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Arts and Letters

The Wages of Gin

The Philosophy of Gin
Jane Peyton
The British Library, pp. 112, $16.95


Nobody likes his first martini. I don’t think I was too keen on my second either. But at some point things clicked, and now I rarely drink anything else. I imagine most people’s experiences with spirits are similar. They take getting used to. 

This of course raises the question of why we bother trying to get used to them. There’s the old joke about the guy who’s asked why he keeps hitting himself with a hammer: “Because it feels so good when I stop.” But there’s more to repeated martini trials than that. It’s not the satisfaction of enduring something unpleasant that draws us in. Rather, even with the first sample, there’s something agreeable lurking behind the sting—something we sense that we might perceive more clearly if only we persevere, by disciplining the palate.

Even for the veteran drinker, each individual martini recapitulates this learning process. The initial sip is always bracing, even slightly unpleasant, like a cold swimming pool when you first put your foot in. The second goes down a bit more smoothly, and after that you’re in the zone. There are the familiar stages. At the start there’s just the brisk taste of frigid alcohol, but by the third sip the distinctive notes of the particular gin used are all detectable. After several minutes, the martini grows detectably warmer. But this is compensated for by the alcohol’s having begun to take effect, so that the strength of the spirit no longer needs masking by the cold. As you approach the bottom of the glass, the brine from the olive becomes unmistakable. It is bittersweet, a pleasant new note of its own, but, alas, one that heralds the end of this particular martini. 

You could, of course, always have a second. Sadly, I cannot, or at least I haven’t been able to do so after reaching middle age. Morpheus outwrestles Dionysus and I’m down for the count. The upside is that gin’s dormitive virtue has, for me, neutralized the possibility of drinking to excess. Though I suppose it is relevant that I absolutely always use the larger of the two standard martini glass sizes.

Arguably the hard road by which reluctant novice becomes habituated connoisseur recapitulates the history of gin itself. That, in any event, seems to me a lesson one might draw from Jane Peyton’s Philosophy of Gin. Notwithstanding its title, the book does not contain any abstract theorizing about its subject. It is devoted instead to a pleasing and well-written account of the long process by which what began as a rough and sometimes even dangerous spirit came to have the refined character and reputation for sophistication it enjoys today.

Gin developed out of a beverage known in the Low Countries during the sixteenth century as “genever.” The name is derived from the Dutch word for juniper, since juniper berries were used to flavor the spirit, which was distilled from malted cereal. Early genever, Peyton tells us, “could not be described as anything other than firewater,” and needed the masking effects of botanical ingredients to make it palatable. The so-called Glorious Revolution brought it to England alongside William of Orange, and what came to be known as “gin” remained so coarse that it had to be downed “quickly, almost desperately, and often without pleasure.” But it was simultaneously so potent and cheap that it took off with the poor masses. The result was the notorious eighteenth-century Gin Craze, immortalized in Hogarth’s print. The sequel was a public health crisis, due not only to widespread drunkenness but also to the dangerous ingredients (such as low doses of cyanide, turpentine, and sulfuric acid) inadvertently introduced into the spirit by the shoddy production methods of unscrupulous distillers.

Eventually, though, gin came to be associated with health benefits, or at least those of the ingredients with which it was commonly combined. To help battle scurvy among sailors, it was mixed with lime juice, yielding the gimlet. Medicinal bitters were added to it in order to aid digestion. An especially fateful innovation was to combine gin with quinine tonic water, which was regarded as a prophylactic against malaria. When British colonists took this practice back home with them, the gin and tonic would make the spirit a respectable libation for polite society. With the martini, gin at last reached its apotheosis, its telos or final cause, the grand oak toward which the lowly genever acorn had been aiming all along.

To be sure, the ascent was not steady. There were temporary reversals. The bathtub gin of the Prohibition era could sometimes be as dangerous as the stuff the characters in Hogarth’s print were swilling. Especially humiliating were those dark years in the middle of the twentieth century when that weak sister vodka eclipsed gin as the preferred martini base, at least for those hipsters who’d still deign to drink a martini in the first place. But like bell-bottom jeans, helmet hair, and that period’s other lapses in taste, this one was mercifully short, and by the Eighties gin regained its hard-won status.

