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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Ginned Up – How Tom Collins Brought Gin to La Canada

The gin-based cocktail, Tom Collins, got its name from “the great Tom Collins hoax of 1874,” an immature prank whereby a person went to a bar and told a patron that someone named Tom Collins was talking trash about him. The patron, incensed by the idea that Tom Collins would talk smack about him, would then go looking for Tom in as many bars as it took to find him…and hilarity ensued. It didn’t take long for an enterprising bartender to name a drink after the non-existent Mr. Collins. And gin finally got some respect. Sort of.

Gin is having a resurgence in popularity due to trendy craft cocktails and the TV show Mad Men, which robustly praised a drinking culture and resurrected classic cocktails (see my article on 10 classic cocktails HERE). Gin is also perennially known as the preferred base for the martinis of James Bond. So why is gin relevant and frankly how is it that the largest gin list for any bar in North America is not in Los Angeles, Manhattan nor Chicago, but my tiny hometown of La Canada Flintridge at The Flintridge Proper?

Brady and his 200+ gins
I sat down with The Flintridge Proper owner Brady Caverly recently when I revisited my familial digs. “Due to the fact that aged spirits were largely unavailable during prohibition, many of the best golden age cocktails are gin-based like the Tom Collins, Bees Knees, French 75, Negroni, the Martini,” says Caverly, who offers over 200 gins from across the globe including vintage gins from the 1980s, 70s and as far back as 1964. “Gin is appropriately enjoying a renaissance in the mixology movement because of its prominent role in the classics but also because no other spirit offers the diversity of flavor profiles,” Caverly suggests. Sure, gin has a historic context, first distilled by the Dutch in the 1600s and more recently as the signature cocktail at the Coconut Grove in Hollywood in the 1930s, and the still popular dirty martini at Musso & Frank Grill, Hollywood’s oldest restaurant. But that is exactly the point – gin seems stuck in a bygone era, namely your grandfather’s.

Gin is like the middle child of a complex and boisterous family. Whiskey and bourbon are the first-born kids, dominating, aggressive, popular; tequila and vodka are the youngest, goofy kids, the irresponsible ones, the partiers. And there gin sits, the quiet middle spirit who always seems to be “resurging” but never quite breaks out of its shell. “When most people think of gin they think of London Dry, this is the gin our fathers drank with very strong juniper and citrus notes,” says Caverly. “But the majority of the small batch and artisanal gins that makeup our nation's largest collection are in the New World-style, where the juniper is dialed back to be replaced by a dizzying array of botanicals, citrus, spices and other natural ingredients - from the rose notes of Nolets, to the cucumber notes of Hendricks, there is literally a gin for every flavor.”

Arne of Distillery 209
Arne Hillesland, master distiller and “ginerator” for Distillery No. 209 based in San Francisco agrees. “The only gins available for generations were heavy juniper bombs that took some getting used to, or created abject hatred among those who overindulged,” he told me. With the emphasis of distillers like Hillesland, gin is reinventing itself. “Gin, since it is flavored with botanicals and other natural ingredients, can have an almost infinite variety of flavors for all different uses in cocktails as well as neat in a glass,” Caverly says. “By law in the U.S. and many other countries, gin must be a spirit predominately flavored with juniper,” Hillesland says, and asserts that for at least four centuries gin has been much more than just juniper. “Other botanicals have played major parts giving gin depth of flavor and mixability. This increases the approachability for the consumer ready to move on from vodka or other spirits with low flavor content. But if a distiller backs away too much from Juniper they end up with just another flavored vodka.” And the average consumer may not really understand clear spirits enough to know the difference. “It’s all about education,” says Hillesland. “The Screwdriver, the Gimlet, the Greyhound, the Bloody Mary and others are such great cocktails when made in their original gin format instead of vodka.”

And Hillesland notes the making of gin allows for more diverse expression of the final spirit. “All the other major spirits stop the distillation process when gin is just getting fun. Rum, whisky, tequila, brandy, vodka make (typically) one to four passes through the still and then it’s onto bottling or aging. Making gin requires starting with a pure spirit, then follows a process of defining all the botanicals and their amounts, how they are processed to determine the unique flavor profile created in your final distillation with the botanicals added to the pure spirit base,” Hillesland says. Therefore The Flintridge Proper is the de facto stop for a gin lover, or a newbie. “We offer flights of gin where guests enjoy the spirit neat as you would a fine scotch, and I expect to see more folks drinking gin straight in the future,” says Caverly. And with the enthusiasm of people like Caverly and Hillesland, the gin movement has its boosters. “Just as America’s tastes in food are maturing towards the more genuine, flavorful, handcrafted products, I believe that when consumers are educated more about gin they will realize it’s a fantastic and versatile spirit,” Hillesland told me.

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