Solving the Riddle of Old Tom Gin

A minor, but persistent, historical mystery in the annals of alcohol is the precise nature of the great 19 th-century English favorite, Old Tom gin.

If you like Charles Dickens and his teeming world of characters, you will have come across it. If you’re the different types who detects amusement in poking through yellowing old cocktail books and contemplating the drinks your great-grandmother knocked back when she was on a spree, you’ll be more than familiar with it, as the spirit appears in the early recipes for the Martini, the Ramos Gin Fizz, the Tom Collins, and a number of other enduring classics of American mixology.

Even if you’re not so interested in the book-work, if you still care about what you drink you’re likely to have come across it in the places where serious cocktail-sipping is done these days, and on the shelves of the kind of liquor store that stocks 12 orange liqueurs, 21 mezcals, and 32 different gins.

That’s a somewhat new development. A decade ago, you would have searched in vain for an example of Old Tom gin. The last brand standing, Boord’s, was a bottom-shelf lurker with distribution that could best be described as “quixotic” or “semi-fictional.” Old Tom was one of those old-fashioned favourites that only couldn’t keep up with the modern world. That fact imbued it with a good deal of sparkle dust in the eyes of cocktail geeks: Along with absinthe, rye whiskey, Dutch genever, Batavia arrack, and weird old liqueurs such as creme de violette and Creme Yvette, Old Tom was one of those things the modern world had taken away from us; one of the very best old tipples we were forced to trade for Midori, spiced rum, and 138 different flavors of vodka. We wanted it back.

The only problem: We didn’t really know what it was , not exactly. Even worse , now, after 10 years and at least a couple of dozen different new Old Tom gins on the market, we still don’t. The books–including some by me–will tell you that it was what came before London dry gin; that it was sweetened; that sometimes it spent a little time in the barrel, and that–well, that’s pretty much where they stop. Those things aren’t precisely wrong. For mixing the occasional drinking, they’re probably all you need to know. But they’re not the whole story , not by a long shot.

The real narrative has been elusive for a reason. In proportion, that’s because it involves the complex, ever shifting British excise tax system( and a lot of math ). But it’s also because it’s a story that, back in 19 th-century London, a lot of people didn’t especially want told. Old Tom gin was a” compound spirit ,” and compound spirits were the hot dogs of the drinks world: If you considered what went into it, you probably wouldn’t let it pass your lips.

Before get into Old Tom itself, we’ve got to take a quick look at how the gin industry worked in 19 th-century England. What follows is a little complicated, but I’ll try to keep it as clear as possible.

The Gin Trade

To make gin in 1800 s London, you would have started with a grain spirit. You had to buy this alcohol from a” malted distiller ,” one of a handful of huge-scale operators located in the out-of-the-way, industrial parts of the metropolis or in the surrounding districts.( After the Gin Craze of the early 1700 s, when it seemed like a one-quarter of the houses in London had a gin-still somewhere on the premises turning out what was basically liquid cracking, the British government adjusted the excise statutes so that as few people as is practicable did the actual fermenting of grain and distilling of alcohol. Easier to control, and much easier to tax .) What you got from these firms was basically whiskey, double pot-distilled and unaged, sold at the standard strength of” 1 to 10 overproof” or” 7 degrees overproof ,” depending on whether you used Clarke’s hydrometer or Sikes’s. Or, as we would put it after doing a lot of math( they measured alcohol rather differently than we do ), 61 percent alcohol.

That whiskey, or rather” raw spirit ,” as the government labeled it with admirable honesty, wasn’t like the stuff that goes into barrels to become single-malt Scotch. For one thing, it didn’t have to be made strictly from malted. There could be some wheat in there, although not more than a third of the total grain. There could be rye, unmalted barley and/ or oats, as well as brewer’s draff( the stuff left over from stimulating brew ), spoiled, rat-bitten or saltwater-damaged barley, and all the other rubbish of the grain world. For another thing, the distillers were so heavily taxed that everything was about volume. They fermented as fast as is practicable, simmered off the alcohol in weird-shaped, shallow stills that could be worked rapidly, and didn’t worry much about making a clean cut. Nor could you really shop around for a better spirit: The malt distillers worked as a cartel, and any of them trying to charge more or less or sell a better product was rapidly brought into line.

