If, while comfortably nestled on the sofa with a crisp gin and tonic in hand, you have just started the third season of The Crown and are wondering who those unfamiliar middle-aged people are, you might be tempted to blame your confusion on the gin. Rest assured that, notwithstanding gin’s reputation for making people a little nuts, your drink and the sudden series cast change are not connected. But there is a very real link between the real-life members of the British monarchy and gin. Not only is England the birthplace of gin, it is also the favorite spirit of Her Majesty, the Queen.
Said to enjoy a gin and Dubonnet cocktail every day before lunch and a dry gin and vermouth martini every evening with dinner, Queen Elizabeth is a remarkably well preserved nonagenarian who will be celebrating her 94th birthday in April. No doubt royals and commoners alike will commemorate the event by singing the song that has the same tune as America (My Country ‘Tis Of Thee) but is all about saving the Queen — and, to be fair, their version did come first — all while enjoying a lovely gin cocktail or two, or three. It is good to be the Queen.
Despite a minor debate about whether gin first appeared in England or the Netherlands, the popular consensus is that while both used juniper berries to concoct an elixir originally designed for medicinal purposes, the 17th century spirit used in the Netherlands to treat such maladies as gallstones and gout was a malted wine known as genever, while the English version was distilled using simpler methods, cheaper grains, and other less desirable ingredients, resulting in a beverage that is more closely aligned with what we now consider gin. The confusion in origin was not helped by the fact that the word “gin” is an abbreviation of the word genever, coined by English soldiers who drank the Danish drink during the mid-17th century Anglo-Dutch Wars in order to gain “Dutch Courage” before going into battle. But again, genever is not considered gin. The genesis of that longtime favorite spirit, the one that mixes so well with tonic and looks dashing in a martini glass, is unequivocally and decidedly British.
And so the Queen rules again.
The popularity of gin in England and the beginning of a period of history actually known as the “gin craze” years began in 1689 when William III ascended the throne and immediately put exorbitant restrictions on the importation of his subject’s favorite spirit, French brandy. Gin was cheaper than beer because it could be distilled using sub-par grains that were rejected by beer brewers, while water was actually riskier to drink than alcohol. Thus gin quickly became Britain’s favorite beverage, especially among those of little means.
Before long the English masses were consuming unhealthy quantities of gin and the unsavory ingredients that were often distilled with it, such as turpentine, sawdust, and sulfuric acid. This cheap alcoholic alternative was putting the populace at inordinate risk of becoming irrefutable drunks and ultimately dying from the cumulative effects of the alcohol and poison additives.
In 1736, the government attempted to save the population by regulating the distilling process and taxing the gin shops, but it only succeeded in creating pockets of uprising, riots in the street, and the formulation of dissident citizens who sought even cheaper, unregulated, and illegally distilled gin that was even more dangerous than what was previously consumed. Realizing the futility of the taxes, the government abolished the restrictions in 1742, and epidemic gin drinking amongst England’s poorer residents was allowed to flourish unchecked.
A campaign to quell the seeming destruction of England’s lower classes was championed by renowned novelist Henry Fielding, who in 1751 wrote a scathing essay about the evils of gin. A month later, Fielding’s close friend, William Hogwarth, “coincidentally” issued a series of prints, two of which were powerful propaganda-like etchings that were meant to be viewed side by side: Beer-Street and Gin-Lane.
Beer-Street is a pleasant portrait of happy, healthy English men and women engaged in all sorts of business and romantic, but chaste, activities; they are surrounded by newly erected buildings, bustling commerce, baskets of food, and unabashedly robust neighbors who are blissfully, but responsibly, enjoying frosty, flavorful mugs of beer. Gin-lane, by grisly contrast, depicts a horribly squalid existence in which babies fall over railings because their mothers are too drunk to protect them, abandoned and desolate children scavenge for food, fights rage, disease-ridden people starve, and death-by-suicide appears to be commonplace — all because everyone was drinking gin.
The effect of these two prints, combined with the pressure from concerned citizens like Henry Fielding, resulted in the Gin Act of 1751, which successfully allowed the regime to tax and govern both distillers and gin shops. A push was also made to encourage the drinking of tea and beer, the latter of which suddenly became cheaper than gin. In fact, gin consumption fell so sharply that gin might have gone the way of genever, if not for the efforts of Aeneas Coffey, who in 1830 invented a new column-still that allowed for a more efficient and cleaner distilling process. The result was a stronger, purer product called London dry gin, and gin drinking became fashionable once more.
