Spirited Away: Gin vs Whiskey
After many years of rubbing elbows with fellow barstool perched patrons I’ve come to the realisation that there are two types of people in the world; those who prefer the elegance of gin and those who love the warmth of whiskey. But which one reigns supreme? Which one tastes, smells and inebriates better? Who would win in a fight if given physical manifestations and then knives? That’s where Spirited Away comes in, quietly muttering its opinion into a half empty glass while the rest of the world wrestles over the answer to the next part of ‘wine is fine but…’.
Both spirits have a rich history of being distilled and defended as the supreme spirit across the world, with each one featuring particularly different uses than simply being consumed as alcohol. By now this should come as no surprise, as essentially everything in the world has, at some point or another, somehow been used as a potential intemperance. Elephants ferment fruit to get drunk, dolphins toy with pufferfish to get high and amidst the quack days of medicine, one man tried to harness electricity for, well, ‘pleasant tingling’.
The less said about that the better, so let us swiftly move onto comparing Gin and Whiskey. As usual, a few contestants will step forward (or be unwillingly chosen due to my biased criteria) and be judged according to price, quality, how good they are on their own, what food works wonders as pairings, and which cocktails bring out the best of them. Gratefully that last point won’t simply be a ‘Gin & Tonic’ or a ‘Jack Daniels & Coke’, proving that there’s more to these base spirits than basic recipes.
We’ll start with gin, distilling the truth of its origins right off the bat by revealing that, despite popular opinion, the Dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius did not invent the spirit. In fact, its existence (in the form of genever) was confirmed in the early 17th century play ‘The Duke of Milan’ when Sylvius wasn’t even ten years old. So much for that origin story, though another rumoured tale does hint at the term ‘Dutch Courage’, which is said to have stemmed from English soldiers drinking the spirit to calm their nerves in Antwerp during the Eighty Years’ War. It’s in Antwerp that the first record of genever comes from, in the form of a 16th century recipe in ‘Een Constelijck Distileerboec’, so in reality who knows where it comes from? All that matters is that Britain saw its popularity spike when William of Orange occupied the British throne in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and since then it has been a staple of cocktail parties and classless binges ever since.
Whiskey, on the other hand, is considerably more dated in history. As it is merely fermented and distilled grain mash many cultures have found a myriad uses for it before transforming it into the firewater we know and love today. Thought to have been practiced way back in the second millennium BC, Babylonians were said to have distilled grains for such uses as perfumes, with records from across the globe in the first millennium AD of the same general practice. It was only considered fit for medicinal purposes around the 13th century when it was distilled in monasteries to treat such blighting ailments as smallpox. The 17th century text ‘Annals of Clonmacnoise’ speaks of a chieftain at the beginning of the 15th century drinking themselves to death on the ironically named ‘Aqua Vitae’, or ‘Water of Life’, so logic dictates human civilization has been enjoying whiskey for over half a millennia.
But enough of yestercentury, we’re here to discuss who would come out on top; the Gin Giant or the Whiskey Warrior. Terrible monikers? Yes. An interesting contest? Also yes, which is evident in my very first examples of each drinking. In the gin soaked corner we have the classic Bombay Sapphire, a triple distilled dry gin that’s essentially the industry standard. Far from the lower rungs of the ladder, with some stating Gordons or Beefeater fills those slots, Bombay Sapphire is normally priced around a modest £20, but serves as a splendid base for any cocktail. When consumed straight its 40% proof is hard to ignore, though the delicate, fragrant flavours do create a certain distinct taste that, over ice, is undeniably smooth. Although it may be considered cheating I’d say Bombay Sapphire can’t be beaten as part of a Long Island Iced Tea, even if it’s equal part gin, rum, tequila and vodka. Timeless and almost universally beloved, the Long Island Iced Tea is not only delicious but incredibly potent, making it a sure fire party starter. Much like the eclectic nature of the drink itself I couldn’t think of any better pairing for this cocktail than a diverse collection of bites, such as a Sharing Platter at a restaurant, with nibbles such as chicken goujons, tempura fried prawns and breaded garlic mushrooms. Not only will a hearty ensemble hold back the alcoholic tides, but the ever elusive flavour of the drink will almost certainly adapt to each different taste bud tantalising morsel in a glorious way.