The next step in the chain was the “rectifier.” Rectifiers took the raw whiskey, redistilled it once to round off some of the rough edges and a second period with a mix of botanicals to flavor it( we’ll get at that ), watered it down, put it in barrels or huge earthenware jugs, and sold it. They had to water it down, because the government mandated that a” compound spirit “– basically, any spirit that had been flavored, be it cherry brandy, orange Curacao, “mint-water,” or, of course, gin–couldn’t be sold above a certain proof: 22 degrees under proof( 44.6 percentage alcohol by volume) until 1819, 17 under proof( 47.4 percentage ABV) after that. I can’t think of any other reason for this law than to keep gin from being too strong; too keep the street corners of London free of heaps of random drunks, passed out and drooling.

After the rectifier went the retailer: the public house on the corner, the wine and spirits merchant up on the high street. What the customer wanted from them was something strong and piney and sweet–gin was invariably sweetened for consumption–and, perhaps most importantly, cheap. Gin was not an elegant spirit; British aristocrats did not sip it in their drawing room. Gin was what marketplace females drank on wet, biting mornings; what coachmen nipped on while waiting by their horses; what you scraped together your farthings and ha’pennies for a shot of. It was the poor man’s solace; the nearest exit, is accessible to all.

At 47.4 percentage ABV, what the publican and the wine-seller bought from the rectifier was strong enough, but it was unsweetened and still pretty expensive, even after the rectifier held back a good chunk of the alcohol. Their solution was the same as the modern-day corner drug dealer: They stepped on it. “Reduced” it, to use the word of art. That entailed dumping the gin into a vat and adding sugar and water and, in a great many cases, a “doctor.” That was a little proprietary formula that each retailer would mix in to construct the watered-down gin taste like it wasn’t watered down. Some cayenne pepper or grains of paradise for bite, a little sulfuric acid to make it throw off the right sized bubbles( the working-man’s way of testing the strength of a spirit was to shake it and look at the size and perseverance of the bubbles ), maybe a little quicklime to clarify it, a dash of carbonate of potash and a little alum to dry it out. The government didn’t care what you added or how much: There was no Pure Food and Drug Act and no minimum proof at which compound spirits could be sold until 1879.

Comb through London newspapers from the early 19 th century, and you’ll come across countless ads from the merchants hawking the range of gin they carried. But that range wasn’t different brands, like it is today. It was all the same gin, but reduced to different degrees. At the top of the list was ” unsweetened gin ,” unreduced and straight from the rectifier–basically, London dry gin, just like we have today[ SEE BELOW ]. That was always expensive. Maybe not as much as imported French Cognac, but more than a poor person could afford.( This was entail not for people who liked to drink their gin unsweetened, of whom there were very few indeed, but instead for those finicky working-class aristocrats who preferred to reduce their own gin and thus drink it un-doctored and were able to pay for the privilege .)

Then went the various grades of” cordial gin ,” gin that had been reduced, from the most softly stepped-on to–well, in an 1854 analysis of gins sold in London, the Lancet found some tested out to as low as 22 percent ABV. The 39 percent change in ABV between the 61 percent of the raw spirit and that 22 percent entailed a lot of profit for somebody and a fairly nasty, heavily-doctored dram for the poor soul who could afford no better.

Old Tom

London had a lot of rectifiers, but only a few big ones. Many of their names are enshrined in the history of gin: Philip Booth& Sons, Seager and Evans, Nicholson Bros, Tanqueray& Currie, and Gordon, Son& Knight all made it into the 20 th century in one form and another, and a couple of the names have survived into the 21 st. Others fell by the wayside early: David Deady, John Liptrap, and Charles Smith were each leading rectifiers and helped shape the gin we drink today, but their names faded early. Another one that didn’t make it to the 20 th century was perhaps the most famous of all.

Sometime in the 1770 s, Benjamin Hodges, an enterprising young man from Gloucestershire, began rectifying gin in Millbank, a little enclave of Westminster tucked up against the Thames between Westminster Abbey and the fast-disappearing bit of open land known as Tothill Fields. In 1800, give or take a couple of years, he took his kinsman, Thomas Chamberlain, on as a partner. It was a strong partnership: Hodges had a good head for business and Chamberlain knew everything about distilling and rectifying.

