As increased vaccination levels have dragged Alberta out of the third wave of the pandemic, I have finally emerged from isolation in my windowless wine cellar, where I have spent the last few months hidden away from the world, sustained by the weekly food and booze deliveries from our hard-working local merchants.
Feeling full of vim and vigour after my second vaccination shot had two weeks to percolate, I realized that the 13th annual World Gin Day was just around the corner, so I left the house on a sunny afternoon on a quest for locally produced artisanal Gin.
Gin is considered a classy tipple these days, but has a long and sordid history, starting with its invention in the 1650’s by a Dutch chemist who was looking for a medicine that would help clean the blood of people suffering from kidney disorders. He named his new creation “genever”, from the French word for juniper, since the original formula used neutral grain spirits flavored with juniper berries. Remember him fondly the next time you’re enjoying a martini!
British soldiers brought Gin back to Old Blighty during the ongoing wars in Europe, and Gin became the salve of the downtrodden classes, leading to much debauchery and hooliganism.
The popularity of Gin has waxed and waned over the centuries, but has never regained the nearly complete market penetration that it accomplished in 1730’s London, where there was a Gin joint on every street corner.
Luckily, Gin has been an active social climber in the world of spirits, and is no longer solely the tipple of the downtrodden peasant classes, desperate for a brief reprieve from the filth and poverty of the Industrial Revolution in England.
Here in North America, Gin became popular as an unintended consequence of that failed social experiment known as Prohibition. Despite the best efforts of the morality police, booze was consumed with great abandon in the speakeasies that existed in every city. Because the hooch producers and suppliers had to keep one step ahead of the law, there was a shift from whiskey to gin, simply because gin did not require extensive aging.
Because so much illicit liquor was being produced clandestinely, the so-called Bathtub Gin of the day was generally of poor quality, so had to be mixed with sweet juices or honey to mask the foul taste. This was how many gin cocktails were born, and many are still popular to this day.
When Prohibition ended in 1933, Gin cocktails remained popular not only because of familiarity, but because it would take several years of aging in oak barrels to build up a domestic supply of whiskey.
Consumer tastes changed in North America in the 1960s, with cocktails largely going out of fashion, until a vodka-led surge of cocktail culture in the 1980s, followed by increased popularity of traditional gin-based cocktails in the mid-noughties.
Experienced boozers will recall that the defining characteristic of gin is the infusion of juniper berries, along with a melange of other botanicals to flavour what begins as a fairly neutral spirit. Thanks to our world-class grains, clean glacial water, and juniper bushes growing wild all over our fair province, the small artisanal distilleries of Alberta are leading the gin renaissance across Canada.
Alberta’s modern era of Gin was heralded by the opening of The Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley back in 2014, a farm-to-glass distillery operating out of the old vaudeville theatre on main street, and boasts several styles of exquisitely prepared Gin, as well as ready-to-drink canned cocktails for your next picnic.
Closer to home, Confluence Distilling in Calgary’s so-called Barley Belt district makes a traditional London Dry Gin that is perfect for the classic cocktails, as well as a fun-loving Pink Gin made with a quirky blend of botanicals providing its namesake hue. The Pink Gin is perfect for mixing with a flavoured tonic or sparkling elderberry, and I enjoyed more than one on the distillery patio for World Gin Day.
These Gins and many more are available at craft distillers throughout Alberta, as well as at your friendly neighbourhood booze merchant. I even had SPUD deliver local Gin straight to my door! As we slowly emerge on the far side of these crazy COVID times, show your local distiller some love by visiting their tasting room!