The Fancy Gin Cocktail is another drink from the 19th century that isn’t as much a specific drink as it is the idea of a drink. In the contemporary landscape of the time, selection of cocktails was a bit more narrow than we enjoy 150 years later, and that meant cocktails were mostly identified by class. Cocktail itself is, or was, a kind of mixed drink labeled today as an Old Fashioned, but, once bartenders started getting creative, there emerged a wave of “improved” cocktails, such as the Improved Brandy Cocktail, and the Improved Whiskey Cocktail, and eventually, “fancy” cocktails like the Fancy Gin Cocktail. They aren’t tied to specific recipes exactly, they’re more like a “make it kinda this way” type of thing, but we can take the general idea and stay true to form, at least in simplicity if not in specificity.
A fancy cocktail, in the vernacular of a Victorian world, is one with a base spirit, some sugar, bitters, and liqueur. Sound familiar? There’s other kinds of fancy cocktail for sure, but this one, the formula for the Fancy Gin Cocktail, is what’s on the menu today. If we consider this fancy cocktail from the point of whiskey, it’s an Old Fashioned with a dash of something more. With gin, however, it’s not so simple. The London dry we’re used to came late to the scene, so it’s not likely gin would have been the spirit of choice in anyone’s Old Fashioned. Genever, on the other hand, well, that sounds like something that would work.
Genever is older than gin, in fact, it’s the direct ancestor of gin. Before there was gin, there was genever, and the two are only somewhat similar. They do both rely on juniper, genever, originally spelled jenever, is so named because of the juniper berry, jeneverbes, in it, but that’s were similarities diverge. Genever, the OG genever from as far back as the 1500s according to some, was first made by distilling a malt wine called moutwijn. That’s a bit different from how one makes gin, but it’s also a bit different from how one makes genever. Modern genever, that is.
There are two kinds of genever, old, or oude, and young, or jonge, and each is distilled differently. The difference between young and old is one of process and style, not age, and those differences are mostly because of the Great War. Not entirely because of the war, technology plays a hand in the evolution of genever, but the Great War is the one event that made jonge genever the practical option because war limited access to imported grains, which meant there wasn’t enough malt, and therefore there also wasn’t enough moutwijn for the oud genever.
Fortunately, around 1900, the technology of distilling had reached a point where high grade neutral alcohol was both possible and reasonably made in large quantity. This satisfied, and perhaps encouraged, a taste for lighter, less flavorful spirits, and coincides with a time, give or take a decade or so, when London dry gin was quickly becoming the standard of what we think of as gin. One can look at the murky history of booze and see that drinks like the Martini, the Tuxedo, and the Martinez were already plenty well known, but the style of gin in each was still up for debate. Experimentation was in order, and genever producers embraced the technical advances, then, in time, adapted. The war simply limited the supply of materials that were, realistically, not as much in demand.
For us, in Oregon, we’re kinda out of bounds when it comes to genever. There are, however, some reasonable alternatives. You could make this drink with a Portland style gin, and bring some local citrus forward spirit to the party, or you could use Aviation gin, which, with it’s sarsaparilla and restrained juniper lends a unique character to the Fancy Gin Cocktail, but, for us, we want something a bit more old world and reach for New Deal Gin no. 1. No, Gin no. 1 isn’t genever, but it’s interesting in many of the same ways. It’s not a direct stand-in for imported genever, and we imagine that’s even more true of 19th century genever, but Gin no. 1, subtleties included, has so much going for it that we use it in almost every recipe that calls for genever. Its smooth, its gin, it tastes like an herb garden, and it’s all we need.
We need some other things, too, but Gin no. 1 is all we need to get started. Now, for a fancy cocktail, you could add any kind of liqueur, and you’ll see recipes that use triple sec, or curacao, and others use maraschino. We like Grand Marnier, which is a brandy based orange liqueur. You could use Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, which is also brandy based, but the Grand Marnier brings much more of the brandy and tones the orange down a bit. That means it makes the Fancy Gin Cocktail taste more like the relic it is, because brandy just says morning coat, riding to the office on a horse, and sitting around guffawing over snifters and fancy drinks. But don’t take our word for it. A fancy drink isn’t about accuracy or ingredient, it’s about formula, so try it with different gin and try it with different liqueurs. It’s just as great with creme de mure, or Clear Creak Pear Brandy, so make it yours and call it what you want. A fancy Portland cocktail, perhaps.
2 oz New Deal Gin no. 1
1 tsp Grand Marnier
1 dash Simple syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters
Stir with ice and serve up. Garnish with a lemon twist.
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