Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

By Liz Crowe

Welcome to summer time in Ann Arbor! The outdoor movies! The concerts! The food trucks! The sidewalk eating! The art! The available parking! I’ll never forget my first summer here in my first house on Beakes Street with our toddler son (and yeah don’t get me started on how I never should’ve sold that house, we’ll save that one for another column, ok?).

Anyway, we’d load him up in the handy wagon with juice boxes, crackers, and cheese sticks and wheel ourselves over to the Top of the Park—the one that was actually on top of a park(ing lot). Both my hubs and I are from Kentucky, and summer nights there are not for hanging outside unless you’re on a lake. It’s too muggy, buggy, and borderline miserably hot. But here? I recall saying that the air felt soft on my skin—warm, yet not humid, with a mild breeze once the sun went down.

Anyways, we made it through months of near-constant polar vortexes and soggy semi-spring, and now here we are, ready to celebrate the glorious month of August in Michigan. 

I figured that it’s time to talk about summer drinks, and in order to do that we must talk gin. First, a bit of history. The name gin is derived from either the French genièvre or the Dutch jenever, which both mean “juniper.” Because in order for any distilled spirit to be considered “gin,” it must be juniper-forward. And remember, a “juniper” is essentially a pine tree—an evergreen. Gin is “piney” smelling and tasting, or it’s not gin.

By the mid 17th century, numerous small Dutch and Flemish distillers had popularized the re-distillation of malt spirit or wine with juniper, anise, caraway, coriander, and other spices, which were sold in pharmacies and used to treat medical issues like kidney ailments, lumbago, stomach ailments, gallstones, and gout. It was discovered in Holland by English troops who were fighting against the Spanish in the Eighty Years’ War, who noticed its calming effects before battle, which is the origin of the term “Dutch courage.”

It was used as a wholly unsuccessful-but-perhaps-numbing-you-to-the-reality-of-it remedy for the Black Plague. In tropical British colonies, gin was used to mask the bitter flavor of quinine, which was the only effective anti-malarial compound. Quinine was dissolved in carbonated water to form tonic water, and the resulting mix became the origin of today’s popular gin and tonic combination. Yes, that Schweppes in your fridge still contains a smidge of quinine. It says so right on the bottle.

In a satirical study by Bernard Mandeville called The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick [sic] Benefits, he writes: “Nothing is more destructive, either in regard to the health or the vigilance and industry of the poor, than the infamous liquor, the name of which, derived from Juniper in Dutch…shrunk into a monosyllable, intoxicating Gin…It charms the unactive, the desperate and crazy of either sex, and makes the starving sot behold his rags and nakedness with stupid indolence. It is a fiery lake that sets the brain in flame, burns up the entrails, and scorches every part within; and, at the same time, a Lethe of oblivion, in which the wretch immersed drowns.”

Well, then. Sign me up, I say!

In my diligence to provide Booze 101 readers with the most reliable information possible about my topics, I spent some quality time with Alyssa Hughes, production manager at Ann Arbor Distilling, a local company that specializes in this infamous monosyllabic intoxicant. We talked about the specifics of distillation, a process that takes basic alcohol and transforms it, some might say magically (distillation owes a lot to ancient alchemy), into a higher alcohol by volume (ABV) form via forcing condensation (steam) from the originally fermented liquid, and then pulling that steam back into liquid form. To get high ABV alcohol, you have to physically separate alcohol from water using evaporation and condensation—aka distilling. Because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water (173 F vs. 212 F), distillers can evaporate the alcohol (mostly) by itself, collect the vapors into a tube and use cold temperatures to force the alcohol to condense back into liquid.

There are two methods for doing this. “Pot stills” are what my great-great granddaddy used during Prohibition in the backyard to make his version of liquor. It’s a process that uses a pot and a long tube that pulls the ethanol evaporating off the water up and into another vessel, and viola, booze. And usually a much higher ABV, not to mention with the sort of congeners—that stuff we talked about back when we were talking about hangover remedies—that can make the next morning a little rough around the edges.