What is the source of its appeal, then? Why do we persist past that first stinging sip? Why does the beginner make a second and third attempt before, finally, actually enjoying a martini? Why did History Itself carry gin from its humble origins as cheap, drinkable paint thinner to the reliably smooth sophistication found in Tanqueray and other venerable mass market brands no less than in boutique options such as Four Pillars? 

Peyton notes that part of the attraction has to do with the “pageantry” of making a gin-based cocktail. Now, all martini adepts are well familiar with the obsessives—people who insist on merely misting the glass lightly with a vermouth sprayer, and other such preciousness. But you needn’t go to such scrupulous extremes to see Peyton’s point. A martini must be made correctly. The glass must be chilled, and the gin must be arctic. A non-trivial amount of vermouth is fine, but it must never add more than an additional mild note. “Dirtying” the martini a bit with a little more juice than is already there in the olive is okay, but too much of that and you’re left with a soup rather than a cocktail.

All of us have pasts, sins we’ve had to repent of, episodes we recall with shame. One of mine is the time, many years ago, when I mixed two bad martinis for a couple who had never had one but were keen to try. I have never brought this up in the confessional, but not for lack of guilt. I feel I let down the side. The glasses were too large, and thus the amount of alcohol too great for the inexperienced. But worse, the glasses and the gin had not been sufficiently chilled. My friends were too polite to say anything, but their expressions gave it away. They were like that of someone trying hard to look placid in the dentist’s chair and not entirely succeeding. If there were any doubt, it was dispelled by the fact that each glass was still two-thirds full by the end of the evening. At least they enjoyed the olive, I think.

Confucius insists that it is absolutely imperative for the good of society and the character of the individual that rituals be performed correctly. It is, perhaps, an innate if dim awareness of this truth that attracts us to the martini, as Peyton’s remark suggests. But since cocktails with a different base also have a touch of ceremony about them, there must be more to the story. And it is, I submit, hiding in plain sight—precisely in the stern, unforgiving taste that initially repels but at the same time draws us back for more. Gin is in that way like human life itself, which, as Woody Allen famously exclaims in Annie Hall, is “full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” Gin gives us tough love, bitter at first but increasingly warm and even comforting as it travels down to the stomach. It intoxicates us with the sober truth. In martinī veritas

It is no accident that gin, more than other spirits, is often said to produce sadness. But its sadness is like that of nostalgia or unrequited love, which arises not from revulsion but rather from frustrated attraction, and is for that reason strangely pleasant. We are drawn to it because we see good not only beyond the mild melancholy it generates but even in that melancholy. 

For this reason, and despite its vaguely Protestant associations, gin is a most Catholic spirit. Indeed, I was gratified to find Peyton reporting that “the first written proof of the concoction that evolved into gin came from mid-eleventh-century monks at a monastery in Salerno, Italy.” (Take that, William of Orange!) My point runs deeper, however. Christ is closest to us precisely when we suffer the most, and thus falsely seem cast off by Him. It is at those moments that we can best unite ourselves to His Passion. And when we meditate upon this we can find joy even in suffering. 

It would, needless to say, be absurd to press too far any analogy between a deep theological truth and an alcoholic beverage. But this is an essay on the philosophy of gin (of all things), so some pretentiousness is only to be expected. The Catholic faith instructs us that pain is neither an accident nor pointless, but is an inevitable part of the condition of fallen man, and its penitential acceptance a means to our sanctification. Perhaps the attraction of gin is that in its own eccentric way it teaches, and exemplifies, the truth that the deepest satisfactions are to be found in what is hard rather than in what is easy. That is why the martini is the paradigmatic adult drink, slowly savored with the patience of a man who has earned some leisure after a long and difficult day—in contrast, say, to the shallow, greedy hedonism of the drunken frat boy or soccer hooligan. Mere beer is small beer by comparison.

I’ve been speaking as if the martini were the only gin-based drink worth bothering with. Of course, that’s not true. Other such drinks exist, albeit only for the purpose of giving us something to do with gin that isn’t suitable for making martinis. Before the conclave that gave us Pope Benedict XVI, a joke made the rounds to the effect that Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini was destined to be elected, given that Saint Malachy’s famous prophecy had characterized the pope to come as the “glory of the olive.” The phrase did not, as it happens, fit the man, but it does indeed fit the cocktail that is his namesake.

Edward Feser is professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College.

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