself came in its own super-chilled container for refills. "That's when a martini was a martini. And it was made with gin," Carah emphasizes. "People didn't even conceive of a vodka martini. Vodka was something you mixed with tonic. And a Tom Collins was also always a gin drink. You never had to ask a customer whether gin or vodka? Now, you always have to. First of all, is it a gin martini? OK, what kind of gin? Then, shaken or stirred? Shaken is delicious and creates little ice crystals on top of the martini glass. It's the way Lydia likes hers. I'm a shake-martini fan, myself, because it just makes the drink so beautifully cold. Old-timers tend to like stirred, however, because they believe it doesn't break down the gin and leaves less water in the cocktail. The less water, the better, they think. You also have to ask about straight up or on-the-rocks, and about twists or olives or maybe a Gibson onion. All that kind of thing.
"More than any other consumer, a gin drinker normally doesn't drink any other spirit but gin," she contends. "They are creatures of habit. But, besides the classic martini, the classic gin-and-tonic, the classic Tom Collins, the Negroni, the Ramos Fizz, there really aren't a ton of gin drinks out there. So, maybe this makes gin a tough-sell category in today's creative drinks market. But that's not to say that these classic gin drinks shouldn't be considered among the very best. However, there are still a lot of bad raps and old wives' tales hanging around from Prohibition days about dissolute gin drinking, bootleggers, and illegal terrible-tasting bath-tub gin products, which can continue to scare off some people. It's an unfortunate misperception that has put the gin category in the back seat, although it really belongs in the front seat. I keep reminding customers that, historically, gin has been around forever, it seems, and was considered the god of spirits for so long. It's about all I can do. But this is a problem that the category marketers are still trying to overcome."
Going from classics to the very new, a visit with Michael Paquette, the manager of spiffy modern Restaurant L on Berkeley Street in Boston's Back Bay, reveals some remarkably creative ideas about not only exotic drink specialties, but also virtually unknown food and drink ingredients that add a whole new dimension to any gin usage discussions.
Restaurant L is noted for creative Southeast Asian culinary specialties, and the restaurant has been defined as Modern European with Japanese fusion, which lends itself to a lots of eccentric but beautiful flavor discoveries. "We have a small intimate dining room and bar area that seats about 48," says Paquette, "and it represents an ideally thoughtful, quiet and unhurried setting for really savoring and exploring unusual dining and drinking experiences. We're also fortunate enough to have a genius chef, Pino Masseo, who's been able to integrate unusual food combinations and flavors in an amazing variety of ways."
It turns out Chef Masseo just received one of food & wine magazine's prestigious 'top 1O chefs in America' awards recognitions, having been with this restaurant for only about two years, and Restaurant L just got its liquor license seven months ago. "Obviously, with the extraordinary signature dishes he produces in the kitchen," Paquette emphasizes, "it goes without saying that our drink selections have to measure up to match these highest standards. Pino's been a great inspiration for me in this effort. We work closely together, and he's encouraged me to work with a lot of exotic ingredients I would have never thought of, which we've been able to incorporate in our cocktails, many of which are gin creations.
"One example is the Aloe Gin Mojito, an exceptionally refreshing summertime drink, which incorporates juice squeezed from fresh aloe cubes that we sweeten ourselves, some moscato dessert wine, lime juice, fresh muddled mint, and I use Damrak from Amsterdam that been in this market for about 1O months. It's a new gin import in the Remy-Martin product portfolio and one of the cleanest gins I've ever encountered. I'm now using it in many of my cocktails because it's just a beautiful mixing spirit when you want to highlight unusual tastes. Aloe has an appealing luscious flavor, similar to a muscato grape, but with some lychee fruit-like accents. We also serve gelatinous aloe cubes with some of our desserts and specialty food dishes."
Another of Paquette's signature drinks is the Cucumber Gin Martini, which is based on Hendrick's gin from Scotland, with its unique infusion of cucumbers and rose petals. Paquette enhances it a step further with rose water and cucumber puree, as well as a reduction of prickly pear. It's shaken and served as a martini. "The result has a remarkably appealing and delicate herbal character, which is distinctive, yet never overwhelming," explains Paquette. "However, you have to be careful about the rose water, which is very strong and herbaceous and can easily dominate a drink. So, at the bar, we actually use eye droppers when we add it."
