Who came up with the brilliant Gin Basil Smash?
A modern classic is celebrating its birthday. This homemade concoction has truly catapulted its way onto bar menus around the world with a recipe so simple you’ll want to kick yourself. We know that the answers to life’s burning questions are often right in front of you. But who was really behind this cocktail phenomenon? Find out in this background story, where we reveal the true history of the Gin Basil Smash, all in the knowledge that taste is not the exclusive domain of the city.
“I never wanted all this”, says Jörg Meyer, somewhat mischievously. It was seven years ago, on July 10th, 2008 that the Gin Basil Smash first appeared on the Bitters Blog and began its triumphant campaign in conquest of the world’s bars. The Gin Basil Smash is the creation of Jörg Meyer, owner of Bar Le Lion and Boilerman in Hamburg, Germany. Mountains of articles have been written about this new cocktail classic, and nowadays it’s in the repertoire of virtually every bartender on the planet thanks to social media’s global interconnectivity and Mr. Meyer’s expertise at using it.
But what’s the real story behind the Gin Basil Smash, what is the true recipe, and what’s the best way to make it? MIXOLOGY ONLINE followed up on these questions and others, including the most important question of all: Is the Gin Basil Smash really Jörg Meyer’s own invention?
From Hamburg to Ulm
“Since it’s been around, I’ve intentionally had less than probably one hundred Gin Basil Smashes, and I never order one in another bar. That would be embarrassing, like doing a test”. Then Meyer tells the story of how the Gin Basil Smash originated. And as is so often the case, coincidence was the catalyst. “I was in New York and had been drinking Whisky Smashes by the gallon. When I got back I wanted to make a Gin Smash, because we were still searching for our own individual profile and trying things out. Then I got a call from John Gakuru. John wanted to do a workshop at Le Lion, which was just six months old at the time”. During the event Meyer came across a small recipe booklet. It was nothing special on its own, but it contained one recipe that used basil as a garnish. At first he couldn’t really imagine how that could work, but “…I remembered it again the next evening”. But instead of using basil as a decoration, Jörg decided to take half a lemon and muddle the two together (crushing and pressing both with a muddler in a shaker or mixing glass) and combine the mix with gin. Aware of gin’s popularity due to its many botanicals, he figured it would have to work.
Change of scenery: Ulm, Germany, early 2008, where Hariolf Sproll is equally busy opening the new Blaupause bar with his partner. A social work and digital media graduate, Hariolf had previously worked in the chain restaurant industry where he gathered experience in logistics, warehousing and purchasing before opening his own first bar. He too was looking for a special and unique profile for his new watering hole, and experimenting on the basis of Whisky Smashes. “Y’know, it wasn’t such a huge leap just replacing the mint with basil, and gin also seemed like a good candidate as the right spirit”, Sproll comments dryly. In his MIXOLOGY ONLINE “Notes From The Province” column, our former author Steffen Hubert actually mentioned this in an aside, and it checks out with the facts: There were in fact two bartenders, both in Germany no less, thinking along the same lines at the same time. Does this mean we have to rewrite the history of the Gin Basil Smash?
From Gin Smash to Gin Basil Smash
So Meyer and Sproll were muddling away and a drink was born. Meyer calls his the Gin Basil Smash, while Sproll opts for the streamlined Basil Smash, “since basil is the decisive component”. Sproll serves his first Basil Smash in May of 2008; Meyer publishes his recipe two months later. Meyer uses his considerable skills with the Internet, Sproll takes his feedback from the curious Ulm locals. In both bars, the drink quickly becomes a runaway hit, but thanks to his close-knit network, Meyer’s Smash is hailed internationally as a stroke of genius. While mixologists everywhere strive desperately to find the magic mix for their own creations, the true genius here is in the simplicity of what’s in the glass. The only differences in the recipes are defined in nuances, not essentials. The Basil Smash comes with a little more lemon and sugar than the Gin Basil Smash. But the ingredient quantities are flexible according to taste anyway, yet another strength of this refreshing green concoction.
However, the way the bartender treats the basil is essential for the successful mix. Jörg Meyer explains, “We pack a whole handful in the shaker, including the stems, which are important for the color. And the muddling shouldn’t be too heavy. Otherwise the color turns too grassy-green and the drink goes mossy. This way you can already tell just by looking whether it’s turning out right or not”. It goes without saying that both maestros enjoy working with red basil in the summer, as long as it’s fresh.
Highballs and recipe patents
“The fact that a Gin Basil Smash was being developed by Jörg Meyer at virtually the same time as our Basil Smash was a fact I only became aware of much later on when the drink began to explode on the social media channels. At that point we weren’t doing much at all in terms of viral marketing”, explains Hariolf Sproll in his somewhat introverted, unassuming way. But there are even more interesting parallels. In 2011, Sproll stated a new, different bar concept in a residential area without walk-in customers. The bar, Rosebottel, serves long drinks, homemade soft drinks, cola and highballs. The brains behind the bar have now also created a tonic essence which can be mixed with soda at home to have enough on hand for around 12 gin & tonics.
In the autumn of 2012, Meyer also started up a new bar called Boilerman on the edges of the downtown area. He calls it “a neighborhood bar”. Here you can get beer, highballs and the Gin Basil Highball, which is topped up with soda. Meyer is also generous in pouring his successful basil soft drink. All of these compositions have been copied over and over again in the meantime and can be found almost everywhere, “especially in Russia, Greece and Asia”, smiles Meyer. These days he finds it more amusing than annoying when others take the credit for his innovations. Having listened to the advice of friends urging him to protect the recipes before “…someone decides to start canning the Gin Basil Smash or the soft drink”, he finally consulted a patent lawyer, only to be told it was too late. He should have legally protected them before they became common property, no longer qualified for protection.
Irritating cash cow
Meyer tells us candidly that in a good month up to 1,400 Gin Basil Smashes are mixed at Bar Le Lion, and that up to 40 percent of Boilerman’s sales come from the Gin Basil Highball. He’s also pleased that variations of the Gin Basil Smash are hits in their own right. “I was in Stockholm once at Hotel Nobis and two bottles of champagne were delivered to my room. I was then told that the hotel bar made its own version of the Smash using vodka instead of gin and strawberry instead of basil. It was so popular that they sold 30,000 of them in a very short time, and at a price of no less than 22 Euros apiece”, he tells us with some degree of astonishment.
The strawberries show another aspect illustrating the status of the Gin Basil Smash today: it’s so popular now that it’s become an unqualified classic, with bartenders adding their own “twists”. Wherever you go, you can find variations adding seasonings and ingredients such as pepper, lemongrass, chili, strawberries and more. Even Jörg Meyer himself has recently begun presenting his own white rye whiskey-based variation, the Green Rhino Smash.
But success also has its drawbacks. Some of Meyer’s bartenders are beginning to find the unceasing basil orgy a little tedious. For his part, Jörg Meyer sees the Gin Basil Smash above all as a good drink to get guests started with before maneuvering them on to other taste sensations.
And in Ulm? Hariolf Sproll admits, “Our bartenders get a little tired of the relentless Basil Smash boom sometimes. It still accounts for an important share of our sales”. And no, the two gentlemen have never met. But maybe they should, perhaps over a couple of their green potions. It would be interesting to see what the two innovators could come up with together. In any case, with their bartending achievements, be they in the city or out in the country, they have “muddled” their way into the future of bar culture. The story of the Gin Basil Smash doesn’t need to be rewritten so much as simply amended. After all, they both got what they were after.
Translated by J.J. Collier