Then of course we have the whiskey drenched corner, standing firm with a bourbon contender; Wild Turkey. The liquid that ran more predominately than blood in Hunter S Thompson’s veins, Wild Turkey is one of the prestigious Kentucky based bourbons that’s only deemed suitable for general sale after being aged for minimum of six years white oak barrels. This gives it a full, strong flavour with hints of spice and vanilla, though honestly only those with nerves of steel and tongues of leather will be able to enjoy, or endure, Wild Turkey straight up. As it warms the entire body going down it’s only fitting that the drink it’s used in is warm as well, and it’s that shoddy logic that makes me think an Irish Coffee is an ideal candidate for Wild Turkey’s enrichment, though given the nature of the bourbon I suppose it’d be more accurate to call it a Kentucky Coffee. Whatever section of the country you wish to designate your hot cocktail to, you’ll need to have the right stuff for it; no instant coffee, no hastily filtered junk, either slowly and carefully brew some strong beans in a cafetiere or grab some Americano pods for a coffee machine. Traditionally mixed with a 3:1 ratio of coffee to bourbon, along with cream and brown sugar, there’s little one can do to enhance this drink, though a personal augmentation of mine is to substitute standard cream for Baileys cream and use only raw brown sugar. This’ll help to sweeten the whole affair and cushion the blow when the bourbon kicks in. Best enjoyed after a meal, some exemplary pairings for this cocktail would simply be dark chocolate, though the more indulgent could certainly find a heavenly combination with a chocolate bombe, especially if the aforementioned Baileys cream adorns the dessert as well as the drink.
Now to observe the richer side of the spectrum, the closing argument for gin manifests as the slightly stronger, slightly more expensive Hendricks. Infused with traditional botanicals and a unique blend of rose petals, cucumber and citrus peel, Hendricks presents an unorthodox yet enticing medley of flavours for gin drinkers. It’s generally considered a higher quality than most standard gins, which makes it a fine contender for the king of all gin cocktails; the Martini. A quintessential cocktail that has transcended the mere status as a drink, a perfect Martini is virtually impossible to create so why not take a few liberties with your own version? Simple yet sophisticated, it’s best to start by leaving crushed ice in a Martini glass to make it cold to the touch whilst mixing roughly a 1:3 ratio of dry vermouth to gin in a cocktail shaker that, despite the numerous iterations of Bond’s insistences, should be stirred and not shaken with a healthy amount of ice. Conventionally this is topped with a zest of lemon and garnished with olives, after being drained from the shaker of course, but why not add your own flair? Whenever I’ve been brave enough to make one I add a squeeze of lemon juice to the cocktail shaker first and give it a quick shake. Adding both a zest of lemon and lime will create a subtle contrast with each sip as well, or throw half the blueprints out and substitute the dry vermouth for lychee vodka and garnish the drink with a single lychee to make a Lychtini. They’re incredibly strong and incredibly tasty, making for a lighter alternative in case the classic Martini seems too daunting. A fantastic pairing once again comes with the adage of variety being the spice of life, so a mixture of Italian Antipasti (cold cooked meats, cheeses, bread & oil, and even olives for that cherry-on-top feeling) is a superb way of sampling the best of both food and drink orientated worlds, though a safe, single bet would be something sublime like smoked salmon and Melba toast.
Equally as extravagant and somewhat less orthodox is my final choice for whiskey, which comes from the master distiller and blender Eigashima Shuzo. An average 40% potency yet often reaching the price of around £30, Akashi is something that’s certainly worth specially ordering, if for no other reason than to offer guests a whiskey with something a little different. Blended from 30% malted barley and 70% grain and matured for five years in both Hogshead and white oak barrels, Akashi is an exquisite whiskey that’s awash with notes of wood, dried fruits and an almost sugary aftertaste, making it superb on the rocks and ideal for a vibrant cocktail such as the Black Ship. Made exclusively with Japanese whiskeys, the Black Ship is prepared in a manner not unlike the Martini, albeit shaken with a hint of port and a generous portion of pomegranate juice. Considerably easier to drink than the Martini, the Black Ship is a blissful way to round off an evening as well as a wonderful partner to a hearty, creamy main course. I’d recommend either a goat’s cheese and spinach roulade or a feta cheese and walnut tartlet, something that holds a sumptuous taste yet retains enough tones of neutrality to allow the enchanting flavours of the Black Ship to really flow.
Each option I’ve outlined holds a dear part of my heart, as although I rarely opt for either whiskey or gin at a bar or restaurant I’ve created some fond memories with each of these spirits and cocktails. But this isn’t about my opinions, it’s about the general populace; the utilitarian approach to drinking. Essentially I can boil it down to these factors, that if you’re a straight shooter and don’t mess around with mixers or cocktails then whiskey’ll be a considerably better option, what with it being so well received with a wealth of dishes and occasions, though those seeking something different with each dining experience or new bar explored will see that the possibilities with gin are vastly larger. These kind of experiences, even when drinking with all tolerances and tastes, can be facilitated far easier with gin as well, as even if you’re relaxing with a group of similarly iron gutted friends there’s only so long you can sip straight whiskey. It’s because of this I have to give declare this war won by gin, without having to send out that foul concoction of ‘Gin & Tonic’ out onto the battlefield.
Think I judged poorly? Or do you have any exquisite cocktail recipes or food pairings for either of these spirits? Why not tell us about them in the comments section below, or via Facebook or twitter! And be sure to check out the rest of the gourmet goodness on the Gourmet Society blog!
By Tom Simpkins