Long before James Bond uttered one of the most famous orders of all time, “Vodka martini, shaken, not stirred,” gin was the prince of white spirits. As a matter of fact, gin reigned supreme in the white spirits category until 1967, when vodka surpassed it. Gin is the king of classic cocktails and the spirit at the heart of the quintessential cocktail: the perfect dry martini.
Many of the popular vodka-based cocktails of today were originally fashioned with gin. The Bloody Mary started its life in America as the gin based Red Snapper. The screwdriver probably evolved from the Orange Blossom. Both the Gibson and the gimlet were first mixed with gin. We are very familiar with these specific drinks, so why not revive some of the wonderful, lesser-known gin-based cocktails you rarely if ever see featured on cocktail menus? When was the last time you were offered a Pegu Cocktail, Aviation, Bronx, or Casino? How about a Clover Club, White Lady, Pink Lady, or any of the “lady” drinks? What about featuring a Ramos, Golden, Silver, Holland, or Southside Fizz on your breakfast/brunch menu? The French 75, named after a WWI French cannon, is also a wonderful, seldom-seen gin cocktail. Legend has it that the effect of the drink was similar to being shelled by the aforementioned cannon.
At a time when we celebrate big flavor, why do gin-based cocktails continue to struggle? In 1998, when I first developed the menus for the Bellagio, I included the Negroni, in part because it is a classic that I feel every bartender worth his or her salt should master, but also because it happens to be my favorite cocktail. I listed the Casino Cocktail, too, and patrons who tried it would often remark, “There’s gin in this?”
I remember trying to add a Monkey Gland to a couple of menus and being asked by my superiors to remove it, not because it contained gin but because they found the name offensive. Little did they know that the name, according to Paul Harrington's wonderful book, Cocktail,“. . . comes from the work of Russian doctor Serge Voronoff’s popular surgical procedure that involved grafting monkey glands onto human glands in order to prolong life. Maybe the cocktail will have the same effect!”
It’s been said that gin is what our mothers and fathers drank, or for some of my younger peers, their grandfathers and grandmothers. I started bartending at my cousin Helen David’s Brass Rail Bar in Port Huron, Michigan, in 1980. She had owned the bar since 1937, and one would think that hers was a gin cocktail bar. But by the time I came to work behind the majestic mahogany, customers were already imbibing vodka and vodka-based drinks. Many bartenders my age or younger may never have made or even experienced many of the classic gin-based cocktails. And what our guests have been asking for since we’ve been tending the bar is what they know—vodka and vodka-based drinks, plain and simple.
Are gin-based cocktails making a comeback? If you live in New York, Chicago, Seattle, or San Francisco, where bartenders are reviving lost and forgotten classic cocktails, yes. But as I travel the country preaching the gospel of mixology and the profession of bartending, I just don’t see bartenders gravitating toward gin. I am not suggesting that we suddenly abandon vodka, which surely has its place on the mixology palette. But one should look for balance in designing a cocktail menu, and if you plan to include some classics, then give a big nod to the other white spirit—gin.
2 oz Plymouth Gin
1 oz freshly squeezed and filtered orange juice
1 dash Pernod
1⁄4 oz pomegranate-grenadine syrup
Combine gin, orange juice, Pernod, and pomegranate-grenadine syrup in a shaker with ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange spiral.
Tony Abou-Ganim is the proprietor of the Modern Mixologist, a beverage consulting firm that specializes in barstaff training, product education, and cocktail development. He and his recipes have been featured in a variety of magazines and books and on television and radio shows.