It was Kingsley Amis who introduced me properly to gin.
I would like to say that it was at some soirée hosted by that famous (late) English author, but no; it was instead in a collection of his writings on alcohol-related topics, titled Everyday Drinking, released in 2008, with an introduction by another well-known (and late) English drinker, Christopher Hitchens.
I say that Amis introduced me properly to gin because my first (most improper) introduction was of a character I’ve found to be all too common among my peers. As a young lad, I was in some social situation or other where the only available alcohol was gin. I drank it, mixed perhaps with tonic (or maybe with some kind of lemonade—I can’t remember), and found it went down easily and promoted cheerfulness on my part and that of my acquaintances. A little being good, it seemed a cinch that a lot would be better, and indeed it was. Until, that is, the morning, when I awoke with a kind and degree of hangover that I’ve never experienced before or since. Without ticking down through the more well-known symptoms, my overwhelming feeling was that I had drunk several pints of window cleaning solution (the blue kind, with ammonia, not the eco-friendly type you see around these days). The taste in my mouth, which would not leave, was such that I believe I could have licked clean all the windows of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and still had potency remaining.
I swore never to touch the stuff again, and kept to that faithfully for decades, during the course of which I’ve drunk almost everything else, but gravitated mainly towards spirits, especially the Irish and Scotch varieties.
I read the Kingsley Amis collection on drinking for enjoyment and general edification, the book containing some opinions I shared and some I didn’t, some information that was interesting and some of little relevance, but all written with the Amis verve. It was his reflections on gin, however, that surprised me most, and, you might even say, turned my life around (though the final destination remains unclear). In my circles, I’d never heard someone attest to actually liking the taste of gin, on its own. This however is what Amis stated, indicating that his favored way of imbibing the old spirit (invented in Holland but adopted most enthusiastically by the British) was merely by adding a little water, and savoring the taste of the juniper berry and other assorted infused botanicals. This was fascinating to me, and presented the challenge of confronting that old demon from my past head-on, without any buffer such as tonic or even vermouth. As one gets older, one realizes that acquired tastes are, after all, the ones truly worth acquiring, and I thought I would give this one a try. Amis had fairly catholic tastes in gin—speaking well of the readily available and reasonably-priced Gordon’s—but seemed to have some difficulty identifying water of sufficient quality so as not to ruin his drinks. This didn’t surprise me so much, considering his context of time and place in England. However, I live in New York City, where we are blessed to have the best water in the world running for free through our very faucets. (Fresh out of the faucet it can be uneven, but if you let the tap run a little while, then fill up a bottle and put it in the fridge overnight, in the morning you will have a liquid so wonderful and clear and refreshing as to make the product of those Polish springs seem by comparison something more akin to milk of magnesia).
Cutting to the chase, I found myself in agreement with Amis. Gin could indeed be a wonderful drink in and of itself, with delicate and undulating subtleties of flavor and aroma. What’s more, due to its relative purity as compared to whiskies, it is actually far less prone towards giving one that terrible hangover. It is in the mixing of gin with tonic and other beverages that the mischief is wrought (though naturally excessive consumption is inherently bad and be sure to consult your doctor before adopting any new diet or fitness regimen mentioned in these pages).
Discovering a way of appreciating this heretofore-shunned spirit opened up a new world. There are lots of gins, at just about every price-point. I quickly found that I preferred what I perceived to be the ginnier gins; that is, those still most loyal to the distinctive flavor of the juniper, as opposed to those that lean far towards very citrusy and orangey flavors and seem instead to be gins for people who don’t like gin. That includes some quite expensive and fashionable brands.
This piece, however, is in the end intended as a review of just one: Fleischmann’s gin. Amis certainly didn’t deal with it in his book, as it is not even an English gin. It was, in fact, the first American gin to be distilled, beginning in 1870. And much of its marketing and claim-to-fame during the hey-day of cocktails, sixty years ago and more, seems to have been that as an American gin it was well-suited to gin cocktails which originated in America, notably the martini and Tom Collins. The ads proclaimed it as being more mixable.
In the glass, both straight and with a little water, my first impression of Fleischmann’s (which I have not had reason to revise since) was that it possessed about the same flavor balance as Gordon’s (surely about as uncontroversial and plain an English-type-gin as you can find) but was distinctly milder and smoother. That might be a pro or con for some. Sipped in a glass with a splash of cold water and/or a nice clean ice-cube, it’s quite easy to forget you’re drinking much of anything at all. However, since it is 80 proof you will eventually realize it (although it should be noted that it and a number of other currently-80-proof-gins were once sold at 90 proof and more, so they are not precisely the same spirits they were decades ago). Another perspective would be that its mild flavor demands that you savor it all the more carefully.
Where I have personally found Fleischmann’s gin to greatly excel, however, goes right back to those old advertising claims. If making a dry martini is your thing (as it is sometimes mine) Fleischmann’s gin is well worth trying in order to compare the result to those more fashionable varieties of juniper juice. Do it right, using fresh vermouth, with no more than one part vermouth to six parts gin (and you can do with even half that much vermouth in my opinion), stir with ice and strain into pre-chilled martini glasses, with your preferred garnish or none, and then tilt the glass gently between your lips. You ought to experience a drink which offers a nearly ethereal smoothness of texture on the tongue, with a taste that is utterly clean, neither gin-like nor vermouth-like, but simply … martini-like. It is a very nice thing indeed (but before refilling always remember Dorothy Parker’s exceedingly-wise quote regarding martinis).
In other mixed drinks, the advantage of Fleischmann’s is more debatable. Personally, on those occasional summer days when I would have a gin and tonic, I prefer a gin with more kick in its flavor. But then the gin and tonic is British in origin, and there are plenty of British gins with ample kick. I’m not much for the Tom Collins regardless of gin.
I’ve found in the course of my life that both the availability and pricing of spirits can vary according to issues of regional distribution. Where I live, I can only find Fleischmann’s in one of the roughly four liquor stores I frequent. Price-wise, it’s great; it is one of the lowest-priced gins, there on the bottom shelf with some others that I’ve tried once and would not try again, and some that are too bottom-of-the-barrel in appearance for even me to try. So Fleischmann’s, in addition to being a very nice general gin, is— in my part of the world at least—a very great bargain.
In summary, then, I would hold that Fleischmann’s gin is not a drink of such surpassing excellence that one could drink it every day without getting bored—though a few such do exist, I believe—but all things considered it is a fine product of human ingenuity and long may it continue to be distilled.
Rating: Nine out of ten lead pipes.