When a potential customer–a vintner or a publican–would stop in at the distillery, Chamberlain would treat him to a glass of gin, pre-reduced and ready to drinking. For an ordinary kind of customer, this would be an ordinary sort of gin, something reduced to, perhaps, 37 percentage ABV, sweetened with about an ounce-and-a-half of sugar per quart( the average in the Lancet ‘ s test ). If, however, it was ” a desirable customer, whom it was considered advisable to propitiate ,” as the editor of Notes& Queries wrote in 1868, apparently from working knowledge, Chamberlain would invite him into the little laboratory he kept at the back of the distillery, where he did all his compounding, and treat him to a glass of his “particular.” This was a rather stronger gin: just as sweet, but not reduced beyond 47.4 percentage ABV, the highest legal proof.( There was no statute to prevent rectifiers from doing this, but it was uneconomical, as the customers were going to add their own sugar anyway and had no incentive to pay extra for pre-sweetened gin, which meant that the rectifier would have to throw in the sugar for nothing .)

Before long, of course, word got out, and even the ordinary kind of customers were asking for Chamberlain’s particular, and” Old Tom’s gin” became a kind of watchword for the good stuff. In 1810, it made it into print for the first time, when a correspondent for the London Statesman fell it into a couple of column on the impromptu sporting activities of the kinds of people who drink gin. By 1812, it was being advertised in the paper. Not by Hodges& Chamberlain, of course, but by the retailers they sold their gin to. Before long, other retailers accommodated the term, even if they bought their gin from Philip Booth or Seager& Evans or David Deady. As one vintner explained it in 1830, it was only the” best and strongest cordial gin” that was ” sold under the general name of Old Tom .” If it wasn’t at maximum legal proof, like the stuff Old Tom poured in his lab, it was just under.

Old Tom himself was dead by 1817. By then, Benjamin Hodges and his son, Benjamin George, had moved the distillery immediately across the river to Lambeth, where it would attain enormous amounts of gin until the 1870 s, when Benjamin Goeorge’s son Frederick was forced to sell out. Early on, though, the firm had cemented its reputation by bottling its Old Tom in sealed, labeled–branded, in other words–bottles and shipping them worldwide. Hodges Old Tom was the instance everyone reached for when they needed to name a London gin. It was a premium product, the best on the market. Even if it was too late to trademark the name, Londoners knew.

Finally, we have to ask just what was in those bottles? One of them stimulated it into the Lancet survey, and that dedicates us some basic datum. It was strong, for one thing: 48.2 percent ABV, which was actually above the legal proof. Sugar was five-and-a-half ounces per gallon, which works out to 26 grams–just under an ounce–for a 750 -milliliter bottle. That’s sweet, but not liqueur sweet( some gins tested had more than three times that amount ). By 1854, the base spirit that Hodges was buying from the malt distillers would have been much cleaner and lighter than anything Old Tom himself worked with, since the distillers had be changed to modern continuous stills, much like the ones used today. There would have been a little colouring to the gin: an 1859 description of a visit to the distillery notes, besides the four huge pot-stills,” about 60 immense vats ,” huge wooden tanks where the gin was pumped when it came off the still. These would have worked much like the vats reposado tequila goes into to remainder after distillation.

Then there were the botanicals. Here, we have to guess: as distiller William Augustus Smyth noted in 1781, gin” has as many different flavors, as there are distillers who make it .” That was still true in 1854, and it’s still true now. But Hodges was a quality distiller, which meant that they would have used actual juniper berries in their distillation. Less scrupulous distillers employed oil of juniper, or even turpentine.( Again, there was no FDA to keep them honest .) To round out the juniper, there would be coriander, for its lemony notes, angelica root, which boosts the flavor of the juniper, a little orris root, which helps to tie the other flavors together, and perhaps a couple more botanicals as grace notes–orange peel, grains of paradise, almonds, calamus root.

In 1879, the British government ultimately defined a minimum strength of 37 percentage ABV at which compound spirits could be retailed. This basically put an end to retailers reducing their own gin, as the most profit came when you added the most water. Besides, thanks to pioneers, such as Hodges& Co ., who insisted on bottling their own product, customers knew what the real stuff was supposed to taste like. Strong, more than a little sweet, with a nice ping of juniper. Merely the thing to mix with a little lemon juice and some soda water, or a splashing of sweet vermouth and a couple of dashes of orange bitters.

