“I never drink anything stronger than gin before breakfast.”
When I was 18 and knew not a thing about gin and not a thing about tonic, I did know, that together, they were a drink of some sort. Of which sort, I didn’t really know. So, when I found myself in a New Orleans bar and was asked what I wanted, I said “gin & tonic.” To which the waitress replied, “what kind of gin do you want?” But, here I am ahead of myself; let’s talk about this New Orleans bar, for just a moment, that peddled gin to an underaged scruffy kid.
I’m sure the Crescent City has much to offer beyond the French Quarter, but I would hardly know it. I’ve been there twice in my life and have seen, well, not much. At 18 and with a friend alone in the city, all we knew was Bourbon Street. I was unprepared for the booze and sex, and overwhelmed. We stumbled down Bourbon Street with no destination in mind, which is the only way to do the street, and a large bouncer stepped directly into our path and made an “L” with his arms. We dutifully shuffled into his bar. Memory is dim, but I remember it as a narrow and dark place. There was a loud Aussie holding court and a three piece Hendrix cover band wailing away on an impossibly small stage over in the corner. No walk-up windows, no Hurricanes in plastic cups. This was a dive. I didn’t know it at the time, but I look back on it as pure luck. We could have ended up in any terrible place. The Bourbon Cowboy anyone?
“What kind of gin do you want?” she asked. I’m not sure I realized there were different kinds up to that moment. First distilled in the Netherlands in the 17th century, gin is named for the French word for Juniper: Genevrier, which of course is the fruit that flavors the drink. Originally gin was sold in pharmacies and used to treat liver ailments, that still being the case, if in fact, your liver is what ails you. By the 1740’s gin shops were all through England and its relative cheapness made it popular among the poor. It’s chief rival was beer, since the water was too dirty to drink and it took a heavy beating in the hearts and minds, if not the tongues, from the social nannies of the time. British drunks still are called gin-soaked and dives known as gin-mills. Though the popular slang for the spirit remains the most telling; Mother’s Ruin. William Hogarth’s engraving Beer Street and Gin Lane depict a clean and healthy beer drinking society on the rise next to the debaucherous decay of the gin-soaked ill-reputes on the decline.
Since we’re digressing, Tonic water or water with carbon dioxide gas dissolved into it mixed with Quinine is of course the other key ingredient. Don’t even talk to me about limes and stir sticks. It was first brought to Europe by Jesuits coming home from Peru and was found to have medicinal qualities for treatment of malaria. The British East India Company Army not liking malaria or the taste of Tonic water mixed in a whole lot of gin and well, there we have it.
“What kind of gin do you want?” she asked. She pointed over her shoulder. Bottles lined the shelves behind the bar and that was no help at all. Clearly my dismay and long silence was telling, and she smiled and said, “I’ll just bring you a good one.” When she brought it back, she leaned over the table and said, “this is Tangueray. Now, if you don’t ask for what you want, they’ll give you whatever they want and you don’t want that.” I paid for the drink and she handed me back change, which I began to put away. She stopped this ridiculousness, too. “Now hold on, you have to tip me.” She took the money back out of my hand and peeled off a couple of dollars for herself and handed me back the rest. “Now, if you want to be serious about all this, leave a few dollars on your table so we know to check on you before you get dry.” Satisfied she had learned me well enough to leave, she disappeared to another table.
Choices are a funny thing. Are they really ours to make? I still order Tangueray and Tonics, because that’s what that long ago waitress brought me and as far as choices go, it has served me well enough over the years. She could have brought me a Pina Colada.
post scriptum: Tanqueray Gin, a British Dry Gin, was first distilled in 1830 by Charles Tanqueray, who was descended from three generations of clergy from the village of Tingrith in Bedforshire. At 20 he chose not to follow the family calling and established a distillery in the Bloomsbury district of London instead. Amen.