One more that he does, which is his personal favorite, is a Singapore Sling. It's based on an authentic recipe from Singapore that calls for grenadine, cherry and pineapple juice, and a little lemon juice. "My take on it," explains Paquette, "is to use Japanese mountain peaches, which are actually not peaches, but small berries, and are used in Japan between sushi courses as palate cleansers. They have a very bright and acidic character, and also a notably sweet component. Instead of cherry juice in the drink base, I've substituted juice pressed from these peaches. I also add some fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juices, a touch of cherry juice and simple syrup. Before serving, I top it off with a little soda water to give some carbonation. And one final signature ingredient is in the special ice cubes we use when we shake it up. They contain a Japanese herb called shiso, which is sort of a mint-basil hybrid. I muddle up the shiso and freeze it in ice cube trays, and I can only tell you that the subtle combination of shiso and mountain peach flavors is simply out of this world."
Over in East Cambridge, Patrick Sullivan, the bartender/owner of highly-regarded, always busy B-Side Lounge on Hampshire Street, turns out to be a passionate advocate of the gin category, and harbors a deep interest in restoring some historical respect for both the spirit, as well as the stature the bartending profession enjoyed way back in what he calls "the good old days". This location was originally a bar that dates back to around 1933 and the end of Prohibition. There's a sense of real tradition and history to the setting and an old-style neighborhood restaurant pub feeling about the whole place, which lends itself perfectly to a classic approach to cocktails. Bartending colleagues and chefs from all over the city come here regularly, as do many nearby neighbors of all ages, a lot of the bio-tech after-work crowd from Kendall Square, and a broad cross-section of the ethnic and academic cultures that Cambridge is noted for.
"This really sets us apart from so many of the trendy cocktail bars you're seeing out there, now, with all the Watermelon cordialtini so-called martini-kind of stuff that goes on and on," Patrick firmly declares. "We're definitely nothing to do with that. With our bar business, we're not trying to re-invent the wheel. But I have a great fondness for tradition that's shared by a large number of my Cambridge customers. And I also have amassed quite a collection of vintage cocktail books from way back, and like to pore through these to rediscover some true classic drink ideas, most of them based on gin. This is fortunate, because I've always been a gin guy, and I always like to tell people that gin makes you smarter. It gets you thinking more about what you're drinking."
Gin is without a doubt the quintessential mixing spirit behind the bar, he contends. "Why? Because it's got a good base that's not too complex to start with. It's true that some gin brands can be somewhat over-loaded with spice, and they become hot to drink with almost too much going on. But Plymouth London Dry has been the all-time favorite at B-Side since the first night we opened our doors back in December 1998. It's a product that has a roundness of style and flavors that can move in a lot of different directions. We've found, over the years, that it suits our style and the taste of our gin-drinking clientele better than any other brand."
He explains that B-Side's very first, and still one of his most popular signature cocktails, came from an old recipe book. It's a gin drink called Aviation, and it represented a real challenge at the start. It was virtually unknown to any bartenders in the trade, calling for maraschino liqueur, which was impossible to get around here even a few years ago. You also had to have fresh-squeezed lemon juice, which you almost never would find in any bar back then, he points out. But he managed to hand-produce all the proper ingredients himself and started serving Aviation as a B-Side signature classic. "I just had to do," he says, "because it was a cocktail from 1OO years ago, and it said so much about the direction I wanted B-Side to go. I use 1.5 ounces of Plymouth, 3/4 of an ounce of Stock maraschino liqueur that's available in the marketplace today, 3/4 of an ounce of fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and I garnish it with a cherry in the bottom of the glass. The old books referred to this as the 'Prince of Cocktails', and it was the first one on my list."
Another great gin drink he found in a 193Os cocktail guide is called the Bijou. Sullivan's version is 1.5 ounces of Plymouth, 3/4 of an ounce of green chartreuse, 3/4 of an ounce of sweet vermouth, and a dash of our own orange bitters. "This one again underscores the superiority of gin as a mixing spirit," he says. "I mean, when you try making this drink with vodka, it's just blah. There's just not enough to it. You've got to have the right amount of botanical seasoning to match up and blend with the orange bitters. When this drink is properly made, it has a flavor that's indescribably sublime and unique, and certainly something you'll never forget.
