Originally created in 17th-century Holland to treat kidney disorders, gin went mainstream in England in the 1700s and became known as London dry gin, the strong, aromatic style popular today. But the restorative properties of its many ingredients still deserve some attention. Gin's complex flavors and aromas come from a medicine cabinet's worth of herbs, spices and botanicals. Juniper berries give it a distinctive, pine-sap taste and, according to herbal-medicine experts, ease aches, pains and upset stomachs. Orris and angelica roots have been used to cure respiratory ailments. And licorice is good for ulcers. The combinations vary from gin to gin, and each distiller has a unique recipe.
Tanqueray, Beefeater and Bombay Sapphire are the best-known brands, but for the discriminating and adventurous gin drinker, there are a number of labels that will expand your perception of gin. Magellan is a French gin that gets its name from the Portuguese explorer whose 16th- century, round-the-world expedition brought spices back to the Old World. The petals of the iris flower give Magellan its splashy blue color, and cloves, cardamom, and coriander give it spice. It has a pleasantly briny, ocean-water taste, and makes an excellent sidecar while working through a dozen oysters on the half shell at your favorite ski-town raw bar.
The Anchor Brewery in San Francisco makes the gorgeously woody, strongly flavored Junìpero Gin. This is a gin-lover's gin, full of that traditional pine-sap flavor, but it also has a lemony ring and a black-pepper finish. Next time you're in Lake Tahoe, take a seat at Wild Goose's lake-view bar and order their signature S.F. martini, made with Junìpero and the tiniest splash of vermouth.
Hendrick's, a Scottish gin made from cucumbers and celery (among other ingredients), touts itself as "a most peculiar gin," and with its unusually crisp character, it makes a curiously refreshing martini. (Its attractive apothecary bottle also looks great on your home bar.)
Gin doesn't have the flashy reputation of vodka, but get friendly with this aromatic, intriguing spirit, and you may never go vodka again.
HOW'S IT MADE?
Gin, like vodka, is a distilled grain alcohol. But while vodka is mostly tasteless and odorless, gin gets its flavor from distilling fermented mash in a still stuffed with juniper berries and other botanicals. Vapor rises from the heated grain mash through the ingredients, taking on their flavors before condensing into a high-alcohol spirit. To refine the flavor, distillers often repeat the process two or three times.