The Perfect Holiday Gift: Gin’s Herbal Essence

This is a story about agriculture.

Sure, it’s also about alcohol and how to make an excellent cocktail which, while not the most pressing food policy issue, will create a convivial atmosphere over which to discuss food policy issues.

But as wine is an agricultural product, so too are spirits—particularly gin, which derives its flavor from herbs and botanicals. One of the best, in fact, was started as a small family herb business. Without these lush, fragrant, flavorful plants—most famously, juniper—gin is merely another jug of clear and tasteless (if you’re lucky) hooch.

We can thank 18th-century England for popularizing the addition of aromatic botanicals to alcohol. Flavoring spirits with mysterious spices like coriander, caraway, and anise improved the flavor and allowed physicians to sell it as exotic medicine.

When, around the same time, England imposed a hefty tax on imported spirits, local gin became the inexpensive and preferred drink of pretty much everyone, causing its reputation as the ruination libation. Drunkards chose gin. Mothers who abandoned their children chose gin. Those abandoned children chose gin.

No wonder it took gin about a century to come back as the refined, complex drink it can be. In the 19th century, small distillers used the newly invented column still to create a whole new art and science to season alcohol with gin’s distinctive juniper flavor along with orange and lemon peels, cinnamon, and nutmeg. When combined with improved-quality flavorless alcohol, distillers developed the style now known as London Dry. This type of gin has recently enjoyed a global renaissance and is produced in small and large batches worldwide (not just London).

Picture of juniper berries

Many artisanal bars are adding their own blend of spices to add additional flavors to gin. Photograph by Sharon Drummond/Creative Commons 2.0

Today, like so many artisanal food and drink makers, craft London Dry gin producers are honoring the drink’s history by resurrecting heritage methods of steeping herbs and spices in alcohol distilled from fermented grain and yeast. Like wineries, American commercial gin distilleries have flourished nationwide and most states have one—even Utah, which opened its first this year.

More distillers, and increased care in production, mean greater variation in flavor profiles. The gin market has a drink for every taste, with some highlighting citrus and some with dark rooty tones. As with a winemaker’s preference for earth or fruit, a distiller’s preference creates the gin.

Which brings me to my recommendation for the perfect holiday gift. A friend recently took me to one of our area’s best restaurants, the Inn at Little Washington, for her birthday. Via helicopter. Really, what kind of a birthday gift is appropriate for that party (particularly considering I’m not of helicopter means)?

Enter the gin basket. There are plenty of baskets full of other kinds of agricultural products being gifted around this time, but the gin basket actually requires thought and consideration of the recipient’s palate. This basket included Jensen’s, Voyager, and Sipsmith, all London Dry style, all wildly different, and all claiming to be exactly the way gin should taste.

Picture of a gin basket

Photograph by Mary Beth Albright

Tonic’s stock has risen with gin. Its bitter taste comes from quinine, which is most often synthetic but occurs naturally (and, for bitter lovers, deliciously) in cinchona bark. Tonic is now available in artisanal waters, bitters, syrups, and liqueur.  Toss some in the basket for great mixers and—special bonus—the host will probably open bottles upon arrival.

It’s a gourmet gift with an agricultural story that the recipient will actually enjoy. And if you discuss food policy while imbibing, all the better.