"Still another one we do," he continues, "is called the English Rose. Again, I use Plymouth for this, a French dry vermouth, Marie Brizard apricot liqueur, lemon juice, and our homemade grenadine. The taste profile is sort of a ginny, apricoty, lemony combination, which may sound peculiar, but turns out to be a sensationally appealing flavor blend. And it's not as sweet as it might sound. In fact, our general drinks philosophy avoids sweet as much as possible. You know, when this whole recent 'cocktail nation' thing began to happen with all the blueberry martinis stuff, a good part of it was all about covering up the fact that people were drinking booze. For a couple of reasons, we've never wanted to do that. First of all, we like the taste of the booze, and want to sort of highlight it. I mean, that should be the reason you feature special spirits and cocktails on a bar menu, isn't it? You want to be showcasing the spirit in one way or another. Secondly, we've found, through experience, that folks who are slamming down all these fruity flavored-type martinis, they're the customers who tend to be the ones causing you trouble at midnight. They just have no idea that they've just consumed eight drinks. To them, it's all like candy and fancy soda pop."
Aside from his fondness for Plymouth, other gins he likes include Hendrick's. "We serve it pretty much unto itself, highlighting its unusual rose-cucumber character. I find it a very fine gin, however, it's also an expensive bottle, which makes it pretty hard to make an $8 cocktail to fit into our standard bar drink price range. But I have created a specialty drink with it, which we call the Skeeker Club. The unusual name comes from what one of our bartenders found when we first opened, written long ago on an old wall that used to be right out back of this location. We never discovered what it stood for, but I always wanted to use the quirky name for an unusual cocktail. Hendrick's had enough eccentricities to fit the bill. So, our Skeeker Club is basically a martini, which has 2 ounces of Hendrick's and 1/2 ounce of Via - an unusual California boutique vermouth with a much more intense and condensed flavor than any standard vermouth. We then add maybe five healthy dashes of our homemade orange bitters and serve it on the rocks."
Sullivan is also a fan of high-priced Old Raj, which he calls "a true high-end sipper". This, too, is an unusually distinctive gin, with its infused saffron and a pale yellow hue. "But I'd never mix this with anything," he emphasizes. "It's something you should only drink by itself, on-the-rocks, which is the only way I ever consume an ultra-premium specialty bourbon whiskey like a Booker's. And even though Old Raj is just about the most expensive gin there is, I'm getting an increasing number of calls on it. It just goes to show how willingly customers, in today's marketplace, will accept and pay for a luxury spirit item that they really like.
"I'm also very fond of the old standby, Beefeater," he goes on, "which might be considered a working man's gin by super-premium standards. But I feel it's has a user-friendly mixability, like Plymouth, and matches up well in a lot of drinks. Beefeater is a little on the hot side, but nowhere near the hotness of, say, a Tanqueray. If you use Tanqueray in some of these cocktails, the gin just overpowers the blend. But for a classic good old gin-and-tonic, which I still consider one of the greatest drinks there is, Tanqueray is an excellent choice. The fact is, a T&T (Tanqueray and tonic) has been a popular call drink for decades and it's actually the drink that did so much to build the Tanqueray brand."
The truth, though, he admits, is that he simply doesn't get into that many brands. "We like what we like and what our customers like, but have kept it as simple as possible. We take cocktails very seriously, but we're straight ahead, if you know what I mean. We're not one of those places that infuse everything, garnish everything with flowers. We're basically a no-frills quality bar for a broad cross-section of ordinary people, and we also do a very high volume. So, we just can't get too esoteric, even if we wanted to. We've always kept our cocktail business at a level where we can produce, and we like to feel that what we do produce is as good a drink as anything you'll find anywhere."
