Cocktail Historians [yes that’s a thing, apparently] have long been seeking out the origins of the drink we call “gin.”
The criteria for something to be a proto-gin are vague, though it is generally thought to be some combination of the below:
- Recreationally consumed
Distilled is important because gin is a spirit, and it represents a departure from the decoctions and juniper berry flavored beers and wines that were fairly common from the medieval era forward.
Grain based was important because it sought to represent a shift from the brandies, distilled wines, Steinhagers, Schnapps, and other spirits of the time which used juniper in other ways.
And finally, recreational was important because distilled juniper berry waters were once quite common, and although prone to abuse they were designed to be drank as medicine. Yes. people used their medicine for recreation, but the step towards gin was the intentionality of distilled a spirit strictly for enjoyment, with no pretense.
The 1495 Story in < 100 Words
Buried in the Sloane Manuscripts, Phillip Duff discovered the recipe calling for a mixture of several exotic spices and the word gorsbeyn, which depending on your translation could mean “frog” or it could be a corruption of the word for “juniper.” Assuming this is a correct reading of the word on the page, there’s no mistaking based on context that this wasn’t a medicine.
A panel of the most-established names in cocktail culture assembled to vet/taste variations of the recipe. The outcome comes in two flavors. One: a purported-as-accurate-as-can-be recreation of the recipe in the text (verbatim). The other, a more modern update on the recipe, designed as if for contemporary palates (interpretatio).
For more on the story [which I’m not going to copy here, when others who were actually there wrote them up]
What’s In It?
“a distillate of a mixture of brandy… nutmegs, ginger, galangal, grains of paradise, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom.” [along with the aforementioned juniper].
In the year 1495, the Dutch East India Company was over 100 years away. The Portuguese hasn’t discovered an ocean route to the East India yet. This means that all of these spices travelled a far more costly route from Southeast Asia to Europe.
Keep in mind, why there was so much incentive to find an ocean route to the Indies. In 1453 the Ottoman Empire took Constantinople [not Istanbul, not then] and therefore controlled the spice route from Asia to Europe. The Ottomans heavily taxed spices. That means that this list of botanicals, while prohibitively expensive in 1450, were ridiculously expensive in 1495. In fact, during this interim space between the loss of Constantinople and the discovery of the Ocean route to SE Asia, this might have been the most expensive moment imaginable for these ingredients.
Provence of the Botanicals in 1495
Grains of Paradise— East Africa. Was a slightly cheaper substitute for pepper. European Nations were importing large quantities of this by the mid 15th century.
Nutmeg— Growing only in the Banda Islands of Indonesia, not only was its price subject to speculation [it warded off the plague], it was only available via the Asian trade routes. About 25 years later, prices would have dropped when the Portuguese conquered Malacca, but as of 1495, this would have been incredibly expensive.
Galangal— Originated in Indonesia, and spread around Southeast Asia. Was definitely imported.
Ginger— Ginger was eventually grown in the New World, with plantations in Jamaica dating back to 1585. Which is 100 years after out target date. That meant this was coming from China most likely.
Cloves— Originating in the Moluccas islands, Cloves were likely coming through India as well.
Cinnamon— whether Cassia or Cinnamon, this would have come from Asia for sure. Cultivation on the East African coast and South Indian Ocean is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Cardamom— Depending on what kind, it either came from India to Malaysia, or Nepal, India, and/or Australia. That is unless it was false Ethiopian cardamom which would have been much more widely accessible and cheaper in this period of expensive spice trade. If actual cardamom is used, it would have been preposterously expensive.
A review of the botanicals, aside from Juniper, only one, perhaps two if they used false cardamom (which seems less likely given the other ingredients could only have come from Southeast Asia) would have not been exorbitantly expensive in 1495.
Fifty years later, this recipe might have been affordable enough to make sense. But if the story is correct, this drink was likely not designed for its taste. It was designed as a braggart’s braggadocio. To have this many rare and expensive ingredients on hand, the holder of this recipe clearly had extraordinary means.
Alternatively, there exists the possibility that the the actual drink was not like our botanically heavy gins of today. Perhaps it was an extraordinarily small quantity of these small spices, with the outcome being more of a gently spiced brandy than a bold botanically flavored gin? But if you were putting only in remarkably small quantities without appreciating their character fully, one might wonder why add them in the first place?
A lot of questions need to be asked to understand why exactly someone would design such a prohibitively costly recreational spirit. Or perhaps then again. maybe we don’t need to look so far.
The popularity of gins and other spirits with gold flakes in the bottom of them, replete with the status and enhanced cost they afford, endures despite the micoflakes not doing much for the overall flavor profile of the spirit. Perhaps we’re looking at a proto-gin or perhaps we’re looking at the late 15th century gold flake imbued gin.
The nose is incredibly strong and spice forward. Cinnamon, spiced nuts, nutmeg, and a lot of ginger. Some clove present as well contributing to the lower notes. You might expect some sort of spice liqueur rather than gin if you didn’t know better.
After an initial pause, it rushes you with a bold onslaught of exotic spices. Nutmeg beset by an underlying nuttiness [similar to the nose], perhaps even an intimation of juniper, but all of this in the microsecond before cloves and ginger take over. Unabashed assertions of eugenol, ginger-laden heat dominate. As they fade, there’s some hints of cardamom on the edges of the palate, but not much else. It’s just an incredibly hot, spicy, disorganized palate. If I were to suggest an analogue or metaphor for this flavor, I’d suggest Allspice Dram. It’s the most similar modern spirit I can think of. This won’t read as gin to most.
I know this is an experiment, an attempt to revive an old style of spirit true to the era. As an experiment, this is something like a gin. Sure, the grape base spirit likely wouldn’t have been as clean/bright as that which the folks at G’vine contributed to this; the absolute lack of that funky/grassy character means that at worst we can say this proto-gin was the result of cherry picking certain attributes. I’m not sure I buy that the base Brandy would have been this pure in 1495, but I digress. Like I said, great experiment and everyone deserves a pat on the back for the work done.
But I’m reviewing this as a gin. And frankly? It’s just not good. It wouldn’t work in any cocktails as a gin. But scratch that, it’s designed to be sipped neat. I’m sorry, it’s just a hot disogranized mess. There’s some intriguing moments, but most would say “there’s just way too much ginger and cloves here.” As a gin, it’s decidedly below average.
Distiller: EWG Spirits & Wine
Availability: Not available, auctioned for charity in Fall ’14
Rating: Great experiment, but as a gin, it leaves a lot to be desired. If you have the opportunity, appreciate the history, as it’s the best part of the drink. [Rating:2/5]
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