By Ed Sikov
Straight gin has such a degenerate reputation that to drink it without mixing in some other ingredient is to invite either derision or an intervention. I have no idea why. Straight up, on the rocks, or neat, asking for nothing but gin simply isn’t done in public, and pouring a glass at home makes many people so self-conscious that they begin to think they can actually feel the cirrhosis nodules beginning to grow in their livers. Drinking straight gin is the kind of thing folks do with the blinds drawn.
This is sad and quite needless. Juniper-flavored alcohol has a long, formerly proud history as a tonic. Monks made it, for God’s sake – literally. People in the Dark Ages made that drab era a little lighter with it; they drank it as a way of warding off the Plague. Of course it didn’t really work to that end, but gin did make one’s buboes seem a great deal less repulsive for the brief period between their onset and the drinker’s unpleasant and smelly demise. Buboes are best experienced through a gin haze – on that I think we can all agree.
The 17th century, when gin was flavored with turpentine, will not be elaborated upon here except to note that the phase didn’t last long.
Juniper berries returned as the primary flavoring soon thereafter, though today’s premium brands often feature such an array of secondary essences that the roster resembles the ingredients in high-end organic shampoo. Beefeater gin, for example, features not only juniper but also eight other botanicals: the seeds and root of angelica, licorice, almonds, oranges, lemon peel and everybody’s favorite, orris root.
What the hell is orris root? Orris happens to be one of the “notes” in Yves Saint Laurent’s perfume Opium. It’s flowery, and heavily so when sniffed on its own. And apparently witches use it to pry into other people’s subconscious. (Note to readers: If someone you know – say, your mother – wears Opium, be very wary of having even the slightest contact with her, or else your wonderfully filthy fantasy life will be an open book.)
Which brings us to the subject of this column: Pink Gin. Tailor made for lesbian and gay drinkers, Pink Gin is even closer to straight gin than a martini is. Even the driest martinis have something in them besides the main ingredient. Pink Gin, on the other hand, contains nothing but straight gin that is faintly colored by the addition of Angostura bitters.
What’s in Angostura bitters? According to Rachel Maddow, who knows everything worth knowing, the recipe is such a secret that only five people on the planet know it. All the rest of us know is that it’s a tincture of herbs and spices that originated in Venezuela in the 19th century. One of the great Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar’s doctors cooked it up; he may have based his highly guarded recipe on the local Amerindians’ folk medicine. It does not – repeat, not – contain angostura bark, which is poisonous.
Angostura bitters have a very complex taste, one that’s difficult to describe beyond “herbal and spicy.” Easier to describe is the feeling one gets while drinking a Pink Gin – delightful! The botanicals of the gin are well complemented by the bitters. But don’t overdo it. The following recipe creates exactly the right proportion of gin to bitters. And the color is lovely.
5 dashes Angostura bitters
4 Tbsp. Beefeater gin, chilled
Lemon peel garnish (optional)
Shake 5 dashes of bitters into a chilled cocktail glass. (Bitters bottles have caps similar to Tabasco sauce so you can’t overdo it.) Swirl the bitters around until the glass is coated with it, then toss the excess in the sink. Fill the glass with chilled gin and serve.
Ed Sikov is the author of the e-book, The Boys' and Girls' Little Book of Alcohol, a novel with recipes based on his Cocktail Chatter column.