Jackson Cannon, the manager at the ambitiously diverse and often crowded Eastern Standard contemporary restaurant and bar in Kenmore Square, may be the most visionary and whimsical gin mixologist in the city. Another of Boston's leading gin drink advocates, he's also come up with novel drink list techniques to lure unsuspecting customers into the category for the first time, and he talks about gin with almost poetic reverence. "It's not difficult to understand what made it the dominant category in the early to middle part of the 2Oth century," he says. "For one thing, it's always been so well suited to the cocktail idea. It's a clear spirit, but based on grain, with so many opportunities for botanical seasonings, that it retains its own character when mixed with all the juices and mixes and cordials that go into some of my favorite cocktails. By contrast, vodka is a blank canvas, and it's easy to throw all kinds of flavoring colors against the wall. But it lacks any real depth of interest to a serious mixologist, which I consider myself to be."
He explains that, for his bar, he's decided to take on the gin challenge in a big way because of respect for what this spirit can be at its higher quality levels. "Of course, people don't want to be told what to eat and what to drink, but, being a crafts bartender, I do have the power of suggestion working with my customers. And, as an admitted promoter of gin drinks, I've gotten around the old gin stigma problem in the way I've organized and titled our Eastern Standard cocktail menu."
He's broken it down into functional sub-categories like "refresh", "stimulate", "challenge", "advance", and "sparkle", with descriptions underneath the names of specific drinks that aren't just the recipes listing proportions, which are so common on most cocktail lists these days. He explains he wants to focus more on both ingredients and where the drink might have originated historically. "What this also does," he points out, "is to mask the fact that a majority of the list here is gin-based cocktails, which have become hugely successful in our bar business. It gets people talking more about the tertiary ingredients in the drink, rather than confronting them with the fact that they're drinking gin. But a bit later, somewhat after the fact, many people are actually amazed to discover that not only have they been drinking gin, but also how much they really love it."
Fizz Combine a
gin of your choice with a couple of teaspoons of
lemon juice, three teaspoons of simple syrup, a
good splash of cream, some egg white, and a couple
of drops of orange flower water. Vigorously shake
and serve straight up, topping it off with a little
Equal parts of your choice of gin, sweet vermouth
and Campari. Shaken and served straight up in a
martini glass with a burnt orange twist. àla
Juice squeezed from fresh aloe cubes, some moscato
dessert wine, lime juice, fresh muddled mint, and
Damrak Gin. Cucumber
Hendrick's gin, rose water, cucumber puree, and a
reduction of prickly pear. Shake and served as a
mountain peach juice, fresh-squeezed lemon and lime
juices, a touch of cherry juice, and simple syrup.
Before serving, top it off with a little soda
water. Use special ice cubes made with the Japanese
herb shiso. àla
1.5 ounces of Plymouth gin, 3/4 of an ounce of
Stock maraschino liqueur and 3/4 of an ounce of
fresh-squeezed lemon juice. Garnish with a cherry
in the bottom of the glass. Bijou
1.5 ounces of Plymouth gin, 3/4 of an ounce of
green chartreuse, 3/4 of an ounce of sweet
vermouth, and a dash of orange bitters. English
gin, French dry vermouth, Marie Brizard apricot
liqueur, lemon juice, and grenadine. Skeeker
Club 2 ounces
of Hendrick's gin, 1/2 ounce of Via California
vermouth, and five healthy dashes of orange
bitters. Serve on the rocks. àla
3-to-1 parts Plymouth gin, yellow chartreuse and a
dash of orange bitters. Monkey
Gland One part
Miller's gin, one part orange juice, a dash of real
grenadine, and some Henri Bardouin
parts gin to one part Chambord and one part fresh
lime juice. An elegant sipping cocktail or make one
cocktail and pour it into three or four small
glasses to toast with.
Ramos Fizz Combine a gin of your choice with a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice, three teaspoons of simple syrup, a good splash of cream, some egg white, and a couple of drops of orange flower water. Vigorously shake and serve straight up, topping it off with a little soda.
Negroni Equal parts of your choice of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. Shaken and served straight up in a martini glass with a burnt orange twist.
Aloe Gin Mojito Juice squeezed from fresh aloe cubes, some moscato dessert wine, lime juice, fresh muddled mint, and Damrak Gin.
Cucumber Gin Martini Hendrick's gin, rose water, cucumber puree, and a reduction of prickly pear. Shake and served as a martini.
Singapore Sling Japanese mountain peach juice, fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juices, a touch of cherry juice, and simple syrup. Before serving, top it off with a little soda water. Use special ice cubes made with the Japanese herb shiso.