Gin came across the pond in the mid-18th century, and, as “the gin craze” died down in England, the American colonies slowly but steadily warmed to this British-based beverage. Soon New World column-stills were constructed, allowing the production of London Dry Gin in a place far away from the River Thames, and America’s love affair with gin was uncorked and overflowing. In a place that started as a melting pot of people, it was unsurprising that the love of all things blended would extend to alcohol as well.
Thus, the popularity of the gin-based cocktail was born.
The martini, the consummate American gin cocktail beloved by both secret agents and ad executives, is credited with being the slice of lime on top of America’s affection for gin. While its actual origin is somewhat muddled — some claim it first was invented in the mid-1800s by a California miner during the Gold Rush while others swear a bartender in San Francisco made the first shaken-not-stirred sophisticated beverage in 1887 — its popularity in American bars and culture cannot be denied. A gin and tomato juice combo became the go-to for mornings after one too many martinis were enjoyed … long before a brunch time Bloody Mary was ever conceived.
While moonshine whiskey usually gets all the prohibition glory, bathtub gin was also very popular and further necessitated creative cocktails. While good gin is nearly impossible to drink straight, low quality bathtub gin, with its questionable ingredients and dubious cleanliness, was only palatable when mixed with other flavors. Drinks like The Bees Knees and The White Lady were the cat’s pajamas at local speakeasies, but all the lemon and honey in the world could not disguise the fact that if the base was bad bathtub gin could literally kill you.
Proponents of prohibition must have been disappointed to discover that, after the alcohol ban was lifted, demand for London dry gin was far greater than it was before the supposed “dry spell,” and the popularity of gin cocktails positively exploded across America.
Today, gin is almost always served as a cocktail. “Gin shots,” unlike a tequila or whiskey shot, are not really a thing. The most popular cocktails are still the classics, such as the martini, gin and tonic, gimlet, or French 75.
To complete the gin-genteel experience, proper stemware is essential: martinis in martini glasses, highball tumbler or coupe glass for a gin and tonic, old-fashioned glass for a gimlet, and a fancy flute for a French 75. Please note that in any fine establishment, a request for sloe gin might raise a few eyebrows because, despite what newbie drinkers believe, sloe gin is not actually gin, per se. It is a very sweet liqueur made from soaking sloe berries in gin, is typically mixed with a sweet, clear cola, and is drunk at questionable gatherings where the stemware of choice is most likely a red Solo Cup.
Fanciful origin, romantic history, and beautiful stemware notwithstanding, not everyone is a fan of gin. Gin haters frequently claim that it tastes like Christmas trees and, since it is made from juniper, which is akin to a pine cone, they might have a point. But who would not want a bit of yummy Yuletide in their glass? There are also complaints of the smell, which is very distinctive as no matter what fragrant mixers are added, that “gin smell” is going to be pervasive. If you are not a fan of that singular gin scent, you probably won’t find any of the gin cocktails appealing.
And then that “gin” behavior could definitely get you barred from Buckingham Palace.
Gin has a reputation for making people crazy. While every type of alcohol is a depressant and has the potential of making the drinker aggressive or overly emotional, lore has it that gin drinkers get there much faster and with more obvious results than those who choose other types of cocktails. Comedian Dylan Moran refers to gin as a “mascara thinner” because it is notorious for making people, particularly women, cry. Accounts of bad gin behavior are legendary: breakups, bar room fights, ill-advised text messages, waking up under the Christmas tree with tinsel in your hair at the office Christmas party.
However, the threat of tears and a possible embarrassing nap in the office work room hasn’t stopped many people, both known and unknown, from imbibing in their favorite gin cocktails. F. Scott Fitzgerald loved his Gin Rickeys, Frank Sinatra was rarely seen without a Beefeater martini in hand, and J.K Rowling’s favorite cocktail is a gin and tonic.
