At the end of a long hard day administering the Jewel in the Crown, what did the Raj have for their preprandial tipple?
This is one of these terms that is evocative of colonial times. W Somerset Maugham, Paul Scott, Graham Greene and many others refer to it in their books. It conjures, for me, images of jaded colonial civil servants sitting in cane chairs at their clubs, drinking pink gins, watching the sun go down. It conjures images of army officers in the dining cars of Indian trains, waiting for their lunch to be served. I write a little about this in the recipe for first class railway mutton.
It is not a drink specific to India. It is unknown to Indians as their alcoholic drink heritage is very different. The drink comes from the Royal Navy, hence its ubiquity throughout places that the British went in the tropics, notably India, South-east Asia and China.
The drink dates from 1830CE, when it became common practice for the Royal Navy to use bitters as a herbal tonic, a preventive medicine and a general cure-all and stimulant. The adding of bitters to gin had several benefits. The gin made the bitters more palatable and the bitters helped disguise the searing taste of cheap gin. This made it easier to believe that this drink was good for health reasons. The fact that both ingredients are extremely high in alcohol is a another matter.
The recipe below is the traditional way to make this cocktail.
Ice was one of my grandmother’s aversions, for good and practical health reasons. You wouldn’t drink tap water, so why would you use frozen tap water? The usual practice was to place the gin bottle in ice, cooling the bottle, but not allowing the ice to contaminate the gin. The other consideration is to use navy-strength gin. Navy-strength gins are much higher in alcohol content than usual gins. Navy-strength gins are around 110-plus proof, whilst the usual gin is around 90 proof. It would be fair to say that these navy-strength gins are not as delicate as the quality gin you probably have in your drinks cabinet.
In making this today, I tend to follow the recipe, but instead of using chilled gin, I will place the gin in a cocktail shaker with some ice and shake until cold. The resulting dilution will help release some of the aromatics in the gin.
You are warned that made as below, a single serve is equal to three standard drinks.
- 3 dashes angostura bitters
- 60 ml gin - chilled
- Add the bitters to a cocktail or wine glass and gently swirl, making the bitters coat the inside of the glass.
- Add the gin, swirl gently to include the bitters and serve.
- Use navy-strength, or high-proof gin.
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