Gin and bitters, the two components of the Pink Gin cocktail, do not possess the power-couple glow of storied pairings like peanut butter and chocolate or salt and vinegar. Rather, they came together in an arranged marriage thanks to a pair of port cities.
Originally produced in the river port of Angostura, Venezuela (now Ciudad Bolívar) in the 1820s, Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert’s secret bitters formula was used as a restorative tonic to combat malaria and other ailments in the tropical climate. (Production of Angostura bitters moved to Trinidad in 1875, where it is still made today.) Across the Atlantic in Plymouth, England, thousands of barrels of Plymouth gin were shipped to the Royal Navy annually, and Naval officers visiting Angostura took to the local bitters for their purported curative properties, including the promise to quell seasickness. By adding a dash or two of Angostura to the daily ration of gin, the Pink Gin was born at sea.
A rain-soaked, misty morning spent with Plymouth’s Master Distiller Sean Harrison in Parson’s Wood—a lush, grassy area on the bank of the River Meavy in Dartmoor, just north of Plymouth—turned out to be the perfect occasion to become reacquainted with the Pink Gin. Not to mention gain an education on the finer points of England’s countryside tradition of cream tea. The spirited rivalry between Cornwall and Devon’s opinions of proper scone construction—a slathering of jam then clotted cream versus cream and then jam—runs deep.
And just as there are different approaches to applying clotted cream to a scone, there are several methods to making a Pink Gin. To chill or not to chill may be the question, but whether served at room temperature, chilled or with an ice cube, it’s ultimately about personal preference. The prospect of drinking a glass of warm gin is likely the primary cause of polarization among Pink Gin drinkers, but it’s important to remember that the tradition of serving it warm—or more accurately, at room temperature—is because, as with most pre-World War II naval drinks, there was little or no ice available at sea.
But unlike the Gimlet or the Dark ‘n’ Stormy, the Pink Gin has not gained the same following as other cocktails of seafaring origins. Is it the simplicity and austerity of the Pink Gin that also keeps it in the shadow of other gin-based drinks like the Martini and the Negroni? Harrison affirms Pink Gin has fallen from the radar. “The vast majority of people will have never heard of it, let alone ordered it,” he says. With such a spare drink, Harrison stresses, “Proportions are key. The simpler the drink, the more attention needs to be paid to proportions.”
So why doesn’t the Pink Gin, a classic cocktail grounded in history, get more attention out in the wild? Perhaps it’s the notion of a two-ingredient cocktail in a landscape of drinks menus littered with multiple ingredients? Or is it ultimately the prospect of being served—and truly enjoying—a glass of room temperature gin? Or, however antiquated, maybe male drinkers don’t want to curl up with a pink drink?
For an American perspective I turned to Nate Dumas, Bar Director of the Shanty, a bar attached to New York Distilling Company in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The distillery is known for its Navy strength Perry’s Tot gin, Dorothy Parker American gin and the newly released Chief Gowanus New-Netherland gin, which was created from a collaboration with cocktail historian David Wondrich.
The Shanty may be one of the rare bars where you’ll find a Pink Gin listed on the menu, but with a Brooklyn spin created by incorporating their own Dorothy Parker gin and a bit of Campari, which adds a deeper blush to the blend. “I think it softens it a bit, makes it a little more friendly,” says Dumas who makes at least one five-liter batch per week to serve from an antique still behind the bar. It’s listed on the menu as a beer-and-shot combo, served alongside a 16-ounce can of Brooklyn Lager. According to Dumas, the Pink Gin has developed a following of its own. “I have people who come in just to sip it neat. I think it’s appealing to people who like to drink Fernet, but also want a new thrill.” The Shanty’s version tips its hat to British tradition by serving it warm, “just like nature intended.”
Maybe the Pink Gin doesn’t need to be broadcast on a bar menu to remain a drink that matters, even if it’s just a select group of enthusiasts who are more than happy to keep the tradition alive—and warm—in the glass.