And, as is apt since her royal ancestor was the one who set the whole gin craze in motion, Queen Elizabeth loves her gin cocktails. The recipe for her classic gin and Dubonnet follows, and it can easily be altered for taste and time, much like the cast of The Crown. Other classic, delicious gin-based cocktails are included below, each designed to leave you happy, refreshed, and with just a bit of a royal flush.
While Queen Elizabeth has been known to enjoy a martini in the evening, her favorite before-lunch drink is the Dubonnet cocktail. Dubonnet Rouge is an aperitif originally created in 1846 to mix with the quinine that French soldiers were forced to drink in an effort to ward off malaria, but it tastes even better when combined with dry gin. Go full on British Royalty by using Gordon’s London Dry Gin, as it is not only the Queen’s favorite, but it was also awarded a royal warrant, meaning the company can brag of its favored majestic status in all its promotions. The following recipe uses the proportions preferred at Buckingham Palace, but for individuals who prefer their drink a bit less sweet, make it with equal parts Dubonnet Rouge and London Dry Gin.
2 ounces Dubonnet Rouge
1 ounce London Dry Gin
Dash of orange bitters
Orange and lemon twist for garnish
Partially fill a mixing glass or shaker with ice, add the Dubonnet, gin, and bitters, and stir until fully chilled. Strain the cocktail into a chilled coupe glass and enjoy this brilliant, British beverage.
Cucumber and Mint Gin Gimlet
This original gin cocktail is credited with giving sailors the nickname of “limeys” because of their fondness for adding gin to the lime juice they consumed for “medicinal” purposes. This modern twist is perfect for a refreshing spring or summer meal and goes amazingly well with any spicy dish, especially a curry, because the acidity of the lime and the sugar from the syrup cuts through the burn and brings all the exotic flavors, but not all of the heat, to the forefront.
1/4 cup cucumber, peeled and chopped
7 mint leaves
1 ounce simple syrup
2 ounces dry gin
1 lime, juiced
Muddle the cucumber, mint, and syrup in a cocktail shaker, then fill with ice and add the gin and lime juice. Shake vigorously till chilled, and then strain the mixture into an old-fashioned glass; garnish with mint and a slice of cucumber.
Gin and Tonic
First introduced as a deterrent to malaria, the original gin and tonic also included quinine, which was quite bitter, but is fortunately no longer an ingredient in this popular spring and summertime cocktail. Refreshing and sophisticated, it is also incredibly easy to make because, like cheese and crackers, if you can read the title you can make the recipe. Remember that over half of this beverage is water, so if you get top-shelf gin, don’t settle for bargain basement tonic water. It will make a difference. This particular recipe uses tonic water ice cubes, but if you are pressed for time (or simply forgot to make them), regular ice cubes will do as well. Also, do not shake or stir the ingredients. They will naturally combine as you enjoy this cocktail, and each sip will be as fresh as the last.
5 tonic water ice cubes
1 lime wedge
2 1/2 ounces gin
Approximately 4 ounces tonic water
Several hours or up to 3 weeks before making, pour tonic water into an ice cube tray and freeze. Once frozen, place the cubes in a highball tumbler. Swipe the lime wedge around the rim of the glass and then drop on top of the ice cubes. Pour in the gin and top with the tonic water. Do not stir but do enjoy immediately.
Martinis are made with gin. Period. Any other spirit is just pretending (we see you, vodka). And while James Bond always wanted his shaken, not stirred, it is probably best to stir, not shake because shaking will dilute and create air bubbles that impede the silky texture associated with a classic martini. The ratio is generally three parts gin to one part vermouth for a classic; however, variations such as a 50-50, which, as the name implies, uses equal parts gin and vermouth, are perfectly acceptable. A reverse martini flips the classic ratio so that each drink has far less alcohol; a “perfect” martini combines both dry and sweet vermouth, and a Vesper adds a little vodka (okay, vodka, you can come out from behind the wine rack). A chilled martini glass is a must, but garnishes are a matter of preference.
3 ounces dry gin
1 ounce dry vermouth
Lemon twist, cocktail onions, or olives for garnish
Put a martini glass in the freezer to chill. Pour the gin and vermouth in a small mixing bowl or glass, add ice, and stir (sorry Mr. Bond) for about 30 seconds or until chilled. Strain into the chilled martini glass and garnish with lemon twist, cocktail onions, or olives, and serve immediately.