Respect Your Elders

On the family tree of drinks, the Improved Holland Gin Cock-Tail is written near the top of the page. Nearly two hundred years ago, when cocktails were first defined as a spiritous liquor, sweetened with sugar, fortified with bitters and softened with water, the gin cocktail was one of the first ones out of the gate.

Back in those days, of course, Holland gin was the gin of choice. As David Wondrich noted several months back on eGullet’s Fine Spirits and Cocktails Forum, in the nineteenth century around six times as much Holland gin was imported into the United States as was London dry gin.

But while Holland gin, or genever, was predominant back in pioneer days, today it’s a scarce commodity. Bols, until recently the main supplier of Holland gin, stopped importing the product into the U.S. earlier this year. Fortunately, though, there’s Boomsma, which makes both a jonge, or young, unaged genever, and an oulde, which has been aged one year in oak barrels. The jonge works best for mixing, and the flavor of Holland gin is much softer and maltier than that of the more-familiar London dry; in the Improved Holland Gin Cock-Tail, this maltiness gives the drink a round fullness that is especially satisfying.

Jerry Thomas lists a recipe for the drink, named simply “Gin Cocktail,” in his landmark How To Mix Drinks, or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion, and instructs that it be made by mixing one wine-glass of gin with 3 or 4 dashes of gum syrup, 2 dashes of Bogart’s bitters, and 1 or 2 dashes curacao, then shaken with a piece of lemon peel and strained into a glass with a lemon twist.

But in David Wondrich’s Killer Cocktails, he mentions that this recipe, for the “Improved” version, dates to 1876. How it was improved, I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that this drink gives me a whole new appreciation for history.

Improved Holland Gin Cock-Tail

  • 2 ounces genever gin
  • 1 teaspoon rich simple syrup (note: it’s especially toothsome if you use gomme syrup)
  • 1 teaspoon maraschino liqueur or Grand Marnier (you can also use curacao)
  • 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Combine in a glass, stir and add ice; stir again, and twist a piece of lemon peel over the top. Add a sprig of mint, if the mood strikes you.

While Boomsma is, as yet, unavailable in Washington state, I recently took advantage of a business trip to San Francisco to pick up a bottle at BevMo. For Seattleites jonesing for an authentic old-timey gin cocktail, take a trip down to Zig Zag Cafe; they had some Boomsma on hand while I was down there earlier this evening–though they have slightly less on hand than they did when I walked in–and as long as they’re not slammed and you’re pretty nice in the way you ask for one, Murray, Ben or Kaci will probably be willing to put one together for you.

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5 Responses to Respect Your Elders

  1. Wow Paul, what a cocktail!
    I read your post on the improved… a couple of months ago and I remember feeling daring to use Oude genever instead of jonge (by the way, i feel this is the correct type of hollands for this cocktail).
    Luckily, Argentina is one of the fewest places on earth where Bols is still distilling oude genever.
    Let me tell you this before: genever is one of the most feared(?) spirits to mix around here, so I wasn´t so optimistic, but enough intriguing to taste it.
    I followed your recipe, using grand marnier instead of maraschino and skipping the original dash of absinthe…
    The perfect balance! genever will never be the same for me.
    Today is one of my favorites and I´m very proud to make it for my friends.
    I can´t help laughing when I see their concerned faces while I´m making one for them and their smiles at the first sip.

  2. Daniel,

    Glad you like it! It’s a fantastic drink–I’ll have to try it with the oude genever some time (have to lay my hands on some first). It really is surprising.

  3. So Paul,

    It´s been almost a year since I told you about my experience with oude genever and the improved gin cocktail.
    Well, I spent a couple of wonderful days in Amsterdam last december and remember Philip Duff told me that the profile of oude genever during XIX century is more like the corenwijn of today. So (thanks to the lovely Bols crew) I had one now and decided to taste it again… this time with corenwijn 2oz, two dashes bitters (peychaud´s and TBT aromatic), 1 teaspoon maraska maraschino, 1 teaspoon simple syrup and 1 dash pernod (lemon twist off course!!). Stir & strain.

    Oh boy, what a drink!!! everything is fantastic! flavor, aroma and color!
    You have to give it a try.

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