Banish the Tonic: Why to Drink Straight Gin

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For a variety of reasons—but mostly laziness—I've been drinking a lot of straight gin this summer. After a long hot day, I just can't find the energy to run out for tonic, let alone make a cocktail. A couple of ice cubes, maybe a lime wedge. On a steamy day straight gin is pure bliss. So why don't more people drink it?

Put crudely, gin is not too different from flavored vodka: it's likewise a neutral grain spirit. The only difference is that it's infused with botanicals, then redistilled. The botanicals could be anything—along with the requisite juniper, common ingredients include sloe berries, anise, coriander, orange peel, cassia bark, and cinnamon. How they're combined, though, is the art—a gin-maker has to select and balance a basket of maybe a dozen flavors, as well as monitor how they change during redistillation.

So why don't more people drink straight gin? Partly because they know what bad gin tastes like by itself.

Too often, though, gin is like coffee: appreciated from afar for its formal qualities, but almost always enjoyed through a thick soup of mixers that dilute and confuse the most delicate flavors. A recent, admittedly unscientific web poll by Imbibe magazine found that out of more than 1,650 respondents, only 4.5 percent picked gin when asked, "What's your favorite spirit to sip neat?" —placing it dead last in a field of eight.

It's easy to see why. Although bottom-shelf vodka or whiskey is still basically palatable, rail gin is completely undrinkable. Usually the flavor begins and ends with low-quality juniper, which, to me at least, is nauseatingly bitter. And frankly, I find even the medium-grade London dry gins—what most people talk about when they talk about gin—basically undrinkable.

These days, thankfully, there's a gin renaissance afoot. What started in the early 2000s with various iterations of Tanqueray—especially Rangpur and the sadly discontinued Malacca, both made with a sweeter botanical blend—has been taken up by the other big British brands. I've been particularly enjoying Beefeater's Summer Gin these days. It's the usual Beefeater botanicals, but with elderflower, black currant, and hibiscus thrown in, giving it a slightly sweeter, more floral taste.

Gin is also particularly popular among the craft-distilling crowd in the United States. It's relatively easy to make and requires no aging, so newly opened distilleries like to start with it, then branch out into whiskey or rum. Anchor, in San Francisco, makes some fine gins in its Junipero line, though right now my favorite American gin is Bluecoat, out of Philly.

So why don't more people drink straight gin? Partly because they know what bad gin tastes like by itself. But inertia plays a big role, too. Gin was once a common straight drink, up through the 19th century. But it had the bad luck of also being a phenomenal base for cocktails, particularly the martini and the gin and tonic. It's a good bet that many fans of gin think of it so exclusively in terms of these two quaffs that they wouldn't know what straight gin tastes like in the first place.

There's a place for gin cocktails, of course. But with so many great craft expressions coming out, it's an insult to blur their fine work behind a screen of tonics, crèmes, liqueurs, and juices. Even worse, if the only way you take your gin is inside a baroque cocktail, you're missing out on a vibrant drink.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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