Hernö Gin's aromatics.

Gin is an enigma. It is both the pretty boy and the bad boy of spirits. Like most spirits its origins are a little hazy. The Italians like to claim it, but the earliest written reference to genever, from which gin evolved, appeared in the 13th century with the first printed recipe appearing in the 16th century. By the 17th century distilleries were all over Belgium and Holland, where gin was sold through pharmacies as it was supposed to cure stomach ailments and gallstones.

Hernö Gin in Sweden.

Gin also became popular in England. In the mid-1700s unlicenced production was allowed and thousands of gin shops opened all over the country heralding the Gin Craze – gin was cheap and plentiful. In London alone there were around 7,500 gin shops. It was during this time that the spirit became known as mother’s ruin, possibly a reference to declining fertility and increasing infant mortality rates linked to excessive consumption until it became illegal. Gin made a resurgence during the British Raj, where pink gin (gin with bitters), and gin and tonic were the drinks of choice. Malaria was a problem in India and other tropical Colonial outposts so British officers in India in the early 19th century took to adding a mixture of water, sugar, lime and gin to quinine in order to make it more palatable, thus gin and tonic was invented.

Gin is very economical to make as it requires no ageing, no wood regime and the aromatics used are up to the distiller. However, it must contain juniper to be called gin. Most gins are based on pure alcohol, usually made from wheat, but also from grapes, sugar beets and potatoes. In fact, any substrate where sugars can be converted to alcohol can be used. There is even a gin based on mezcal. Most gins are distilled with the botanicals, but some are macerated to extract maximum flavour.

Hernö Gin founder and master distiller Jon Hillgren.

There are three main types of gin, from sweetest to driest, Genever, Old Tom and London Dry Gin. Old Tom, first documented in 1887, almost became extinct. It’s only in the last five years that Old Tom has made a resurgence adding depth and layered flavours to cocktails. The name Old Tom originated in England where a black wooden cat was placed outside pubs to indicate you could buy the beverage when it was illegal. According to the legend, when a penny was placed in the cat’s mouth, the gin was dispensed through a tube hidden in one of the paws.

There are also a whole slew of flavoured gins, inspired by the original sloe gin, made from a plum-like fruit in England, including cucumber-, saffron- and ginger-flavoured gins.

Gone are the days when Gordon’s, Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire dominated the gin scene and now you have gins made with specific flavour profiles to be used in particular cocktails. Nothing makes a simple gin and tonic sing like Berry Bros & Rudd No. 3 London Dry Gin (A$70) and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better gin in a Gibson than the Hernö Navy Strength Gin (A$100) from Sweden. If you’re a purist and want to drink gin neat or on the rocks, then try my all-time favourite gin: Death’s Door Gin (A$95) from Wisconsin in the USA. It is based on the distillery’s ultra-premium vodka, made from the hard, red winter wheat from Washington Island.  

Then, of course, there are the Australian gins, a topic for another time – watch this space.

Death’s Door’s stills.


Classic Pink Gin

6 drops Peychaud’s Bitters
2 nips Dodd’s Kew Organic Explorers’ Strength Gin
½ teaspoon sugar syrup

Pour bitters into a cocktail glass and swirl around, discarding excess liquid. Add sugar syrup, gin and ice. Stir gently and serve without a garnish.

Classic Bald Head

This is just like a medium martini with a dash of absinthe – it’s beautifully aromatic.  

1 part Noilly Prat
1 part Cinzano Bianco
4 parts Elephant London Dry Gin
2 dashes absinthe

Put all ingredients into a tumbler and stir well with lots of ice and garnish with a twist of lemon peel.

Franz’s White Negroni

One of my all-time favourite cocktails. Please do not substitute any of the ingredients.

1 part Suze
1 part Del Maguey San Jose Rio Minas Vino de Mezcal
2 parts Death’s Door Gin
2 parts Regal Rogue Daring Dry Vermouth
shaved ice

Shake all ingredients well and strain into a wine glass. Garnish with a holy basil leaf.

Franz’s Silver Bronx

1 part of freshly squeezed Poor Man’s orange juice, strained (available from Peter Dryden, Dryden Food & Wines)
2 parts Italian vermouth
6 parts Hernö Old Tom Gin
1 eggwhite (for 2 drinks)

Shake all ingredients, except gin, with cracked ice, then add gin in three installments, shaking vigorously after each addition. Strain into a highball glass.

Franz’s New Deal

For this cocktail I use Christian Drouin’s Le Gin, which is a gin finished in ex-Calvados casks.

1 part sugar syrup
2 parts Amer Picon
6 parts Le Gin de Christian Drouin

Place all ingredients into an old-fashioned glass, stir and garnish with a thin slice of orange.