By Adem Tepedelen
As an American expatriate living in Victoria, I’ve always been acutely aware of the English presence here. Coming from a country largely founded on separating itself from jolly ol’ England, I’ve noticed many small things — from certain foods and beverages to the omnipresence of English-accented residents — that have seemed the most “foreign” to me. Canada and the U.S. obviously have much in common, but a connection to England isn’t one of them.
One English export that we share a kindred appreciation for — especially in the summer — is the gin and tonic. The satisfying pleasure of a light, refreshing and delightfully complex cocktail, it seems, is something that we see eye to eye on. Two simple ingredients (three, if you include a wedge of lime) poured over ice and given a gentle stir, I think we can all agree, is a lovely thing to enjoy outside on a warm, sunny day.
Take as Needed
Like many of the alcoholic beverages we enjoy today, gin evolved from an herbal elixir consumed for medicinal purposes. Juniper “berries” (technically, cones) impart clean, bitter pine and citrus flavours and aromas and were thought to be helpful for everything from stimulating the appetite to providing relief from rheumatism and arthritis. They have been consumed in many cultures around the world for centuries.
The Dutch, however, popularized a juniper-based spirit, called genever (which means juniper), in the 17th century, and when Dutch ruler William of Orange occupied Scotland, Ireland and England, he brought the drink with him. Anglicizing it as gin, the British put their own spin on it with unique combinations of aromatic botanicals and brought it to the far corners of the world.
It was, in fact, in colonial India in the mid-19th century where gin met tonic. Again “medicinal use” enters the picture. This medicinal “tonic,” a quinine-based drink with a bit of sugar added, was consumed to prevent malaria. In order to make this medicine more palatable, the locals began mixing it with gin. Thus, two beverages previously used to cure one’s ills became a classic cocktail that is today enjoyed for entirely different reasons. The addition of a lime wedge — which I suppose has its own health benefits — sealed the deal.
Citrus, Spice and Everything Nice
The process of adding aromatic botanicals to a neutral distilled spirit and transforming it into gin is done primarily in two ways. The first is called “compounding,” whereby botanicals are simply added to a neutral spirit to impart the flavours. The second is to add botanicals to a neutral spirit and then redistill that spirit. Juniper has obviously always been the predominant ingredient, but it’s typically complemented by a wide variety of other additions, from citrusy inclusions such as lime, orange or grapefruit peel to a wide variety of spices like anise, angelica root, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, licorice root and even flowers. Our numerous B.C.-made, New World versions tend to favour the local terroir and use an abundance of hand-picked ingredients such as cedar, fir, lavender, bay laurel and, of course, juniper.
Gin, more specifically Victoria Distillers’ Victoria Gin, was at the vanguard of the current explosion of locally distilled spirits. Nearly every upstart distillery that has followed the path Victoria Distillers (formerly Victoria Spirits) blazed has come up with its own unique take on
And this is at the heart of what makes gin so fascinating. In the same way the craft-beer revolution was fueled by brewers taking classic European styles and putting their own North American twists on them, craft distillers are creating their unique botanical recipes to distinguish their product.
Mass-produced brands, such as Bombay Sapphire and Beefeater, largely have a “classic” gin profile that leans heavily on juniper. Not so in B.C., where distillers like Vancouver’s The Liberty Distillery, for instance, offer three gins — Endeavour, Endeavour Origins and Endeavour Pink — each with distinctive botanical additions and flavour profiles. Victoria craft brewery Phillips recently launched its distilled-spirits line, Phillips Fermentorium, and distinguished its Stump gin with the addition of hops, an ingredient typically used for bittering and flavouring beer, but with many gin-friendly notes to it.
Another way B.C. gins have distinguished themselves is with the many different agricultural products — from apples to grapes to honey — used to distill the spirit, and the use of locally sourced botanicals.
Tonic with a Twist
Tonic is, of course, an integral part of a G & T, but it’s typically the silent partner. It’s the yin to gin’s yang, offering a balancing bitterness, a touch of sweetness and a refreshing effervescence.
However, Phillips Fermentorium has attempted to elevate tonic with the four-packs it sells at grocery stores and liquor stores. Each quartet features a bottle each of Phillips’ unique recipes. The Artisanal Dry is a classic tonic with a twist provided by the addition of fruit and citrus notes; Botanical Brew is pink and offers pleasant floral notes; Philosopher’s Brew is based on a popular Silk Road herbal tea of the same name and offers floral and citrus herbal-tea notes; the Cucumber Mint is like summer in a bottle, offering refreshing, clean savoury notes with a tart finish.
Part of the beauty of the G & T, however, is its simplicity. It’s a cocktail you can easily make with inexpensive ingredients (save for the alcohol) sourced from any grocery store. Fancy tonics can be fun, but Canada Dry and a lime will do just fine, thank you.
I may not have any strong opinions about whether Red Rose or Tetley is the better tea, but I can appreciate the timeless appeal of a gin and tonic or two while enjoying some West Coast sunshine on a warm summer day.