Gin and tonic? Gin rickey? Gin gimlet? Stop being so prissy: In this lively history, Barnett (Medical London, 2008, etc.) notes that the way to drink gin is neat, “with perhaps an occasional dash of bitters to soften the rough edge of pot-still spirit.”
You don’t have to be British to like gin—indeed, writes the author, most of the output of the Tanqueray plant, now located in Scotland, is sent to the United States. However, though invented in its more-or-less modern form in Holland (or perhaps Belgium), gin is a very British thing to drink. Readers of Robert Hughes’ book The Fatal Shore (1986) may remember its opening gin-soaked pages, public drunkenness being one cause for so many Cockneys to be sent packing to the Antipodes. Londoner Barnett pays homage to Hogarthian visions of the streets of the British capital, but he’s as much interested in the chemistry of the sauce as he is in its (mostly deleterious) social effects. Accordingly, he offers a kind of prehistory of gin that takes us through cultures that have found interesting things to do with juniper, including the Finns and their sahti, “a beer flavored with juniper berries instead of hops, and filtered through juniper twigs,” and the ancient Romans, whose physicians counseled applying crushed juniper berries to the genitals in order to chase away unwanted offspring. Barnett charts the rising and falling fortunes of gin, from poor man’s swill to retro-lounge hipster’s beverage of choice, and he closes with a personal and highly provisional catalog of favorite gins, from stalwarts such as Beefeater to more bespoke lines such as Wees Distillery Very Old Geneva and the British-Icelandic hybrid Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength Gin.
A toper’s pleasure, though perhaps it should come with a warning label.