Depending on who you ask, gin is either poised to make a comeback, or it never went away in the first place. The juniper berry–based spirit traces its roots back to the 1200s, when it was called "genever" and found primarily in Belgium and the Netherlands. If you've ever heard the phrase "Dutch courage," it's a reference to this beverage—the national and traditional spirit of the these countries—from which the gin we know today eventually evolved.
In the last decade or so, the cocktail world has promoted American small-batch whiskeys and obscure products such as Batavia Arak and Swedish Punsch while overlooking (intentionally or not) clear spirits such as gin and vodka. Vodka, with its sterile flavor profile, isn't a terribly interesting cocktail ingredient, although it's somehow replaced gin as the spirit of choice in a martini (much to our chagrin). Gin, on the other hand, gets a bad rap as an "old person's drink" (especially when mixed with tonic) or as tasting "like Christmas" thanks to pine-y notes from those juniper berries. But not all gin tastes like Christmas—and there's more to the spirit than the common bottles of Bombay and Beefeater that line nearly every bar in America.
As part of its continuing series exploring the art and history behind food and drink, Rienzi—the River Oaks mansion that houses the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's collection of European decorative arts and paintings—is hosting a Gin Craze Dinner on April 16 to showcase the spirit's fascinating journey from obscure Dutch spirit to international success story. A four-course meal prepared by chefs Richard Knight, Benjy Mason, and pastry chef Samantha Mendoza will be paired with four gin cocktails from Jeremy Olivier—head bartender at Down House—that span six centuries.
"Jeremy does an amazing spirits-training series for the staff at Down House," says Benjy Mason, former head chef for the Heights restaurant, who'll soon be opening Hunky Dory along with fellow chef Richard Knight. "I went to his lecture on the history of gin and immediately afterwards started talking to Jeremy about basing a dinner on it because it was so interesting." The pair pulled Knight in on their plans—when his former restaurant, Feast, was still open, Knight had cooked a similarly historic dinner at Rienzi—pitched the idea to the MFAH, and the Gin Craze Dinner was born.
The plan for the evening calls for a gin lecture that Mason says "follows the development of gin from its invention by the Dutch in the late Middle Ages through its introduction to and evolution in Edwardian and Victorian England, and finally to its most recent developments in the US in the '80s," along with plenty of hale and hearty fare to go with it.
"I thought [the history of gin] was a fascinating story and immediately thought it would be great to do a dinner that followed the same historical trajectory," says Mason. "Richard and I are both big historical food nerds, so the dinner is based around our research into the food that people would have been eating at each of the major turning points in the history of gin." Planned courses on the menu include brawn (a.k.a. head cheese), pickled apples, Edam (a traditional Dutch cheese), and black bread; cottage herb soup; and roast pork with cracklings, root vegetables, and chutney.
"The dinner is less of a traditional 'pairing' dinner in that the food and the spirits all illustrate a larger historical narrative," explains Mason. And for pudding? "I'm particularly excited about getting a chance to work with the super-talented Samantha Mendoza from Triniti on a killer dessert course."
The Rienzi dinner will do more than just look backward in time—Olivier can also speak to gin's resurgence as a spirit from Holland to Hong Kong. "In Jeremy's lecture I learned quite a bit about the new 'international' style of gin," recalls Mason, "and I can tell you that there are some pretty awesome and exciting gins being made right now."
The Gin Craze dinner will take place from 6:45 to 9 p.m. at Rienzi on Wednesday, April 16. Tickets are on sale now for $120, which includes complimentary valet parking.