Aviation 1.5 ounces of Plymouth gin, 3/4 of an ounce of Stock maraschino liqueur and 3/4 of an ounce of fresh-squeezed lemon juice. Garnish with a cherry in the bottom of the glass.
Bijou 1.5 ounces of Plymouth gin, 3/4 of an ounce of green chartreuse, 3/4 of an ounce of sweet vermouth, and a dash of orange bitters.
English Rose Plymouth gin, French dry vermouth, Marie Brizard apricot liqueur, lemon juice, and grenadine.
Skeeker Club 2 ounces of Hendrick's gin, 1/2 ounce of Via California vermouth, and five healthy dashes of orange bitters. Serve on the rocks.
Alaska 3-to-1 parts Plymouth gin, yellow chartreuse and a dash of orange bitters.
Monkey Gland One part Miller's gin, one part orange juice, a dash of real grenadine, and some Henri Bardouin pastis.
El Splendido Two parts gin to one part Chambord and one part fresh lime juice. An elegant sipping cocktail or make one cocktail and pour it into three or four small glasses to toast with.
In this closely-knit Boston bartending fraternity, it turns out that Jackson worked for his good friend Patrick Sullivan at B-Side for several years before taking on this new Eastern Standard position. And, so, not surprisingly, he's also favors Plymouth London Dry brand as an excellent mixing gin. "But, as an ingredient on our drinks menu," he points out, "we refer to it simply as the Spirit of Plymouth without a gin identification. Amazingly, few customers ever ask me what Spirit of Plymouth actually is, and are surprised when I later tell them that it's the original London Dry gin imported from Plymouth, England. And, sometimes, when a customer will flatly declare, 'Oh, I don't like gin,' all our bartenders have been coached to come back immediately with, 'Well, maybe you've never had a well-balanced cocktail made with gin. Why not give it a try?' Most of the time, they can be persuaded. And, after that, you've got them. I couldn't begin to count the number of our customers we've already succeeded in bringing into the gin category with one of our signature cocktails. You can convert them from, say, a Cosmopolitan with ease. And this is something I've been exploring a lot with gins from my front line on-premise vantage point."
One popular signature gin cocktail is his Alaska, which is a classic gin martini, made with Plymouth, with a slightly creative spin. It's 3-to-1 parts gin, and uses a yellow chartreuse for vermouth with a dash of orange bitters. "This is drink in the "Challenge" section of my list," he explains, "where I'm actually taking customers who may be a loyal followers of a given brand of gin, and persuading them to try the Plymouth brand and a different set-up than your familiar extra dry, one-olive type of martini. With this kind of cocktail, I'm not only targeting non-gin martini drinkers, but, even more, encouraging an established gin-drinker to drink across the category and try highly distinctive different styles and brands."
He's been recently experimenting with Damrak, the new super-premium import from Holland. What especially intrigues him, he says, is that it's done in the London Dry-style and made from an old recipe, dating back to the 17OOs, that was recently discovered when they were knocking out the walls of an ancient Amsterdam distillery. "I find it heavily accented with citrus components, and although lacking any juniper components, it clearly presents as a gin. It's been on the market maybe a year, but hasn't received any substantial promotional push. But we've found it to be just a great gin style for mixology and a lot of bartenders have gotten behind it, here."
"I was trying to explain Damrak's difficult-to-describe unique taste profile to someone, recently, and the term that somehow kept coming to mind was 'Battle of Waterloo', which of course has nothing to do with flavor, but is all about history. And maybe this is appropriate, because, despite its Dutch heritage, Damrak just has such a distinctive British presence, with no resemblance to the sweeter and somewhat heavier traditional gins from Holland. And what needs to be remembered, here, is that both Dutch and British gins are both traditions borne from a cross-influence between Holland and England. There really isn't any modern version of either that doesn't relate to this joint heritage that existed as this category began developing in past centuries.
"This is one of the fascinating things about trying to pin down historic gin styles. There are all kinds of layers involved in the history of these spirits, and, if you are a seriously-committed crafts bar, it's getting into this kind of category history with customers that is one of the ways you can successfully build your gin business. There are so many social, cultural, and historical components to all this. It's far more than just talking about flavors. You could call it mixology with an historical perspective, and consumer education playing an important part. I mean, here we are approaching the 2OOth anniversary of the cocktail, so, knowing as much as I possibly can about the heritage of cocktails is a major objective I want to share with customers."
