There’s no other spirit more maligned than poor ol’ gin. Editor Katie Bridges is on a mission to change that—and your favorite bartender probably is, too
Photography by Arshia Khan
ON THE MENU AT LITTLE ROCK'S 109 & Co.—which I’m reading by candlelight in Michael Peace’s dark-as-night bar, even though it’s just before sunset on a Thursday evening—there are 11 cocktails that feature gin. There are classic gin cocktails like the Hanky Panky and the Martinez, rumored by many to be the late 19th-century predecessor to the martini. Inventive gin cocktails, too, with names like Regaliation (“That’s a word I made up,” Michael tells me) and Handbags and Gladrags. Citrus-forward gin cocktails. Bitter gin cocktails. Needless to say, Michael’s speakeasy of a place is one that takes gin quite seriously.
Which is why I’m here.
It’s for research, of course. Serious journalistic research. I’m gathering ammo in the defense of gin, my longtime spirit of choice, and 109 & Co. seems as good a place as any to do so. As Peace guides me through his exhaustive menu, strategically positioning and repositioning the candle, there’s one cocktail whose name particularly strikes my fancy. “It’s called the Pig’s Coattail,” Michael says, “which was a way to describe an unattractive lady in the ’20s.” Hmmmm, I think. Intriguing. “The reason I call it that is I wanted to come up with a cocktail where each ingredient sounds disgusting to people, but altogether, they work really well. We use Bonal, a pungent vermouth; Cynar, which is an artichoke liqueur, rhubarb bitters…”
Baited and hooked. “So wait,” I interrupt. “You made a cocktail where everything sounds disgusting?”
“Yep,” Michael says, a wry smile curling up the corners of his mouth. “Artichokes, pungent vermouth, rhubarb, and, well, gin.”
“I think I’m going to have to try one of those,” I say.
I remember my first taste of gin, and I imagine you do, too. It tasted not unlike Pine-Sol. It was tart and bitter—corrosive, even—and the resulting drink was cloyingly sweet, if I remember correctly, for all the cheap tonic water I had to slosh into it to make it somewhat palatable. Thinking back on that first taste of gin, I can understand why Michael might build a “but-that-sounds-disgusting” drink around the spirit. You might get it, too.
But I also remember my second taste of gin. It was a few years later, and I was a 21-year-old on a first date at 36 Club in Fayetteville, trying to flaunt my supposed sophistication. “A dry martini, please,” I said to the bartender from my perch on the turquoise vinyl stool. (Nailed it! I thought.) But the jig was up when he asked what gin I wanted. He must have noticed the panic on my face because he gave me a wink and reached for a bottle of Hendrick’s. This time, the gin was creamy and smooth and delicately perfumed with rose and cucumbers, its fiery finish floral, yet spicy.
And that was all it took. Since then, I’ve taken up the torch, proclaiming gin’s versatility and virtue to naysayers and novices alike. Whiskey drinker? Try this concoction I’ve crafted from aged gin! Before-dinner drink? I’ve got Negronis at the ready! Hungover?This Corpse Reviver No. 2 is a bit of the ol’ hair of the dog!
It’s a strategy that bartenders like Michael—that is to say, hard-core cocktailers who are focused on the classics and on doing them justice—are used to employing. The reason? Gin is actually pretty darn complex. Try 10 bourbons, Michael says, and they’re all going to taste quite similar. But 10 gins? “They’ll be totally different,” he says. “Like Hendrick’s, which is big on pine and cucumber—if that’s the first gin you try, and you don’t like juniper, and you don’t like a lot of botanicals, you’re going to spit it out and say, I hate gin, I’m never trying it again. Whereas if you took a sip of the Hayman’s Old Tom gin, you’d probably think, This is smooth; this is pretty good; I actually really like this.”
For Michael, who daylights as an IT consultant, choosing gin cocktails for the gin-averse is an intricate process—one that “reads like a flow chart in my head,” he says. “I start by asking if they like sweet or not-so-sweet…”
“Sweet,” I say, testing him out.
“Fruit or no fruit?”
“I’d do a gimlet—which is lime, but still. On my menu? I’d say Handbags and Gladrags—we use gin, Adelaide, Luxardo, a little fresh cranberry juice and plum bitters.”
“Ooooh, fun. So if I said, gin, not-so-sweet?”
“Would you rather it be bitter or smooth?”
“Maybe like…a proper martini, with vermouth and orange bitters? That’s the original original way to do it. It’s something we try to stay true to here.”
The end result of all of this flowing and charting? A fresh, new gin experience for folks who’ve been hitherto hesitant to give the stuff a try. Giving people their second (or third, or fourth) taste of gin—converting them into Gin Believers—is one of the things that Michael looks forward to most when he finds himself behind his bar. That, and waiting to see people’s reactions. If you’ve been to 109 & Co., you might’ve noticed him nearby, hovering, if ever so slightly, once he’s served you a cocktail. “I’ll go and rinse out my shaker,” he tells me as he’s getting up to head home for the night, “but I’m looking out of the corner of my eye because their expression right after they take a sip, when they think no one’s looking, when their eyes light up? That’ll tell you a lot, that candid moment.”
Michael’s bar manager, George Thompson, brings me my Pig’s Coattail shortly after Michael and I have said our goodbyes. It’s sweet, sure, but also deeply herbal and complex. As it washes over my tongue, its sparks firing, I get a bitter hit from the Cynar and a vanilla-tinged fullness from the sweet vermouth.
I may already be a Believer—and Michael’s not around to see it—but my eyes? They’re most certainly lighting up.
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