Throughout India, in restaurant and home kitchens, you’ll spot paintings of Lord Hanuman on the walls, many times over the stove. The divine monkey companion of Rama, Hanuman was the hero of the Ramayana, the Sanskrit Hindu epic. During one of the battles recounted in this classic work, the super-muscular Hanuman flew from India to Sri Lanka’s Medicine Mountain. Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, had sent Hanuman to fetch healing herbs for a wounded warrior. When the monkey god arrived at the lush green mountain, however, he was not sure what herb he was supposed to bring back, so he brought the whole mountain of herbs back with him to India. As he flew across India, clumps of herbs fell to the ground, seeding sacred spice groves everywhere.
So, you see, that’s why to this day there are a lot of spices in India… as well as in Indian gin.
Many of us were probably first introduced to India-style gin through popular brands like Bombay Sapphire, a London dry gin with the main flavor being juniper (as required by EU regulations), along with ten other botanicals. Compared to gins like Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire is much more herbal and, to our palette, much more interesting, with more dimensions of flavor and a fresh bouquet of herbaceousness. On the label of Bombay Sapphire is a portrait of Queen Victoria, who presided over the period of British colonization of the Indian subcontinent, which is when the British introduced gin to India.
As with rum, gin from India has a troubled history. Rum was grown on plantations sustained by the enslaved, and British colonization of India lasted until 1947. During the period of colonization, gin, already big in England, came to India and was quickly embraced. In a sense, Britain appropriated India and India appropriated gin (though no doubt under pressure from the Raj). History—especially, perhaps, the history of food and drink—is a sequence of appropriations, some less benign than others.
With G&Ts, “To Your Health” is the Appropriate Toast
Gin and tonic is likely the most popular application of gin, and this perennial warm weather beverage was invented in India as not only a refreshing sip but as a medicinal beverage, a way to consume quinine, a bitter, anti-malarial medicine. According to India Times, “Modern, and oft-repeated, accounts of the… origins of gin and tonic credit its invention to officers in the Indian Army taking their daily bitter quinine dose washed down with gin and soda. Some date this as early as 1825, a mere five years after the first extraction of quinine.”
The only spice that gin absolutely must contain is juniper, for without that berry you cannot have gin—all you’ve got is something like vodka, colorless and odorless. Given the abundance of spices found in the subcontinent, India’s gins tend to be full of delicious flavors that make for a more interesting cocktail than possible with a gin that is made only with juniper. The immensely popular Beefeater gin, for instance, a standard at Chicago bars, is juniper-forward; the Indian gins we’ve sampled have the distinctive flavor of juniper as just one among many flavors.
Tasting Several Indian Gins
We had our first Indian gin recently at Bar Goa, in a gin martini, without vermouth, the better to savor the flavors of the highly herbaceous spirit. We knew there were more Indian gins on the menu, so we went back to sample a few with beverage director Allison Kim.
Kim talks us through a tasting of several Indian gins, each one different, which is unsurprising, given the huge range of botanical combinations available in Indian gins. Of those botanicals, Kim points out, “all the herbs used are fresh, and these Indian gins contain no essential oils, which is kind of a cheat sometimes used by larger gin producers, but it’s a no-no.”
Jin JiJi is an Indian gin we’ve seen at other places; it’s served in cocktails at Armitage Ale House and avec/River North, and it’s one of the few Indian gins that can sometimes be found at stores like Binny’s. With a lightly floral nose, Jin JiJi is flavored with juniper sourced from the Himalayas, and the spirit is distilled with Darjeeling tea and spices including coriander and Tulsi leaf. Tulsi has a place in ayurvedic medicine as a mouth refresher, so including it in Jin JiJi could be insurance against gin breath. It’s also a mellow, very flavorful sip.
Hapusa conveys delicate flavors of turmeric and mango, which Kim points out “are ingredients you wouldn’t find in U.K. gins; these gins use products that are indigenous to India.” The bright citrus flavors of Hapusa make it a beautiful accompaniment in many appetite-perking cocktails. Produced in the Indian state of Goa, Hapusa uses locally sourced botanicals, which Kim says are “fresher and more full of flavor than something that’s been frozen or dried.” The flavors pop pleasantly in this gin rendition, and the producers refer to it as a sipping gin. When we visit with Kim, she serves us some straight sips, and I gotta say, with a little ice, these Indian gins are among the few that I’d consider drinking with only ice, or at least a little water to bring down the delicious intensity.
Opihr was a ringer that Kim throws into the mix. It’s a London dry gin, produced in England, but in the Indian style, flavored with more spices than you might expect, including Indian Tellicherry black pepper, Indonesian cubeb berries and Moroccan coriander. On our first sip, we get a strong taste of cumin. Kim assures us that there is no cumin and that the cumin flavor was probably “the black pepper playing against the coriander.” Whatever causes the effect, if you prefer your beverage to be coordinated with, rather than contrasted to your meal, Opihr would be a good gin with Mexican food.
Nilgiris, Kim tells us, came out in the last year or so, and it incorporates the flavors of betel leaves, which grow on the same plant as betel nuts, a mild stimulant, sourced from Mysuru (Mysore). I’ve chewed betel nuts, and I trust they use betel leaves in this gin, but its flavor is elusive. I’m also told that this gin conveys hints of angelica, orris root and Nilgiri tea—though on that point, I’ll have to take the word of more sensitive palates.
What all these gins tell us is that there is a vast flavor range in Indian gin. If you’re in the habit of getting a specific brand of gin in your martini—even if it’s one of the excellent, aromatic ones from The Botanist or Hendrick’s—you might consider branching out. We did, and we’re glad of it.
Gin v. Vodka in the Classic Martini
There are few cocktails more elegant than a martini. In the world of martinis, the two basic choices of spirits—the ones that most drinkers have had at one time or another—are vodka and gin. Though some cocktail recipes for the martini direct us to use vodka, most recipes for a classic martini use gin. (Still, we drink a lot of vodka martinis in this country.)
Years ago, I wrote about vodka with a slight sneer, a sneer shared by many bartenders I chat with. One of those bartenders, when asked what vodka was good for, told me, “The number-one use for vodka is poured on a bev nap to wipe down the touch screen computer!”
Later, after chatting with Julia Momose, one of Chicago’s most thoughtful mixologists, I came to a greater appreciation for the potential of vodkas. Momose told us, “I would challenge people to approach vodka as if it has a bouquet of flavors just dancing under the surface. All it takes is sometimes a splash of water, tea or juice to open it up and pull these flavors to the surface. Maybe we all just need to be more open to the possibilities.”
While I believe Momose is correct that there are flavors even in vodka that can be coaxed out with the right blend of ingredients, if you’re having a gin martini, you’re having one of the simplest—and simply elegant—cocktails in the world. If you aren’t a fan of vermouth, a martini can even be just the base spirit and an olive or lemon twist. For such a stripped-down drink—conceivably a one-ingredient beverage—it seems you’d want to use the most flavorful clear spirit possible. And whatever the benefits of vodka, there’s no way it has as the range of flavor of gin, pretty much any gin, and as we’ve found, the gins with the most flavor come from India.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: email@example.com