Column distilling is a more refined method in which the mash, or wash, is continuously injected into a column, with steam constantly rising up to meet it. The steam is programmed to be at the perfect temperature to strip alcohol from the wash and leave undesired compounds behind as it rises up through the column. Yes, I said the word “column” three times back there. Be calm. It was necessary. There are plates in the column that can be adjusted to refine the final result to much more specific ABVs than pot stills. 

The thing that makes a gin a gin, those essential “botanicals,” are sometimes added straight into the fermented mash in the main vessel of the still. Others are added in a “basket,” which is a stainless steel add-on that allows steam to flow through and infuse the mash without breaking the adjuncts down and causing a mess in the final liquid. For gin, those must include juniper, but in these days of the Craft Cocktail (something you and I will explore together very soon, never fear) that is merely the beginning.

Alyssa taught me a lot about distilling gin, including some new words about distilling that I like and am therefore sharing with you: the “head, heart, and tails” of distilling. Methanol (that stuff you don’t want because it will, you know, kill you if you drink it) is the head. The heart is the key portion of the process; it’s the portion of the distillation you want. The tail is also known as “fusel oils” for their oily texture can come at the end or “tail” of the distillation run, and are often discarded or sent back in for redistilling.

All right, all right, enough of the boring crap. Let’s talk specifics. At Ann Arbor Distilling they have seasonal versions of gin. The Winter Gin is my favorite, as it’s closest to the London dry style I prefer—heavily juniper or pine-forward with not a ton of other ingredients, not the least of which is cacao nibs and orange zest to create a holiday taste. Mind you, there is an entire Norwegian spruce tree in this one. The Spring Gin is like drinking a flower garden—heavy on the hibiscus (hence the pink hue), along with a distinct punch of honeydew melon. It’s delicious. 

After that, things get really crazy. If you were to drink the experience of a farmer’s market, that would be the Summer Gin. It’s chock-full of yummy stuff—tomatoes (on the vine, no lie), watermelon, peaches, raspberries, and strawberries, plus a boat-load of steamed herbs including mint and basil. But hold your horses. The Fall Gin has even more going on. You’ll taste cinnamon, oregano, rosemary, and even a touch of—wait for it—moss! The thought was to have a sort of “fall day” experience when drinking it. It works. And they age it in bourbon barrels so it’s a lovely amber color.  

You can do some crazy stuff with these multi-ingredient gins. And we will dive deep into that soon. However, it’s hard to argue with the classics. If you’re looking for that quintessential summer gin fun drink, allow me to introduce you to a Tom Collins (gin, sugar water, lemon and club soda); a Vespa—my go-to martini that combines two parts gin to a half part vodka, Lillet blanc (a kind of wine aperitif), and a lemon peel; or one of my absolute favorites, the French 75. If you haven’t had one of these babies, get yourself to a solid cocktail bar and order one, like, tonight. It’s essentially a Tom C., but with the addition of sparkling wine. It’s super delicious, bubbly, and fun. More on the whole “solid cocktail bar” thing very soon!

Also, for the Official Record, a real martini is made with gin. If you want yours made with vodka, you have to order it that way. 

Now, get out there, move beyond the G&T, and enjoy either one of the classics, or something new and wacky, with the pine-tree-forward, ancient-plague-remedy-turned-malaria-preventative—gin.

BIO: 

Amazon best-selling author, mom of three, brewery founder, beer and wine consultant, and avid sports fan, Liz Crowe is a Kentucky native and graduate of the University of Louisville currently living in Ann Arbor. She has decades of experience in sales, public relations, and fundraising, plus an eight-year stint as a three-continent, ex-pat trailing spouse, all of which provide ongoing idea fodder for novels and other projects. She helped found and is the current president of Fermenta Michigan, a non-profit organization dedicated to the education and employment of women in the fermented industries.

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