Like Sullivan at the B-Side Lounge, Jackson, too, has been playing around quite a bit with this earlier American gin heritage. For example, consider one odd-ball-sounding selection on his drink list called The Monkey Gland. Jackson has to laugh when explaining it. "It's a cocktail from the Prohibition era, when spirits had to go underground. Drinking became sort of the punk rock symbol of that era and cocktails were given some pretty unusual and often ribald names. This is also listed in the 'Challenge' section of our drinks menu and described as a 'rebellious Prohibition creation'. Again, we don't mention it's a gin drink. The name, itself, refers to that quack medical procedure in the early 2Oth century, when men were getting older and losing their sex drive, and they were given implants of a monkey's testicle. There was even a popular song relating to this with ridiculous lyrics that went something like, 'I feel like a man of 83 without much virility. But you've got to understand I've got me a plan, and am getting myself a monkey gland'.
"Needless to say, we've been having a lot of fun with this drink," Jackson goes on, "and it's aroused considerable interest as a whimsical conversation piece, depending on the audience you've got. It's also a very unusual gin concoction. Instead of gin being the dominant ingredient, you have one part gin, one part orange juice. You also add a dash of real grenadine and then some Henri Bardouin pastis, which is the famously traditional French anise liqueur like a pernod, with a taste like absinthe, so favored by poets and lovers in the cafe culture of France. We use the Bardouin for this because it's a little lighter and sweeter than other anise products. Anyway, the cocktail result is a blush-red drink with an orange flavor and a licorice after-taste. Also, the gin I especially like for this one is Miller's, but any good dry London-style gin will give you a nice little juniper note poking through as an added touch. And, let me tell you, if you tried to make this drink with vodka, the vodka would utterly disappear. It just wouldn't work."
One of his other creative gin classics that's doing very well is the El Splendido, which is two parts gin to one part Chambord and one part fresh lime juice. "This one comes out as an elegant sipping cocktail, but also makes a great little toaster where we'll make one cocktail and pour it into three or four small glasses for people to taste and toast with. It goes down as this deliciously elegant crush of raspberry and lime, complimented by the spicy gin notes. It's just a sensational combination, and I actually like a pretty sweet gin for this one and sometimes will even use distinctively sweeter Tanqueray. Again, this is one of those drinks that people love, but probably would have never tried if they'd known they were drinking gin beforehand. So, it's a great one to get customers sliding into the category from other places."
How would Jackson summarize his fondness for gin, we ask? "Before we opened," he says, "the whole genesis of our drinks and gin program was built upon trying to undo this model of uninspired cocktail lists, in general, and the unsavory misconceptions about gin, specifically. We kept trying to think of evocative ways to get people interested. Here, at this Kenmore location, adjacent to the Hotel Commonwealth, we have a wide demographic of customers ranging from all sorts of hotel guests, working professional regulars from the neighborhood in their late 2Os and 3Os, students and faculty from BU, a cross-section of Red Sox fans before and after games, and a constant flow of out-of-town Boston visitors, including baseball fans from other US cities and Canada who want to make a trip to Fenway more than any other baseball park in America. And the more I began focusing on the categories that would make great attention-getting signature cocktails for this broad assortment of clientele, the more it became apparent that gin was the most promising among them."
Locke-Ober restaurant owner and pre-eminent Boston master chef, Lydia Shire, is a gregarious conversationalist who's never reluctant about expressing opinions on favorite subjects. One topic is her legendary cooking. Another is her fondness for the taste of gin, both in and out of a martini glass. We caught up with her during a rare leisure moment at home in her west suburban kitchen, and asked if she would expound a bit about drinking and cooking with her favorite spirit. She graciously complied with her own inimitable good-natured candor on these and a few other related subjects, including Locke-Ober traditions and her old bartender friend and colleague, Carah McLaughlin (our cover model this month).
