NEW YORK — Gin can be looked at in many ways.
The once-iconic Cunard luxury sailing liners used it as their premier spirit during the 1930s heyday of trans-Atlantic cruising, helping usher in the American fascination with the cocktail hour.
But it also has been used as a symbol for other levels of society. The writer John Cheever, for example, employed it to help describe "a lonely man" who, he said, "is a lonesome thing, a stone, a bone, a stick, a receptacle for Gilbey’s gin."
And jazz great Thomas "Fats" Waller sang, "Grab your pigs feet, bread and gin, there’s plenty in the kitchen. I wonder what the poor people are eating tonight?"
And then, there is Sean Harrison, who declares, "Making gin is like cooking. You want to get the flavors just right for people who truly enjoy the taste of what they’re drinking."
Harrison is the keeper of a secret centuries-old gin recipe and the master distiller for Plymouth Gin, the English icon that not only won "best gin" but "best of show/white spirit" awards at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition this summer.
Emerging on top of the "best white spirit" category is particularly telling since it includes the ubiquitous vodka, which has overtaken gin for the No. 1 spot in sales of white spirits worldwide.
I joined Harrison for a private gin tasting at celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market restaurant in Manhattan recently.
Harrison, who joined Plymouth a dozen years ago after mustering out of the Royal Navy as a lieutenant, was only two months or so from having made the annual selections of the seven botanicals used in Plymouth Gin — angelica root, cardamom pods, coriander seeds, lemon peel, orange peel, orris root and, of course, juniper berries that, with alcohol, are the base of all gins and the origin of the drink’s name — a derivation of the French "genievre" for juniper.
The Plymouth recipe, developed by Coates & Co. in 1793, doesn’t vary, but the ingredients do. Sound contradictory? Harrison explains.
"We don’t buy any botanical from just one supplier because you never know the quality from year to year, or how a change in the crop of one botanical can interact with another botanical that also might be slightly different from year to year. We get several samples of each and distill sample batches to see what comes closest to our standard for consistent taste."
Whereas such brands as Bombay Sapphire have what I call a balanced flavor with no one ingredient standing out, Plymouth exhibits a certain spiciness and definite juniper flavor that maintains its character even when mixed.
Unlike vodka that can be made from virtually any organic matter and usually is a one-item additive to alcohol such as potatoes or grain, gin is an international stew of botanicals. Thus, climate changes and weather conditions have tremendous influences on the crops.
Is there still room in the U.S. market for more gin in this era of a vodka flood and now a sharp rise in sales of tequila that further vie for a slice of the consumer dollar spent on white spirits?
Harrison, obviously, thinks so or he wouldn’t be pushing his product in the States.
"I’d much rather be at home making gin," he says with a smile. "That’s my real job, after all."
Among competitors, England’s Bombay Sapphire and Scotland’s Hendrick’s push their products through ads in high-demographic publications.
Citadelle, a French entry, uses the barrage method, trumpeting a 19-botanical recipe.
Harrison is respectful when talking about other gins, but is less restrained about the ever-growing range of flavored vodkas.
"These people who make infused vodkas amuse me sometimes," he said. "If they keep adding flavorings to their product, they might accidentally invent gin."
(c)2006 Albany Times Union