The real mystery to Old Tom gin, after all this, is that it has been hiding in plain sight. It wasn’t some secret precursor of London dry gin; it had no arcane special ingredients or antiquated formulae. From the 1840 s on, it was just neutral spirit flavored with the same botanicals being implemented in London dry gin to this day. If you want to mix up some of those vintage Old Tom drinkings, you can buy a bottle of one of the new bottlings on the market, of course. Or you can make like those finicky, working-class aristocrats and reduce your own. All it takes is a 750 -milliliter bottle of Beefeater or Tanqueray or other old-school gin–still bottled at 47 percent alcohol( I love tradition !)– a little sugar and a little water. Five teaspoons of sugar, to be precise( or 26 grams, to be preciser ), dissolved over a low flame in half an ounce of water. Let it cool, pour it into the bottle and bam: Old Tom.

It’ll be a little cloudy, but to get rid of that you need egg whites and sulfuric acid and–better let it be cloudy. If you have one of those little barrels people age cocktails in, you can set the gin in there for a week or so if you want.

But whichever you do, purchase or reduce, be sure to lift a glass to old Thomas Chamberlain, who knew everything there was to know about gin, and more than a little about customer relations.

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Something's Brewing in the Lab: Beer Without Hops – New York Times

New York Times

Something's Brewing in the Lab: Beer Without Hops
New York Times
If Americans will eat a burger with no meat, will they drink a beer without hops? Charles Denby, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, might have made it an option. Dr. Denby works in a lab that focuses on creating sustainable fuel
Brewing hoppy beer without the hopsPhys.Org
Scientists have brewed a hoppy-tasting beer—without the hopsScience Magazine
Craft beer may get cheaper thanks to GM yeast with hoppy flavourNew Scientist

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Review: PicoBrew Pico

Brewing beer is a complex mixture of arts and science. To make a typical pilsner, for example, barley is malted, milled, then steeped in hot water to create wort, a liquid that smells like the perfect breakfast. Hops are added for bitterness and flavor, then yeast to create intricacy and, of course, make alcohol. Carbonation comes from forcing CO2 into the mix, or, with hour, it can carbonate naturally, spurred along by feeding extra sugar to the yeast.

PicoBrew Pico

5/ 10


It attains brew!


It’s loud, it’s bulky, and you don’t learn a lot about brewing.

How We Rate

1/ 10 A complete failure in every way 2/ 10 Sad, really 3/ 10 Serious flaws; proceed with caution 4/ 10 Downsides outweigh upsides 5/ 10 Recommended with reservations 6/ 10 Solid with some issues 7/ 10 Very good, but not quite great 8/ 10 Excellent, with room to kvetch 9/ 10 Nearly flawless 10/ 10 Metaphysical perfection

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Brewing hoppy beer without the hops – Phys.Org


Brewing hoppy beer without the hops
Why would brewers want to use yeast instead of hops to impart flavor and aroma? According to Charles Denby, one of two first authors of a paper appearing this week in the journal Nature Communications, growing hops uses lots of water, not to mention
Something’s Brewing in the Lab: Beer Without HopsNew York Times
Craft beer may get cheaper thanks to GM yeast with hoppy flavourNew Scientist

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Scientists have brewed a hoppy-tasting beer—without the hops – Science Magazine

Science Magazine

Scientists have brewed a hoppy-tasting beer—without the hops
Science Magazine
Lots of craft beer enthusiasts have a thing for hops—flowers that, when added to the brewing process, yield a bitter taste and a distinctive floral aroma. But hop flowers are expensive, and producing them takes 100 billion liters of water a year in
Something’s Brewing in the Lab: Beer Without HopsNew York Times
Brewing hoppy beer without the hopsUC Berkeley
Craft beer may get cheaper thanks to GM yeast with hoppy flavourNew Scientist

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‘These Storms Are Just Crazy’: Craft Beer Brewers Are Feeling Consequences Of Climate Change

Hurricane Irene’smarch through Vermont’s Mad River Valley in 2011 tore down bridges and turned roads to rubble in towns like Waterbury. The storm littered businesses and city offices with debris and sewage, and injury close to 100 homes.

One of its victims was The Alchemist brewpub, which owneds John and Jen Kimmich had constructed from the ground-up into a darling of the craft brew scene, known throughout New England for Heady Topper, its standout India pale ale.

Boston Globe via Getty Images Alchemist brewery owneds John and Jen Kimmich

When the waters receded, very little in the brewery was salvageable. If the Kimmichs were ever going to make Heady Topper again, they would have to start from scratch.

“We had a decision to construct — either make an insurance assert and sell our business, or double down, focus on growth and rehire everyone, ” tells Jen Kimmich. She and her husband opted for the latter, rebuilding on higher ground with a stronger structure.

