Looking back now, I blame the flaming citrus.
It was at Gaslight’s bar, summer 2010. “Make me something different, something refreshing,” I urged a trusted bartender, hoisting myself onto a stool. What I got was an Édith Piaf (named for the French chanteuse), a Vesper variant shaken and strained into a chilled glass, garnished with a ribbon of orange peel. Squeezed to release its oils, then lit with a match, the rind expelled a perfumey blast of burnt-citrus smoke before falling into the liquid. Bright, balanced, and supple, the drink was a dream: a floral beauty heady with lime peel, pine resin, dried flowers, and quinine.
In the ensuing weeks, I must’ve told a dozen people about that blasted cocktail. “Gin, orange peel, Lillet, herby botanicals…my new summer drink!” Trouble is, there wasn’t actually a drop of gin in the thing, as a friend who detests vodka informed me. Huh? A recipe change? “Nope, it’s always been vodka,” our barkeep confirmed. Duped! The aromatics of the Lillet Blanc, the fruit, and — clearly — a double-dealing mixologist had conspired to produce a wily doppelgänger to my beloved gin.
A month later, it dawned on me that this boondoggle wasn’t just the province of one South End brasserie. Exploring England’s southern coast, I spent a day at the Plymouth gin distillery, where, in one room, the brand’s seven constituent botanicals (lemon and orange peel, coriander seeds, angelica root, orris root, juniper berries, cardamom pods) are separated into troughs. Running my fingers through the orris root, it occurred to me how easy it would be to “gin up” any neutral spirit. All you’d need is citrus peel, juniper, maybe the right liqueur….
Back stateside, I could hardly find a bar menu not hawking vodka drinks “enhanced” with St. Germain (an elderflower cordial), citrus bitters, and the like.“The trouble,” says Eastern Standard veteran mixologist Jackson Cannon, “is that gin is a hard sell. That puts bar programs committed to Prohibition-era cocktails in a bind. Vodka didn’t start showing up with any regularity until the ’70s and ’80s.” Thus, grafting classic flavor combinations onto a nonclassic spirit became the best compromise.
That we’re a town of vodkaheads isn’t news. But it’s distressing to see a generation of cocktail wizards reduced to libational sleight of hand to give the gin-fearing public a taste of old-world mixology — especially when the range of gin offerings these days is unparalleled.
If you’ve developed a taste for herbaceous vodka-based drinks, chances are there’s a gin you’ll love. Not a fan of juniper? Hendrick’s pushes it to the background, making way for rose and cucumber. Bombay Sapphire is all lemon peel. And Old Raj (my personal favorite) is an assertive juniper bomb softened with saffron.
So let’s end this charade. Thanks to well-meaning bartenders, you already like gin’s flavor. It’s time to take off the training wheels and just enjoy the real thing.