The Gin Basil Smash is a foundation stone. Gin, citrus, simple syrup, and basil—its inherent deliciousness is so evident to bartenders and non-bartenders alike as to approach something like a natural law. It feels like it’s been around forever, so it’s easy to forget that it was actually invented at a very specific time and place. In fact, one of the things that makes the Gin Basil Smash special is that it was invented in the modern era, and so we know exactly how and when it came into being because the person who thought it up was blogging about it in real time.
“For a few days now, I’ve been working on a drink during my shift at Le Lion,” Jorg Meyer wrote (in German) on his Bitters Blog. The date was July 10, 2008; it was less than a year since he opened his Hamburg speakeasy Le Lion, and though he didn’t know it yet, in about a week his bar would be awarded the title of World’s Best New Cocktail Bar at the Spirited Awards in New Orleans. But first, he had a drink to blog about: “I call it Gin-Basil Smash a.k.a. GIN PESTO and it’s very popular with our guests.”
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Meyer would later recount that he was inspired by a visit to America the previous year and Dale Degroff’s reinvented Whiskey Smash, (a Whiskey Sour shaken with some mint), which he had first experienced at the trailblazing New York cocktail bar Pegu Club. He went home, tried a Whiskey Smash with basil, and it was mediocre. Then he tried it with gin, and “BOOM!”
The Gin Basil Smash is huge in Germany, and in Europe generally. The bar Le Lion is still there on Rathausstrasse, much as it’s been since 2007, with one major difference: Meyer has imprinted “the cradle of the GIN BASIL SMASH” across the facade. The bar sells an incredible 22,000 Gin Basil Smashes a year according to an excellent history by Robert Simonson, which, open as they are six days a week from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., is 11 per hour, or roughly one of them every 5 minutes. It’s a popular drink.
It hasn’t caught on in America quite the way it did in Europe. As for why, my theory is that the West Coast had already taken culinary cocktails so far by 2008 that what is essentially a Gimlet with some basil seemed too simple to be compelling (indeed, nearly this exact drink was invented by Greg Lindgren, at Rye in San Francisco in 2006, but it never got the fame the Gin Basil Smash did). But what many of us failed to understand in those heady early years, and what is widely understood now, is that simplicity is often better, with cleaner, brighter flavor. Would the Gin Basil Smash be improved by adding muddled dragonfruit and a dash of homemade rhubarb bitters? One suspects not.
Now a full-fledged neo-classic, bartenders know the Gin Basil Smash as a lovely way to answer the call for an herbal refreshing drink (especially in our tragic, post-Chartreuse era). Gin is already a botanical spirit, but add the vibrant, musky echo of basil and it reaches a deeper dimension, with a complexity that belies its straightforward construction. It was the basil that was the big jump—it seems obvious now, but not many cities were using basil in cocktails back then, and the Gin Basil Smash changed that. This novelty accounts for the narrow miss of Meyer almost naming it the Gin Pesto (can you imagine?) and his final words on that 2008 blog post, where, after recommending pairing the cocktail with buffalo mozzarella, he closes (again translated from the German), “Cheers—and keep your hands off the vinegar!”
Gin Basil Smash
2 oz. gin
1 oz. lime juice
0.75 oz. simple syrup
3 small or 2 large basil leaves
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake hard for six to eight seconds. Fine strain over fresh ice into a rocks glass, and garnish with a basil leaf.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Gin: Meyer has evolved in his recommendations, but has landed on Rutte Celery Gin, a Dutch gin distilled with celery leaves, to learn into the herbal and vegetal qualities of the cocktail. If a touch of celery in your drink sounds interesting to you, go ahead and follow this advice.
Personally, though he advises against too juniper-forward a gin, I have to admit I preferred them, and like how the piney juniper punches through the broad herbaceous base. The old stalwarts Beefeater and Tanqueray worked exceptionally, or for a halfway nod toward the new style, try Tanqueray 10.
Lime/Lemon: This drink is explicitly a lemon juice drink, and every recipe in existence reaffirms this fact. I have to say, though, in my tests I personally preferred lime—not by a huge margin or anything, but enough to notice the tart malic profile adding welcome texture to the finish. From this, I take the lesson that either will be totally acceptable. Use whatever you have.
Simple Syrup: Simple syrup is equal parts sugar and water and stir until the sugar dissolves. The only thing I’d note is that this is a cocktail of brightness and freshness, so I’d use white sugar or evaporated cane syrup or some other mild, clean sweetness. Too much rustic personality in the sugar will distract from the garden freshness of the gin.
Basil: Meyer uses a frankly insane amount of basil in his drink. He’s the all-time Gin Basil Smash authority and so I hesitate to disagree—to be sure, using a fistful of basil gives the drink a vivid green color and an intense basil flavor—and maybe I’m just a prude, but I preferred a demure, two or three leaves.
To muddle or not to Muddle: Meyer muddles his basil as well, to further extract more color and flavor. Generally, with leafy herbs, I think shaking does the work for you, and that’s mostly true here as well. If you don’t have a muddler or don’t want to use one, shake hard with the leaves in the tin and it’ll be great.
That said, muddling does extract more flavor and color, so you can make you own choice. It’s instructive to use the whole plant and muddle the hell out of it, as Meyer does, just to see how it tastes. One of the things that makes the Gin Basil Smash a classic is that it’s good any way you make it.
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