If you weren’t already in the mood for a drink, here’s some gin history: the combination of distilled malt wine and juniper berries began as a 16th century Dutch medicine known as Jenever. It, apparently, cured gout in a few cases, but lent self-confidence to all - hence the term Dutch courage.
The Courage worked so well that the Dutch invaded England in 1688, and William III of Orange was the king until 1702. As you’d expect, Willy was keen to share his native drink with his new subjects, so he taxed every spirit but gin. As a piece of public policy it was particularly short-sighted, as it led to a bout of frenzied drinking now known as the Gin Ruin. Drawings from the time show poverty stricken Londoners falling over each other until law reform came about in 1751.
As a branding exercise it wasn’t very successful either, and because of the Gin Ruin it had something of a PR problem. But, in the early 19th century rich colonialists started mixing it with tonic water as a way to ward off malaria (which sorta worked, though the active ingredient’s actually in the tonic). From there, the drunk’s drink began its slow, stylish journey back into the hands of Ernest Hemingway and The Queen Mother, where as you know, it’s now quite cool.
And if that didn’t get you in the spirit, Melbourne’s Gin Palace might. They’re exploring the drink’s storied lineage as part of International Gin Day this Saturday, with a series of events and workshops. Shaun Bryne (bartender) and Trish Brew (bartender and gin expert), invited Broadsheet down for a pre-emptive taste, and to talk about the latest twist in the timeline – gin’s sudden appearance as an Australian spirit.
“What do you taste?” asks Brew, across the bar. I’m drawing back on a glass of neat gin, trying to guess whether it’s local. Citrus, maybe vanilla? Brew smiles. “Yep, that’s Melbourne Gin Company. You’re tasting lemon myrtle and macadamia, which is the other thing that local gins do – native botanicals.”
Australian producers got onto gin about ten years ago. It was about then that gin began to shift from an old-fashioned booze to a cocktail essential, and part of that is due due to the efflorescence of our local talent. Bryne explains that most local distillers aren’t making money; for them it’s a passion project that’s often an extension of winemaking. That’s the case for Andrew Marks behind the aforementioned Melbourne Gin Company, as well as winemaker Cameron Mackenzie, who’s producing Four Pillars in the Yarra Valley. “Suddenly all sorts of people here are both responding to and being inspired by gin’s renaissance,” says Bryne, “and they’re experimenting with native plants to produce big, fresh flavours. That culture of experimentation is giving Australian gin a really unique characteristic.”
Another sip lights up with straight-down-the-line gin, without anything eccentric. Brew smiles again. “Beefeater from London,” she says. “A lot of people give it hard time because it’s just that – a good dry gin. It’s great for cocktails, but it’s a much older recipe than what we’re using here. While we’re using Tasmanian pepper berry leaf, Beefeater is still built around coriander. And that makes all the difference. ”
We talk gin until we’re hanging on to the bar, and then go in for some G&Ts. This time they’re mixed with West Winds, a slightly spicy number from WA’s Margret River. Brew squeezes in some native lime, tuned to our Australiana theme. So why gin, of all drinks? Brew thinks a moment and answers slowly. “It’s an anytime drink. There’s a gin for summer and one for winter, there’s just no time when it’s not right.”
Assuming that’s true, it certainly gives a lot of people a lot of time to drink gin, which possibly explains all that history.
The Gin Palace celebrates International Gin Day from 12pm June 14.
The Gin Palace
10 Russell Place
Phone: (03) 9654 0533