For most of us, I think gin brings England to mind. And it certainly does have a long history in England. But, as it turns out, gin has a much longer history than that.
Apparently adding juniper berries to wine has been around since roughly 70 AD. This concoction was used as a medicine for chest ailments. This gave way to a drink in Holland called jenever. Jenever was the first iteration of gin, and is still a traditional liquor in Belgium and the Netherlands. Distilling technology was far from perfect at the time and the process of distilling malt wine to the ABV levels of liquor created a beverage with some unpleasant flavors. The solution for this problem was to imbue it with the characters of various herbs to improve its flavor, namely the juniper berry. The name jenever is derived from the Dutch word for juniper, jeneverbes.
The English first encountered jenever during the Eighty Years’ War. Soldiers fighting in Antwerp discovered that the liquor helped them prepare for the rigors of battle and gave it the moniker “Dutch Courage.” Presumably these soldiers brought back some knowledge of jenever to England. By the mid-17th century it was widespread in England. At the time it was primarily sold as a tonic to treat a myriad of illnesses. This changed in the late 1600s, when England was ruled by William of Orange, a Dutchman by birth. He brought with him the recreational use of jenever, which became quite popular. It was cheap to produce and thus cheap to buy, flavored in many ways including the addition of turpentine. I can’t imagine that gin made with turpentine was particularly delicious, but I suppose it did the trick. The name gin, is derived from jenever, and sounds a bit like you might imagine a completely shit-hammered person would sound trying to order another round.
Another fun fact (if you don’t already know): the gin and tonic, probably the most popular gin drink, has its own medicinal history. Tonic water is carbonated water in which is dissolved quinine, an anti-malarial drug. The Brits apparently liked to take their malaria medicine with a bit of the good stuff to mask the flavor. From what I understand, our modern tonic water contains only a trace of quinine for flavor, making it a nice flavoring agent, very different from the medicine the colonists were slugging. Although it is toned down, I think it is interesting that to this day we’re drinking a cocktail made up of a couple of old medicines.
Making gin is incredibly simple. At its root, all you have to do is drop juniper berries into a neutral spirit (vodka), let them sit for a while, and voila: gin. But good gin relies on a complex variety of adjuncts in addition to juniper. Common ingredients are things like coriander seed, cardamom, lavender, and lemon peel. I wanted to see what I could do with only ingredients foraged in a single afternoon from a single location. Here’s what I came up with. Feel free to experiment on your own with additional fruits and botanicals. And let me know what you like best!
Colorado Mountain Gin
8 oz. vodka
~5 ripe juniper berries, crushed
~5 yarrow leaves, the more aromatic, the better
Put it all in a bottle and allow it to age for at least a week. If the flavors are getting too strong, move the liquor to a new bottle and strain out the solids.
With how easy it is to make your own creative gins at home, you probably need a good cocktail to put them to use in. I mean, unless you are just making it to treat your gallstones and gout. Below is a recipe for my absolute favorite gin cocktail, the Gin Rickey. It is, for me, the perfect summer cocktail.
1.5 oz gin
1 tsp simple syrup (optional, I usually skip this)
Juice of ½ lime
Directions: Pour the gin and simple syrup into a highball glass. Add juice of one half lime and stir to mix. Add ice and fill with club soda. Stir once more to combine, and enjoy. Make sure you get plenty of limes because these go down pretty easy.