The United States and gin have had an interesting and checkered relationship. The well-known liquor, which is flavored with an infusion of botanicals such as juniper berries and grains of paradise, became popular here — as well as in the United Kingdom — during the so-called "Gin Craze," which began in the mid-18th century. During that time, a number of still-popular brands were launched, including Bombay, Beefeater's, and Tanqueray -- as well as Gordon's, the first gin to be distilled on American soil. In 1967, however, vodka began to outsell gin, and has continued to do so in the half-century since.
In order to understand America's unique ties with this pungently flavored spirit, one must first be familiar with its history. Here's a look at its origins and the rise of gin in America throughout the ages, from its infancy to the present day.
The Early Days of Gin
While gin is generally considered an English creation, it actually originated in Holland, and as early as the 16th century. Originally known as jenever — which is the Dutch word for juniper, and the basis of the English abbreviation gin — the spirit was prized for its medicinal properties and uniqueness. When William of Orange invaded Great Britain in the autumn of 1688, he brought the recipe for jenever along with him. The beverage then began its evolution into the herbaceous quaff we're familiar with today. Today, in fact, Dutch Genever is aged and processed in a fashion similar to scotch whiskey, which gives it more of a resemblance to that spirit than the London Dry gin it once inspired.
A Medicinal Renaissance
After the days of the aforementioned "Gin Craze,", the medicinal qualities of the spirit were brought to the forefront once again. Quinine, an anti-malarial agent (and the key ingredient in modern tonic water), was mixed with gin to offset the bitter aspects of the former, along with sugar for sweetness. Thus, the earliest gin and tonics were born. A mixture of gin and lime juice — which would come to be known as a "gimlet" — was also introduced to combat scurvy, while gin and angostura (bitters) were blended as a remedy for seasickness.
If it seems unusual or downright counterproductive to tout hard liquor as a cure for these various ailments, rest assured that it was not at all unusual, given the region and the time period. In fact, even in modern times, Jaegermeister — a dark German liquor heavily flavored with anise — is Germany's version of cough syrup.
Crossing the Atlantic: Gin's Journey to the States
While the "Gin Craze" had largely played itself out in Britain by the 20th century, America's love affair with the beverage was just beginning. As mentioned above, it wasn't until 1967 that sales begin to lose out in favor of gin's tamer cousin, vodka. While purists continue to insist that a true martini can only be made with gin and a dash of dry vermouth, the late 1990s and early aughts gave rise to a new generation which showed preference to chilled vodka and called them martinis.
This recent decade, however, has seen an upswing in gin imports from Britain — an increase of a whopping 553 percent. This suggests that the spirit's popularity is on the rise once more -- perhaps in tandem with television programs such as Downton Abbey and Mad Men, which romanticize the age of the gin martini in ways seldom seen since the early days of the James Bond franchise. Some credit must also go to distilleries who marketed a less intense, clean-tasting gin — i.e., ones that didn't taste so much like botanicals — in order to lure fans of vodka back into the fold. Interestingly, some of these new, lighter gins contained more botanicals, not fewer. Yet the complexity of the flavors served to tone down the pungency of the juniper, making it more of a draw for those who preferred the crisper taste of vodka. One in particular, was notable for its pronounced cucumber flavor; the taste of pine was hardly discernible at all.
Small Batch Gins
Today, craft distilleries are creating more "small batch" gins that focus on organic ingredients and sustainable practices, both of which are all the rage with drinkers of all ages. It should be noted that the term "London Dry" refers to the distilling process, and not to a geographical location — a gin need not be processed in England in order to be labeled as such. The difference between London Dry gin and distilled gin is simple: London Dry must be made with all-natural ingredients, and no flavorings or colorings can be added post-distillation. With distilled gin, flavorings can be added afterwards, but it tends to relegate the flavor of the botanicals to the background, making it a no-go for purists.