Berry Me Not

Mention gin, and people instantly respond.

Often it's with a disrespectful groan. Kenny Daniel, bartender at Primo's, just shakes his head ruefully when you say the dreaded word. "The worst hangover I ever had was over gin," he says. "Three days." A woman by the name of Ashley, whom we encountered sipping drinks at Nikita, recalls her first bout with the venerable spirit. "I thought, 'Look at how sophisticated I am,'" followed shortly thereafter by "'I'm 10 times drunker than if I had beer. Thanks, juniper plant.'"

Sure, it packs a few more rounds of alcohol. Boodles weighs in at 45 percent, for example, while Junipero measures 49 percent. By comparison, distilleries dilute most vodka to 40 percent.

"That's why your drunkards always drink gin," says Ian Green, bartender at The Idle Rich. Certainly the stuff has an image problem. If wine represents sophistication, vodka acceptance, champagne celebration and single malt scotch status, then gin reminds people of Hogarth prints and rock-bottom types slugging shots from a brown paper bag. "People who like gin are generally hardcore," agrees Jack Sparks of Martini Ranch. "They tend to drink more than the average person."

Give haggard addicts some credit. "They may be alcoholics, but they recognize value for the money," Green says.

Hmm...The Burning Question crew respects sound reasoning. In fact, we trotted out that line of thought during our last budget discussion with our editor. And we mean last. We're no longer allowed to mention fiscal responsibility and alcohol in the same sentence.

Yet there's another, more refined side to the aromatic liquor. "Vodka is vodka," says Adam Salazar, bartender at the Old Republic, Fuse and Nikita. "There's a distinct difference between gins. Take Hendricks versus true, hardcore Bombay--or Boodles, one of the best gins on the planet." The various brands rely on blends of juniper berries, herbs and spices to impart distinct flavors. Most carry four to six botanicals. Bombay Sapphire uses 10 but, according to Jamie Walker, global ambassador for the brand, the number means very little. "It's the balance that matters," he says. Sapphire balances intensity with smoothness. Boodles reeks of the resinous berry. Hendricks is floral and light.

It's known as a British affectation, but the Redcoats first encountered gin while fighting in Holland during the 1500s. Distillers in the port town of Plymouth began producing the stuff, and it quickly spread across England. High-ranking officers and public figures held gin in great esteem. Many of the classic cocktails depend on it. Thus some people associate gin with the social elite. "Gin immediately says tradition," Green argues. "People who drink it have depth. Did you ever see Noel Coward drinking mandarin and soda?"

So it's a drink of extremes. Something to sip while ragged colonials fan away the flies, a thing to order in fancy restaurants and a mind-numbing blot for hardened alcoholics.

"People in the middle don't drink it," says Reagan Jensen of Oceanaire.

Well, then...who does?

A mix of stalwarts and newcomers, few in number. "It's been three weeks since I served a gin martini," Salazar claims. Nick & Sams stocks 40 or more vodkas but only five gins. Drink orders at Martini Ranch run five or six to one in favor of Russia's national spirit. "It's probably better and more aggressive marketing by vodka companies," Sparks says. Indeed, gin was popular across the United States through the Prohibition era and into the 1960s. Then the other clear alcohol entered the fray.

When club hoppers in Dallas deign to order the subject of this week's Burning Question, they tend toward smoother, upscale brands such as Tanqueray Ten or Bombay Sapphire--not coincidentally the versions backed by marketing heft.

Twenty-something bar patrons, being easily swayed by marketing, are peering at the stuff, at least. But that all-important need to follow the trends, that image-consciousness, makes them a fickle bunch. Gin is an acquired taste.

"The young crowd are drinking the flavor of the week," Green says. "In your early 30s you start on more substantial drinks. Then you reach a certain age when you try gin, and it never leaves you."

Despite the complexity of gin, "it's still viewed as an old person's drink," explains Bryan Chatham, bartender at Nick & Sam's. The regular version of Bombay, Sparks agrees, "sits alone by the Beefeater bottle. It comes out when grandma comes out." Ouch.

Maybe distilleries need a new round of ads. We suggest "Gin: Because she left and she's not coming back."

Better yet, we'll answer the Burning Question this way: Gins range from the pungent London dry types, perfect for a martini, to the Plymouth style with a bit more citrus bite, to floral to smooth, to just about everything else. We're partial to aged genever from Belgium or the Netherlands. Eventually just about everyone will bump into a style they find interesting.

And at that point they'll become good old-fashioned functioning alcoholics...or liberal arts faculty.

Like Green says, "It's sitting down and discussing literature...and getting fucked up."

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Dave Faries
Contact: Dave Faries

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