As good chefs like to remind us, food has its seasons. So do spirits. And as any bartender worth his salt rimmer will attest, this is gin season.
Like many Canadians, I've been spending a crazy number of hours in the garden. Specifically, I've been absorbing the finer points of soil science from my dad, who has coaxed magic from the ground for almost every one of his 84 years, first as a barefoot Italian farm boy in the 1930s and 1940s and later in his bountiful little backyard in Toronto. The tomatoes, arugula and cucumbers he has planted for me are already thriving proudly. But what has got me most excited of late is the herb patch. It's going gangbusters, and it has turned my thoughts to gin.
The classic white spirit, infused with such "botanicals" as juniper and coriander, is a veritable garden in a glass. I love gin, not just on its own but especially as a mixing partner. It brings so much more to the cocktail party than vodka, its more popular but essentially flavourless cousin.
If you think gin cocktails start and end at the gin and tonic and dry martini, you can be forgiven. Venerable as those potations are, their dominance does a disservice to a once-proud tradition. The Negroni, French 75, Bronx, Aviation and the Long Island Iced Tea all are gin-based standards of the bartending canon during the first half of the past century, when vodka was below the radar.
"In the early 1900s, gin was pretty much the staple of all the classic cocktails," says Wendy McGuinness, bar manager at Chambar, a restaurant in Vancouver.
And this is gin season in more ways than one. A tide of new and newly revived old brands has inspired a renaissance in gin mixology. It's even prompting a growing number of vodka diehards to do a double take.
"Lots of people will come in and say, 'Make me anything, just use vodka,' " Ms. McGuinness reports. She often deploys gin to add more flavour without revealing her bluff until later. "I do it often. People say, 'I don't even like gin. This is amazing.' " Three of the 12 drinks on her cocktail menu feature gin, and none of the dozen contains vodka.
Among her more popular creations is a riff on the pink lady, a classic that features apple brandy such as Calvados and gets its colour from grenadine syrup. Ms. McGuinness's twist, called the Volstead Act, after the law that reinforced Prohibition in the United States, uses brandy that she infuses with apple and ginger. Her base of choice is Victoria Gin, a fine new brand from British Columbia. She also prefers her house-made blackcurrant purée, which renders the drink more purple than pink. Add 1½ ounces gin, ½ ounce apple brandy, ½ ounce fresh lemon juice, two dashes blackcurrant purée and one egg white to a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake and serve. Sometimes Ms. McGuinness pours it into a champagne flute rather than a V-shaped cocktail glass. "It's really refreshing, light and summery," she says.
Many of the new gins, such as Victoria, have dialled down the love-it-or-hate-it pine scent of juniper to a whisper. Some, notably Hendricks, have added non-traditional flavourings such as cucumber and rose petal. Bulldog, another hot brand, contains poppy and dragon eye (a relative of the lychee fruit believed in China to promote sexual stamina).
My favourite new gin, Gin Mare, the first from Spain, is a burst of Mediterranean flavours, infused with Arbequina olives, thyme, rosemary and basil in addition to the more conventional juniper, cardamom and coriander. Not yet available in Canada, it's being proposed for distribution, likely at $60, later this year or next (first in Ontario and Nova Scotia) from Toronto importer The Case for Wine. I also like Broker's, a highly rated brand with a classic, bracing juniper essence.
"Everybody has a 'gin-cident' in their life," says Andrew Campoli, executive administrator and senior instructor at BartenderOne, a mixology school and party-planning company in Toronto. The term is a reference to that first, nausea-inducing brush with too much Beefeater that gin-phobic drinkers often confess to. Once a self-proclaimed gin hater himself, Mr. Campoli is now a fan. "I found out that you can actually mask, or hide, the strength of the gin and make a refreshing summer cocktail."
His favourite is the Tom Collins, a highball of gin, lemon juice, sugar syrup and club soda, classically garnished with a maraschino cherry. The variant he prefers contains lime juice in place of lemon and is promoted by the Bombay Sapphire brand as the Sapphire Collins. Pour one to two ounces of gin ("depending on how your day's going," Mr. Campoli says) into a highball glass filled with ice, add the juice of half a lemon, two teaspoons of sugar and top with club soda. "Probably one of the best summer cocktails around," he says. "It kind of tastes like an adult version of lemonade."
Among my own warm-weather favourites is the Negroni, equal shots of gin, Campari Italian liqueur and sweet (red) vermouth, stirred in a highball glass with ice. To make a long drink, serve it in a highball glass and top up with club soda. The Negroni is essentially an Italian tweak to the Gin & It, another classic made with equal parts gin and sweet vermouth, served with slice of orange.
Time was when most boroughs of the world's unofficial cocktail capital, New York, boasted a signature drink. The Manhattan is made with whisky and vermouth, while the Bronx and Long Island Iced Tea (Long Island actually contains two boroughs, Queens and Brooklyn) feature gin. The Bronx, a virtually lost classic deserving wider recognition, features gin, dry vermouth, sweet vermouth and orange juice. And the Long Island Iced Tea - not among my favourites, truth be told - contains a nap-inducing collision of gin, triple sec, light rum, vodka and cola.
More to my taste is the original Brooklyn cocktail. Original is the operative word here because the standard Brooklyn of most cocktail books is based on whisky and Picon, a bitter cordial. The one I like is taken from the About.com website and appears to be based on a 1910 recipe from the Washington Post that predates the first, 1914 print reference to the whisky Brooklyn. Muddle (mash using the back of a spoon or muddling tool) five arugula leaves with five raspberries in the bottom of a cocktail shaker, the way you would do with mint leaves and sugar for a rum-based mojito. Add two ounces gin, two ounces pear nectar and half an ounce of lemon juice. Drop in four or five ice cubes and shake. Strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a raspberry if you like.
The arugula does the magic here. I can't think of a more refreshing way to honour my dad's gardening skill.