First, about her gin drink of choice: "It's always been a martini, shaken not stirred," she says, "and a gin martini is the cocktail that Locke-Ober has always been famous for, historically, so we're on the same page. My personal gin brand of choice has always been Bombay Original. It's the gin I started out with and I've stayed with it ever since, first, because I guess I'm just a traditional person, and, secondly, because I've always been attracted to the clean, light, satisfying gin flavor of the Bombay recipe and find it comfortable to drink."
Has she ever been tempted to substitute vodka for gin in a martini, we ask? "Are you kidding?," she responds with a snort. "Vodka martinis? I think they're horrible. I just don't get this whole vodka thing. Once in a while, I'll drink vodka in a Black Russian, and enjoy that cocktail, but, in a martini, there's just no flavor. As a chef, you're always farming for flavors, and anything that goes into the mouth has to have a flavor of some distinction to mean something. But vodka as a stand-alone spirit? Forget it! It doesn't deliver anything, and I just can't find anything to like about it. On the other hand, gin has a multitude of flavors that excite my palate."
"I use gin in a lot of cooking, too," Lydia says. "It's really an exceptionally interesting and adaptable spirit for creative cuisine. For example, I make these special Sicilian Wedding raviolis, which have chopped up currants and dried fruits like pears. Currants are like little raisins, and I first plump them in gin, and also soak the dried fruits in gin, and mix it all into ricotta and parmesan cheese. We use this wonderful dough, made with only potato flour and with no eggs in it, so it's exceptionally light. You then take these prepared raviolis and poach them. Then you take a pan, glazed with shallots and gin, add a little cream, salt, pepper and some lemon rind, and make a sauce which gets ladled over the raviolis. And I can serve this with anything from venison to pigeon, squab, and a lot of other possibilities.
"For a vegetable accompaniment," Lydia continues, "you can take some red chard, sautee it with garlic and olive oil, and add some gin to that, also. This will carry the gin flavor through just beautifully on the plate. If you've got a red meat entree, you use red chard or you can also do this with white chard for lighter meats like pork or poultry and game birds. I think it makes for a fabulous meal presentation. We have it on the Locke-Ober menu from time to time.
Of course, a classic gin martini is a perfect beverage choice for complimenting the meal."
Lydia says she also likes to use crushed juniper a lot in marinades and various sauces, because it can be a marvelous seasoning. But does she ever actually marinate the meat in gin? "Absolutely not!" she declares. "Never marinate any meat in straight gin or other high-proof alcoholic beverages. Alcohol doesn't do well with meat until after you've cooked it down a little. Once you've reduced the alcohol, then it becomes a sweeter medium. Same can be said for some other popular marinade ingredients. For instance, when we marinate anything, we never put raw onion on it and seldom even raw garlic. Usually you need to sautee these kinds of ingredients in a pan first, because it produces a more mellow flavor. Then, when you marinate the meat and are adding something that's had the shallots and garlic cooked a little, you get these beautiful flavors. When you pour it over the meat, it produces a milder and more refined result."
Lydia observes that there are many people who will prepare a beef bourguignon by submerging raw stew beef in a raw red wine. "Oh, my god!" she exclaims, "this is barbaric and disgusting! I can taste it a mile away and it's just awful. It's a very common amateur mistake, but these are cooks who just don't get it. Instead, what you do is take some shallots or onions, sautee in olive oil until they're golden, add whatever spice you want, and just let it reduce slowly. After it's cooled off, then taste it, and, lo and behold, you'll discover an unbelievably rich and integrated flavor that's not acidic or tannic."
Turning back to gin drinking and the bar philosophy at Locke-Ober, Lydia expresses her determination to maintain this kind of rare old vintage cocktail lounge ambience that has been such a time-honored and coveted Boston drinking institution for more than a century. She's obviously delighted about having such a personable and fetching celebrated bartender as Carah McLaughlin playing a key role at her establishment. In response to Carah's feelings about it being a dream job for any serious bartender, far removed from all the constant pressures and hassles of speed-rack assembly-line cocktail production, Lydia says simply, "Carah's one of the greats in the business. I've known her since she started. She's an old, old friend. She remains beautiful to look at, but she's grown up now. She's still young at heart, but now is a grown-up, working in a grown-up bar. Hopefully, that is the way most people want to develop in their lives. They start out somewhere and then they graduate." -RB