In the face of a changing climate, craft breweries such as The Alchemist are feeling potential impacts. More than 5,000 craft breweries now operate across the U.S ., and many were built in affordable but precarious locations, like floodplains or forests, building them especially vulnerable to extreme weather events like Hurricane Irene and shifting climate patterns that threaten their business.

Breweries rely on raw ingredients such as hops, water and grain, and renders can be choked off by drought, storms or pests. These problems will only become more intense with climate change, scientists say.

Bloomberg via Getty Images Hops

Climate sways have already resulted in U.S. hop shortages that had brewers sourcing from as far away as Argentina. To survive the next climate-driven hop squeezing, Kimmich has a plan. “The best route we are capable of mitigate that risk is to pre-pay for hops, ” she says. “That puts us first in line in case there’s another shortage.”

The Alchemist isn’t alone in pre-paying for hops. Most craft breweries purchase hop contracts — several years in advance, in some cases. However, if hop shortages become more frequent, which scientists have predicted will happen in some regions due to climate change, there may not even be a line for buyers to wait in. Nature has a habit of throwing a wrench into things.

Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville, Massachusetts, experienced that firsthand this year, when hops the operators expected from western Massachusetts were delayed, then canceled.

“Unfortunately, due to the late-season warm climate this year, the crop was not ready until way later than expected, ” tells Ben Holmes, co-owner of Aeronaut. “Finally, when[ they] was just going to harvest, they were hit by a bad blight, which knocked out the entire crop.”

Aside from shocks to his hops furnish, Holmes has had to contend with rising utility bills imposed by the city to address its aging sewer and storm drainage systems, which officials say are ill equipped to handle major blizzards and rising seas.

“As Somerville tries to cope with climate change, we are facing bigger and bigger challenges with flooding, mitigation of which is involving major infrastructure investments which are incidentally being tacked onto our water bill proportional to use, ” Holmes says.

Boston Globe via Getty Images A girl jumps over a puddle after a heavy rain in Davis Square in Somerville, MA, in September

Since his brewery utilizes a lot of water — not just for brew, but also for cleaning tanks, hoses and kegs — Aeronaut objective up paying a lot toward Somerville’s cost of preparing for climate change. In fact, craft breweries across the nation are investing in wastewater therapy and solar power generation to offset rising utility bills.

New Belgium Brewing Co.’s solar panels, for example, generate almost 5 percent of the power for its packaging facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. Louisiana’s Abita Brewing Co ., meanwhile, has installed an anaerobic digester to convert waste into biogas that’s recycled back into the brewery.

But Steve Frazier, head brewer at The Brewer’s Art in Baltimore, Maryland, says it’s not always easy for small craft breweries to legislate resiliency measures like hop contracts or infrastructure buildouts because the return on investment isn’t as obvious. What’s more, he tells, “smaller outfits can’t usually budget for big efficiency projects when they are just fighting to remain relevant, or trying to meet production demands.”

Boston Globe via Getty Images Cans of Heady Topper

Aside from hops, Frazier also worries about the effects climate change will have on beer’s other main ingredients: barley and water. While the amount of water used to stimulate beer varies, it is estimated to take approximately 20 gallons of water to make a pint of beer. Many big craft breweries — like New Belgium, Sierra Nevada and Stone — have opened production facilities on the East Coast, in big proportion to lower distribution expenses, but also, Frazier believes, to soften the jolt of continued water scarcity in the West.

“I don’t think any of the West Coast breweries that have recently opened East Coast facilities would come right out and say it, but I bet it will get really expensive to brew beer out West in the next 20 years if water gets any more scarce, ” Frazier says.

While not a direct answer, dozens of craft brewers have signed the Brewery Climate Declaration, which calls attention to the effects of climate change on the industry and outlines actions breweries are already taking. That includes Michigan’s Brewery Vivant sourcing 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources and California’s North Coast Brewing Co. diverting more than 90 percentage of its brewery trash from the landfill.

“We hope that by signing onto pacts such as this one, and doing everything we can to keep this topic visible, we are capable of made very clear that businesses must give a damn about climate change, ” says Holmes of Aeronaut Brewing.

Kimmich agrees. “On the heels of our chairman pulling out of Paris, we want to show that if the governmental forces won’t move in the face of climate change, business leaders will, ” she says. “The writing’s on the wall. The science am saying that climate change is real and it’s simply speeding up. These storms are just crazy. I’m sure there’s more to come.”

Aleszu Bajak is a science journalist who teaches at Northeastern University.

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