Gin class makes a splash at Food & Wine Classic in Aspen

I haven’t always enjoyed gin. A high school encounter with Tanqueray ensured that, for the next 15 years, the mere aroma of juniper left me retching. Then, a few years ago, I discovered a couple of small-batch distilleries that showed me gin can be delicate and floral. Suddenly, I found myself sipping G & T’s, and feeling rather decadent. There’s something about gin-with it’s Dutch, British Colonial, and speakeasy heritage-that makes it more sexy and intriguing than that other clear spirit, vodka. It’s a drink for adventurers, the legendary “Dutch Courage”
that fueled British troops during the Thirty Year War.

So it was with great interest that I attended mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim’s recent “Gin Alley: Lost Cocktails from a Bygone Era” seminar at last month’s Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. This weekend of decadence just celebrated its 28th year; the fact that it takes place in an outdoor paradise seals the deal, for me.

If you think Aspen is out of your budget, there are affordable accommodations in town, including my favorite, the St. Moritz Lodge. There even are also some great campgrounds on Maroon Creek Road-although there’s a logistical challenge after a late night. The same goes for staying in less-pricey, but inconvienient Snowmass.

If you’re attending Food & Wine, with its dozens of seminars, demos, and Grand Tastings, try to arrive a day early to acclimate; Aspen’s base is 8,000 feet, and drinking at altitude can leave you feeling like you were hit by a pile driver. You’ll want to acclimatize anyway: summer in Aspen means spectacular hiking (don’t miss the Maroon Bells; catch a bus to the trailhead from town), fly-fishing, mountain biking, climbing, riding, whitewater rafting, kayaking, and backcountry.

Getting back to gin, I’ve attended Tony’s seminars in the past, and he never disappoints, thanks in part to his down-to-earth demeanor, and engaging personality. He’s the winner of the 2007 Iron Chef America competition with Mario Batali; he also developed the bar programs at Harry Denton’s Starlight Room in San Francisco, and the Bellagio in Las Vegas. He currently runs his own consulting firm, and is the author of a new book, The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails, that draws from his love of classic, pre-Prohibition cocktails.

What’s the difference between bartending and mixology? Explains Tony, “I tend bar; we’re all bartenders in this line of work, and being a mixologist doesn’t make you a better bartender. What makes me a mixologist is my understanding and proficiency in the art and history of the cocktail. It’s not supposed to be pretentious-you want your customers to just enjoy themselves.”

Gin has a long and “checkered past,” says Tony. Bathtub gin was popular during Prohibition (because it was easy to make), and was used in anti-malarial sundowners in tropical British Colonies (it masked the taste of the quinine in the tonic water). Yet gin has been produced since the 1600’s, when the Dutch began distilling a juniper-derived medicinal spirit known as jenever (or genever). It made its way to England, where it was embraced, in part because Dutch Republic ruler William of Orange ascended the British throne during the Glorious Revolution. The resulting “Gin Craze” eventually led to general mayhem and social ills, and exorbitant tariffs were placed on gin. In the U.S., the spirt made its mark following the repeal of the Volstead Act. Says Tony, “All of the true, classic cocktails calling for a white spirit are gin-based. The earliest record I can find of a vodka-based drink is from the 1930’s.”

“Gin Alley” was held at Aspen’s super groovy, ’70’s ski-chalet-style Sky Hotel. As we were seated, we were each handed a milky, frothy Ramos Fizz. Tony’s version is slightly sweet, with a pronounced vanilla essence, and a good head of foam from the egg white. His gin preferences are Beefeater, which has a masculine, spicy profile that cuts the softness of the drink, or Bombay Sapphre. While Tony explained the history of the drink (created in New Orleans, in 1888, by Henry C. Ramos), he broke down its remaining ingredients, which include orange flower water, heavy cream, simple syrup, fresh lemon and lime juice, and a float of seltzer.

Each subsequent cocktail used another style of gin. “There are many different types of gin,” explained Tony. “There’s Dutch genever, Plymouth Gin, London Dry.” Each classification has it’s own characteristics-be it a pronounced juniper flavor; augmentation with spices and citrus, or a more feminine, subtle, flowery style. Tony’s current favorite boutique producers include Bluecoat, and Junipero.

“Think about the style of cocktail you’re making,” he advises. “I love the Negroni, but feel that a strong, junipery gin overpowers it. You want balance. That said, it’s all about your personal taste. Discovering what you like is part of the fun.” For his Corpse Reviver #2, a “hair of the dog, pick-me-up” spiked with absinthe, Lillet, and Cointreau, Tony prefers to use Tanqueray 10. This fresh, citrusy gin derives its name from the 10 different botanicals used in its production.

Tony’s favorite way to convert non-gin drinkers is with the classic Casino Cocktail, itself an adaption of the classic Aviation (it omits difficult-to-find creme de Violette). This refreshing, syrupy concoction is made with Luxardo, a dry, floral Maraschino cherry liqueur, as well as Plymouth gin, lemon juice, and orange bitters. Serve up in a coupe or martini glass, garnished with brandied Maraschino cherries (not the flourescent formaldehyde bombs).

Of course, no gin seminar would be complete without a martini. Tony shared his Iron Chef version, which uses a 4:1 ratio. Add 2 1/2 oz. of gin (whatever your preference) and 3/4 oz. of Noilly-Prat dry vermouth to a large mixing glass, with one large cube of ice. As for shaken, not stirred? “If a drink contains spirit only, stir gently until ice cold. It should be like liquid satin, not frothy.” Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a large Spanish olive, stuffed with Maytag Blue Cheese.

Don’t overlook the importance of ice. Says Tony, “Twenty-four-percent of a finished drink is water from diluted ice-nothing will screw up a drink faster than bad ice.” Boil bottled water, and freeze it in clean ice cube trays (the bigger, the better) free of eau de freezer funk. If you want to do your part for the environment, substitute good tap water if it’s available.

For travel, I suggest a three-piece cocktail set, which is a nifty little shaker that includes a
built-in strainer, with a removable cap that doubles as a jigger. At your destination, see if there’s a regional distillery, or shop the local farmers market for some fresh produce to add to your cocktail (think muddled basil, mint, citrus, cherries, or berries). Add ice back at your room or campsite: instant gratification.

If you want to catch Tony shaking things up, he does four seminars a year on Crystal Cruises Experiences of Discovery food and wine trips, or check his site for upcoming events. Tony is currently filming a gin documentary for IFC. Shot on location in Holland, England, Italy, and the U.S., the film will tell the story of gin’s history, ingredients, and production process, including its place in the resurgence of the classic cocktail. Release slated for later this year.