Gin. The basis for my favorite cocktail. In fact, the Holy Grail of cocktails. The Martini.
“A perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy,” said Noel Coward. (Italy being a major producer of vermouth). Luis Buñuel also used the Martini to inspire his creative process. The Gin and tonic is even more classic. Gin has a pedigree. A level of sophisticated cool perhaps unobtainable by other alcoholic beverages.
Lisbon. Portugal. Famous for theoldest bookshop in the world. Cinnamon. And Gin Lovers bar/restaurant/store. I spoke to Miguel Somsen about what makes Gin so important?
Well. it’s always better when you start with a premium Gin instead of a regular Gin. Premiums are better because they do not include the so-called “bad alcohols” that cause headache and hangovers in the distillation process. Than you have to have a very good tonic water if you’re into Gin & tonic. Once you understand that the Gin & tonic is really a cocktail, that will help you achieve greatness.
Five years ago in Lisbon, you either drank wine or beer, that was it. You could also drink vodka or gin with a lemon twist or orange juice bought in the corner shop. In bars they would be prepared by amateurs with second grade vodka and gin.
What changed in Portugal and Europe was the quality of Gin. Before 2013, you only had Tanqueray, Bombay, Plymouth, Beefeater and Hendrick’s. They were great brands, but Gin wasn’t fashionable. Now every country is producing Gin. In less than three years, Portugal has more than 30 Portuguese brands. This is amazing! The excellent quality of Gin means that other distillates need to work on the same pace: now you have great rums, tequilas, vodkas, cachaças, and vermouth coming from everywhere.
What’s a gin bar for the uninitiated?
A Gin bar is just a bar where Gin rules and inspires. Gin changed the way people drink in this country. We already have more than a million people drinking Gin in Portugal—about ten percent of the population. We’re talking about a poor country which is only used to drinking wine. For these people, Gin is not cheap, and that means they really want to know they are spending their money on quality. Customers will probably know around 20 gin brands, and we see it is our role to suggest other options. We mainly serve Gin & tonic, but today we are exploring Gin and other distillate cocktails.
How did the bar come about?
Gin was the reason that brought a group of us together. Originally to work on a National Gin and Tonic day and a magazine. In the beginning the Gin Lovers project did not include a bar. We knew we would eventually need a bar to express our passion for Gin, but we did not want to rush it. However, there weren’t any 100% Gin bars in Lisbon, and Gin suddenly became so popular in the city we began having second thoughts.
We met a friend who owned a wine bar that could also be turned into a wine & gin bar, and so we gave this a shot. That was Vestigius, in Cais do Sodré. It was our first experience in bartending. We ran it for over a year, and it was a great experience, but it was never “our” bar—we just rented a spot there. We knew we had to give Gin Lovers a place of its own. So we opened a bar in Vestigius in April 2014, then moved to Gin Lovers Príncipe Real at Embaixada in November 2015. Now we have Gin Lovers bar which also happens to include a restaurant (Less by Miguel Castro Silva) and a store.
The interior design was developed by the company Pó de Madeira.
Who comes to a Gin bar?
Nowadays everybody. Now, everybody is a potentially Gin drinker. But not 3 years ago, when the Gin craze started. In 2013 you could only find Gin in a good wine shop in Lisbon (Garrafeira Nacional) or in El Corte Inglés (ECI) supermarket. The rest you would buy in Spain (the Gin revolution in Portugal has a strong Spanish influence).
Today, if you open a bar without Gin, you’re DOA. Of course, as a customer, you have to have 20 euros in your pocket to afford one or two Gins at a bar. But the Gin craze in Portugal is so strong that people now skip meals in a restaurant to be able to pay for drinks. What are they drinking? Gin.
Tell us about the Gin Lovers Magazine?
Gin Lovers started with a group of Gin lovers meeting up at a restaurant to try new Gins and developing ideas for our recently opened Gin Lovers Facebook page. Our first challenge was the inaugural DNGT Dia Nacional do Gin Tónico (Gin & tonic National Day) in the summer of 2013, which turned out to be a huge success. Only after this did we seriously consider going into business.
When we founded Gin Lovers company in October 2013, our main focus was always editorial. Meaning: it was much more important for us to develop ideas and stories around Gin than to just sell Gin. How would we reach our targeted audiences? By creating a magazine. Every issue of Gin Lovers can be a hell of a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love, and the only Gin magazine in the world.
How did the restaurant—Less, run by Miguel Castro Silva (MCS) - come about?
Twenty years ago, MCS was ahead of his time with a restaurant called Bull & Bear in Porto. A business too ahead of its time to be successful, and eventually he moved south. MCS opened some small spots in Lisbon and began experimenting with traditional Portuguese cuisine. When we met him again in 2015, he told us that he wanted to bring back to Lisbon some of the dishes he had to leave behind in Porto. That’s what we have now: a very well balanced menu with cold fish carpaccios, tartars and ceviches, mixed with some risottos, light gyosas or grilled scallops. The way they are shared by everybody on the table makes this experience very pleasant. And of course you can eat everything with Gin!
What other kinds of drinks, alcoholic and non-alcoholic are served?
We use the Gin for Gin & tonic and other Gin cocktails. Now that cocktails are fashionable again, we are beginning to work on cocktails made with non-Gin distillates, such as vodka, cachaça, rum, tequila, vermouth. Since we own a restaurant, we have beer and wine.
Can you buy everything you need for a great Gin experience in the Gin Lovers store?
Yes. Gin Lovers Principe Real is a bar, a restaurant and a store. You can buy all the Gin brands that you can find in the bar. Plus magazines and books. And of course the botanicals and tonic waters packages. We have everything that you need in order to make your own Gin & tonic at home.
Tell us about any special events the bar holds each year?
Every last Friday of the month there’s a Gin Lovers Party dedicated to a Gin brand (Gin Lovers Party Ten to Tanqueray, Gin Lovers Party by Gin Mare, Gin Lovers Party powered by Hendrick’s) or a concept (Gin Lovers Party Europe, with the best European brands). Since we work with one of the best chefs in the country, we have developed the Jantar Gínico, or a Gin Dinner, where you workshop a one-day food & drink menu with the chef.
All the music you’ll listen in the bar is selected by a special exclusive DJ called Miss K, who only works with us bringing her DJ parties and a special playlist selection. We’re working on some other ideas for the first anniversary of Gin Lovers Principe Real in November. Hope you can show up!