It’s 1715 and gin is in! Genever, anglicized from the Dutch as “gin,” was introduced to the British in 1688 by William the III and quickly became known as “Mother’s Ruin” or “Dutch Courage.” The mass production of cheap gin in London had unleashed an epic 50-year street party of drunken debauchery and moral depravity.
Now it’s 2015, and gin is in once again. This time we can avoid the turpitude by taking guidance from Daniel Kent, dean of beverages at the Institute of Domestic Technology in Los Angeles. The institute teaches simple food- and beverage-production techniques, some long forgotten, for do-it-yourself enthusiasts.
A spirited introduction
The workshop is set up around a mammoth pool table in Greystone Mansion, a faux-château set in formal gardens above Beverly Hills. The vaulted billiard room is just off the bowling alley, which many might recognize from the 2007 movie “Let There Be Blood.”
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Eschewing cocktails such as the Gin Fizz, the Fluffy Duck and the Hanky Panky, Kent plans to dismantle what the Brits would call a “bog-standard G and T” and rebuild it into a sublime, sophisticated multilayered beverage using craft American gin, homemade tonic syrup and perfectly clear ice.
Joseph Schuldiner, director of the institute, begins the afternoon by asking the 24 students to identify themselves by first name only and to relate a “drinking story.” (This is awkwardly reminiscent of an AA meeting, but judging by the hilarity that follows, no one in this room needs a drink to relax.)
Kent, a former actor, cannot resist a theatrical flourish and starts the class with a reveal: a secret bar hidden behind the oak-paneled walls. This elicits gasps from his audience, as does the statement that gin is just juniper-flavored vodka. He explains the complex process of flavoring neutral spirits with a vapor infusion of juniper berries during the distillation process to produce a subtle and aromatic spirit.
The tasting process
Our tasting starts with a sample of Junipero, made in San Francisco by the Anchor Distilling Company. This 98-proof gin is flavored with dried juniper berries and a secret mix of herbs and spices, described as “exotic” botanicals.
The second gin we try, the Botanist Islay Dry Gin, comes from Bruichladdich, a Scotch distillery that is also using its stills to produce a 92-proof gin flavored with 22 wild plants foraged on Islay Island in the Inner Hebrides. The result tastes less of juniper and more of myrtle, heather and the moss that grows on peat. (As Kent says, it tastes of things that grow close to the ground.)
The third gin sample is Terroir from St. George Spirits. This is a 90-proof aromatic gin “wildcrafted” from California plants including Douglas fir and bay laurel, which provide its distinctive flavor. Kent uses the word “woodsy” to describe it, echoing St. George’s own description: “a forest in your glass.”
Then we move on to making the tonic syrup. The medicinal qualities of the key ingredient, Peruvian cinchona bark, were observed by Jesuit priests in the 17th century. By the 1860s, it was known that quinine was the active ingredient that suppressed malarial fever, so the British and the Dutch planted cinchona trees in their growing colonies in the East. The officers of the Royal Navy began adding the unpalatable quinine tincture to their daily ration of gin, and the new British cocktail became instantly popular in malaria-free London drawing rooms.
Reminding us there is no quinine in commercial “tonic” water, Kent creates a quinine tincture, steeping powdered cinchona bark in spirits while the class juices and zests limes and grapefruits. (He credits “The Bar Book” by Jeffrey Morgenthaler for the basic recipe but says he has jazzed it up a bit.) We all help by adding the zest and fruit juices to heating water, along with carefully measured coriander, anise and allspice. The mixture is mulled for 20 minutes, then left to cool as the orange water, quinine tincture and sugar are stirred in.
The finishing touches
On to the ice. Daniel explains that good ice is just a matter of physics: Rip the lid off a six-pack Igloo and then fill the cooler with water, and it will freeze from the top down like a lake, pushing air bubbles and impurities to the bottom. Using a block of ice he has already prepped, Kent starts tapping his serrated bread knife gently with a hammer, scoring a line where the clear ice and the cloudy ice meet. Suddenly the block splits into two layers, and Kent triumphantly holds up the top layer, as clear as any self-respecting mixologist could ever want.
When we are ready to mix the new gin and tonic, Kent schools us on technique, putting the ice in last to create extra fizz. The results are interesting. Junipero, with its more traditional flavoring, was a class favorite during the tasting, but when mixed with the fragrant tonic, it seems too complex. The Terroir, with its more balanced blend of botanicals, marries well with the tonic, but scores low because it does not have the kick that we attendees crave. Meanwhile, the Botanist, only moderately popular at the tasting, becomes the crowd favorite in the mixed drink. This cocktail, with its damp, earthy tones, is as far from artificially flavored gin and chemically manufactured tonic water as you can get.
The class ends with an inkling of what’s next for Kent. He is obsessed with pruno. What is that? Let’s just say pruno, a.k.a. jailhouse hooch, is immortalized in a poem by Jarvis Masters that ends with the line “May God have mercy on your soul.” When one of the workshop participants, a judge by profession, reveals his experience with authentic prison-made pruno, Kent blurts out, “Can you get me in?” Really, Daniel? There must be an easier way.
Main photo: A proper gin and tonic. Credit: © Seth Joel