I blame my mother. Although gin wasn’t her ruin, I have to admit, she did enjoy a gin and tonic. And as any student of the spirits industry will tell you, you never drink what your parents drink.
The problem, I now realise, was that gin in the 1970s wasn’t very good. Tonic water was even worse: the primary aim of even the best known (Ssssssh — you know who you are) being to disguise the roughness of the gin. And vice versa, I suppose.
Gin was dying on its feet, being replaced by the infinitely cooler vodka, which clever advertising in the 1970s had transformed from the equivalent of grappa into the current generation’s choice. It also had the advantage, worry-ingly to my mind, that it tasted of nothing and therefore allowed pimply youths like me to get pissed without having to get the taste (and the respect) for alcohol in the first place.
And then Gordon’s reduced their strength without reducing their price, and the downward spiral had begun — albeit disguised in the minds of the spirits industry as ‘managing for value’. In other words: think quantity before quality, and make as much money as possible before the punters wake up to the fact that they’re being duped and decide to switch to drinking something else entirely.
I remember going to New York for the first time in 1981, and noticing that the decline of gin was on a different cycle in the States. The most visible brand on the shelves came in an old-fashioned green bottle with a portrait of Queen Victoria on it, and was called Bombay Gin. It seemed to me that gin still had an appeal to the knickerbocker class of American, who wore tweed and called people ‘old boy’.
But fast forward ten years or so, and some brilliant employee of Diageo transformed Bombay Gin into Bombay Sapphire, and gin was on the road to recovery. I met him once. Proudly, he told me that the secret was ‘re-inventing gin for people who really prefer vodka’.
Hence the proliferation of the ‘designer’ gins — hugely popular, but not really proper gin. You see, gin should taste of juniper. The clue’s in the name. It was originally distilled in Holland, called Genever (Dutch for Juniper), and popularised as gin when England acquired a Dutch king in William of Orange. So gins which deny their juniperiness and taste instead of roses, cucumber or ‘many different botanicals’ are no more than flavoured vodkas sailing under the gin flag of convenience.
My breakthrough came less than 15 years ago when I first visited the bar of Dukes Hotel, off St James’s Street. Dukes make quite simply the finest dry martinis in the world. The barman back then, the peerless Gilberto, claimed that the secret for these astonishing concoctions was simple: ‘Do not hesitate with the gin.’
What was less readily admitted was that the gin in question had to be of the finest quality — and that meant it had to taste of gin. Tanqueray had just launched their ‘Tanqueray 10’, and if you asked Gilberto very nicely, he might even have a bottle of Crown Jewel — Beefeater’s ‘luxury cuvée’.
For the first time I discovered that the dry martini really was the queen of all cocktails, and that Robert Benchley was right when he described one — probably to Dorothy Parker — as ‘Diamond Juice’. What had put me off hitherto was an overreliance on vermouth — once again, as a disguise — and the lack of quality of the gin.
When the spirits team at Berry Bros & Rudd decided to create our new gin, ‘No. 3’, they asked me, to misquote Doris Day, what should it be. ‘The best gin in the world,’ I replied without hesitation.
They rolled their eyes. ‘Everybody says that. But what exactly does it mean?’ Luckily, and for once in my life, I had a ready answer. ‘If you can persuade Dukes Hotel to use it as their pouring brand for dry martinis, then you’ll know that it’s the best.’ A year later, after extensive experimentation with Alessandro Palazzo, Gilberto’s worthy successor, they had fulfilled their mission.
You don’t have to be a regular at Dukes, though, to appreciate that there’s a bit of a gin revolution going on. People are realising that you can get the best gins in the world for approximately three times the price of the most ordinary. There are no categories elsewhere in the world of wines and spirits where that’s true. There are single malt whiskies which cost several hundred times as much as your bog-standard supermarket blend; rare clarets and burgundies which are up in the Ferrari class of luxury.
And it’s not only dry martinis which are being consumed as the standard of real gin improves. Other gin-based cocktails are making a comeback. The Koburg Bar at the Connaught does a wonderful ‘Faraway Collins’ (gin, yuzu juice & soda), and the wonderfully creative Wayne Chapman of City Social in Old Broad Street has invented ‘Mr Tod’s Redemption’ — a delicious blend of gin, Campari, lemon juice and carrot puree. Back at Dukes, Alessandro will also knock you up an excellent ‘French 75’ — one quarter No. 3, one quarter lemon juice, a dash of syrop de gomme and topped up with champagne. Delicious.
There’s also been an improvement in tonic water, spearheaded by Fever Tree, that is now spreading to the supermarkets’ own labels. (Waitrose does one of the best on the market.)
So perhaps Mother was right after all — just ahead of her time.
Seven To sip
Tanqueray No. 10 Light, refreshing, limey — perfect for a gin-soaked summer’s day. We could drink a lot of this.
Adnams First Rate Finest Cut With warm cardamom flavours, this wintery gin would be delicious in a negroni. The nautical label is natty too.
Berry’s No.3 London Dry If the Queen Mother — God rest her soul — were still alive, we reckon she would enjoy this robust, traditional juniper gin.
Two Birds London Dry A bright citrussy gin, comes in a trendy bottle. Hipsters would probably serve this in a jam jar.
Warner Edwards Harrington Dry East meets west in this spicy gin, which has hints of cardamom and elderflower. Sip while you contemplate the decline of the British empire.
Sacred Gin Not as punchy as some of the others, but the mellowness was welcome, as by this point we had drunk a lot of gin.
Spectator Gin Good stuff, with Earl Grey flavours that shine through.
Lara Prendergast and Camilla Swift