Gin's origin is tough to pin down. Legend has it that in the 17th century, a Dutch chemist named Franciscus Sylvius accidentally distilled jenever, a juniper-flavored liquor, while trying to develop a diuretic to treat kidney disease. Later on, more ambitious distillers used jenever as the basis for a newer and stronger alcohol called gin. This, it turns out, is at least partially false. While jenever is indeed the ancestral forebear to modern gin, and while it really does have some medicinal qualities, references to its creation trace back several centuries before Sylvius's time. In fact, during the Dutch War of Independence, a full thirty years before Sylvius had been born, the spirit was already popular enough to bear the nickname "Dutch courage."
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Still, the Sylvius myth persists because it touches on some of gin's most essential qualities: that its readily available ingredients and its relatively simple distillation process make it particularly well suited for small scale, do-it-yourself manufacture. In the 1920s, these were the same qualities that led bootleggers to set up stills in peoples' homes, and to combine varying quantities of grain alcohol, juniper juice, and glycerin into what became known as "bathtub gin."
Fortunately for us, today's distillers no longer operate under Prohibition-era limitations, and they're allowed to experiment with their gin recipes out in the open, using higher quality ingredients. In recent years, a cohort of entrepreneurial distillers across North America and Europe has begun taking gin to higher heights than it's ever reached before.
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The best of this group, who often work in a style referred to as "New American" or "New Western" distillation, are working in shops across the United States—shops spanning from New York and Massachusetts, over the shores of the Great Lakes, and stretching as far west as California and Oregon. Together, they're using locally sourced ingredients to put their own distinctive spins on the clear, aromatic liquor, and the things they're ginning up will appeal to old fans and newcomers alike.
Aria Portland Dry Gin
If you came to this article looking to make a martini, then the search is over. You've got your gin. Indeed, the initial lightness of Aria Portland Dry Gin betrays the spirit's complex spiciness—hints of coriander and cardamom—that plays perfectly against a fine citrus zest. While one could have a perfectly good time sipping this one neat, it really begs to be paired with dry vermouth and a twist of lemon. [$28.95; wineworldspirits.com]